Sometimes I encounter SUCH a good book that I feel I must tell everyone to read it! This does not happen very often these days but I have just finished reading Chris Beckett’s Dark Eden trilogy on my Kindle, while riding on the bus to and from work. I couldn’t get enough of the world Beckett has created and polished off all three books in just over a month.
I recently signed up to the Reading Challenge on Jera’s Jamboree (see here). One of the challenges was to read a science fiction book – no real challenge to me as I have been reading science fiction for most of my life.
But I suspect many readers of Jera’s Jamboree read chick lit, possibly some fantasy, but would never touch anything labelled “science fiction”. I find that frustrating, as so many great SF novels (I’ll call it SF rather than “sci-fi”) are also great literature. Chris Beckett puts it very well himself in this message to people who don’t read SF.
I don’t want to give away too much of the plot, as every twist comes as such a superb surprise, but I will try to give a hint of why the books are so good. Everyone will visualise the world of Eden differently in their mind’s eye, but I have illustrated this post with images from various websites, some not in the English language – please click on each to find the source.
Dark Eden starts 160 years after a spaceship from Earth arrived, via a wormhole – so the trip wasn’t the long generation-ship journey described in some other SF novels.
We very quickly find out about the place which, as the title suggests, is literally dark. Whatever the science behind it, the planet is sunless and it sky is dominated by “Starry Swirl”, probably the spiral of our own galaxy, and somewhere out there is the Earth the people of Eden still think of as home – or heaven, as they believe they will go back there when they die or after someone has come again to fetch them.
The world has its own ecosystem, which is beautifully developed and described. There are huge trees which pump up hot sap from the heart of the planet and survive using something other than photosynthesis. They are probably closer to fungi in their nature. They have “lanterns” on their boughs, lit by bioluminescence, and provide edible “starflowers” and “stumpcandy”.
There are also bioluminescent animals – “flutterbyes”, “tubeslinkers”, “jewel bats”, “starbirds”, singing “leopards” and various sorts of “buck”, some of which they eat. All the animals have six limbs, while their equivalents on Earth have four.
As there is no daylight or night, everyone speaks of “wakings” and different groups are up and around at different times, as it makes no difference when they are active and they manage to keep out of each other’s way except for big get-togethers.
Like the Biblical Eden, the human “Family” here starts with one man and one woman – Angela, a cop, and Tommy, a rogue astronaut she tried to stop taking the starship. They had three companions who headed back in the damaged landing vehicle in the hope of returning to Earth and bringing a rescue. But that’s enough spoilers!
The best aspects of the novels are the anthropological, sociological and theological. Like most speculative science fiction, it builds a world from a “what if”. Here we have a growing community, all descended from Angela and Tommy – which means that, yes, in the next generation brothers and sisters slept with each other.
Eventually the hundreds of people are all more or less related and as a result of the small gene pool some have hereditary conditions like harelip (uncharitably called “batfaces”) or club feet (“clawfeet”). They have no nuclear families but sleep (or “slip” as they call it) with many different people, if they like.
We experience this world through a number of people and all three books are narrated in the first person. In the first book we mainly follow John Redlantern, a “newhair” (teenager) who has big ideas. The Family is growing too large for its Circle Valley but only he has a desire to break out and explore beyond the “snowy dark” lands beyond. This naturally leads to conflict with the establishment. I’ll leave you to find out what happens – but even the best ideas lead to unexpected consequences and revelations.
You could just about stop at the end of the first book, but I loved it so much I just had to find out what happened next.
The second book is Mother of Eden, set nearly 400 years after the first people arrived, so more than two centuries after the first book.
Women had a big say in the running of the original Family, but by now settlements have split into two factions, the Davidfolk, descended from John Redlantern’s great rival, emphasising tradition, and the Johnfolk across the Worldpool, emphasising innovation, with their slogan “Be like Earth”. They have even learned how to make metal, while the Davidfolk are still in the stone age, using “blackglass”, or as the old folk call it, “obsijian”.
But both cultures are now dominated by men and their hierarchical structures are held together by violence. Again told by several people, this second book is mainly the story of Starlight Brooking, who meets a handsome and powerful man from across Worldpool, who she joins to play a role that reminds me of Princess Diana and the Pope rolled into one. Interesting how that one ends!
Finally, Daughter of Eden, set 10 years later, follows Starlight’s childhood friend Angie among the Davidfolk. Here there is only one other narrator, eventually. Angie leaves her original home to become an apprentice shadowspeaker (a sort of prophet), but eventually becomes part of some huge events I was pleased about but wasn’t expecting! Great plotting!
The language of the books is so clever. Because not many people can read and write, the stories told down the generations have changed several times and become sacred. The different factions also have different versions of what you might call their foundation myths and the teachings of the original Angela.
It’s great the way they have named everything in the world around them, but also clever and funny the way they have changed Earth words down the generations, so they speak in awe of “Lecky-trickity” and “Rayed Yo”. They also have no word for “very” so everything is almost in child speak, “bad bad” or “cold cold” or “big big”.
And every year (if they have counted correctly) on the big “Any Virsry” they have a get-together at the circle where the first “veekle” landed and bring out their treasures – antique odds and ends and totemic items they have made – a “car”, a “house” and a crude wooden spaceship they carry around as they re-create the now garbled story of their origins. It’s all very poignant.
The language of the books is simple, but the points they make about how cultures develop, how they fragment, how religions start – and how humanity keeps on keeping on, no matter the difficulties – are “deep deep”. And as with most good SF, it illuminates our own modern world. One thoughtful character’s recurring line, about living in the now and not thinking too much about past myths or future salvation, will stay with me: “We’re really here”…