Dark Eden by Chris Beckett (2012) 404 p.
John Redlantern lives amid the warmth and safety of Family in Circle Valley. There is no sun – only eternal night. Light and warmth come from the valley’s alien geothermal trees, which glow red and white and emit boiling hot sap. Surrounding Circle Valley is the Snowy Dark – a cold, thin-air wasteland where you can’t even see your hand in front of your face. Nobody has ever left the valley, not since Angela and Tommy were first stranded there from Earth many generations ago. The 532 members of Family are their descendents – inbred, genetically mutating, clinging to the stories their first Mother and Father told them about distant Earth. One day, they have been told, Earth will come and find them again.
Dark Eden is a classic bildungsroman, in which 15-year-old (or 20 “wombtimes” old) John Redlantern grows weary at the parochial, stultifying atmosphere of Family. He fears that Family is growing larger, and game is getting scarce. He thinks that despite what Mother Angela once told her children, she never thought the wait for Earth would be this long. He believes there must be something else on the other side of Snowy Dark, and is determined to go against his elders and find out.
The novel ranges across a number of viewpoints, mostly John Redlantern and his lover Tina Spiketree, but occasionally taking in others when the narrative demands it. Beckett does a good job of exploring each character’s different motives; John, for example, knows that he’s a good leader and wants to try new things; from Tina’s perspective, we see that she appreciates this, but also recognises John has a deep, restless urge inside him, and an egotistical view that the world’s story is all about him. Similarly, the Family’s leader is a maternalistic woman who recognises the same problems as John but is wise enough to know that change must happen slowly; that “any fool can break a thing, but building a new one takes wakings and wakings.”
The world of Eden is beautifully rendered, from the glowing and humming trees to the menacing six-legged fauna, but it’s not overwrought – the characters mention things like “leopards” and “trees,” and it’s only through incidental detail that the reader sees how different these things must be from their earthly namesakes.
Beckett’s use of language to establish Family’s culture (however small and stagnant it may be) is excellent. There are shades of a post-apocalyptic story here, as degenerate tribals cling to their society’s past glory and revere their ancestors. Small linguistic touches go a long way, such as the loss of the word “very,” with characters instead simply doubling up on adjectives to emphasise them: cold cold, tired tired, etc.
What Beckett gets absolutely pitch perfect is the claustrophobic sense of Eden: the darkness, the enveloping cold, the rigid tribal laws and the inability to escape Family, to go anywhere else, do anything different or find anything new. Circle Valley is all the characters have ever known, but they have grown up hearing stories of Earth and the rest of the human race, and they know that there is more to life than this. “Sometimes I hated Eden,” John says to himself. “Sometimes I felt that if I ate another mouthful of greenish Eden meat I would vomit out my guts.”
Dark Eden has a satisfying if limited conclusion, avoiding the brutal showdown other science fiction writers might have opted for. It’s open to a sequel, but is an excellent standalone novel – an original and haunting story.
Side note – it’s a miserly publisher indeed who’d choose to save on ink by issuing the reprint with a white cover, as seen above. The original was black, a thousand times more appropriate for this novel.