Chris Beckett’s third novel, Dark Eden, is a complex thing. It draws, as the title suggests, on the ur-biblical theme of the fall from innocence but it is also the story of an isolated human community culturally (and physically) devolving. It belongs to a sfnal tradition that has its roots in works like Lord of the Flies by William Golding and Non-Stop by Brian Aldiss. From this, relatively familiar, starting point, Beckett teases out an examination of how power, in its variety of forms, is exercised within groups and how history is shaped and moulded by those exercising that power. The result is a psychologically rich, morally tangled and intelligently written novel.
The story opens 163 years after misadventure and disaster stranded two humans, Angela and Tommy, on a very strange planet. Dark Eden wanders without a sun, somewhere between galaxies, but heat drawn from the core supports a compellingly weird and believably intricate ecosystem.
“… and off we went again, under redlanterns and whitelanterns and spiketrees with flutterbyes darting and glittering all round us and bats chasing the flutterbyes and trees going hmmph, hmmph, hmmph like always, until it all blurred together in that hmmmmmmmmmmm that was the background of our lives.”
In this odd place lives Family, around 600 people living in six groups clustered around the site where their shared ancestors first landed. This little outpost of humanity suffers from inbreeding – high proportions of the population are described as having clawfeet and batfaces and there’s evidence of mental decline. Their social order has settled into a stiflingly conservative rut, struggling to preserve handed down traditions even as they become increasingly meaningless. They survive as hunter-gatherers, reduced to relying on Stone Age technologies, while old knowledge is reshaped into myth. But change is coming. The rapidly growing Family is stressing its environment, finding food is becoming harder and more time consuming and the broadly matriarchal structure that has sustained their society is under threat.
On one side this threat is manifested in David Redlantern, who wants to respond to the new challenges with greater order and brute force. On the other is “newhair” (teenager) John Redlantern. John recognises that there is a crisis approaching and he sees that things can be done differently but he chafes against the restrictions imposed by tradition and Family’s gerontocracy. John becomes the focus for a discontented group of young people, including the insightful, otherworldly Jeff and the confident, smart Tina. John’s vision, his sense of personal destiny and his urge for adventure will bring division, disaster and death to Dark Eden. He will also shatter the beliefs that have sustained Family.
Beckett tells this story through a variety of first person point of views; primarily we see Dark Eden through the eyes of John and Tina but a number of other characters get their say. To begin with I found the technique difficult – early in the book the narrative appears straightforward but the shifting viewpoint makes progression choppy. Beckett, however, is in control and his technique pays off handsomely in the aftermath of John’s decision to challenge Family’s leadership at the “Any Virsry” meeting. John’s character is revealed, through the multiple viewpoints, in almost vertiginous depth as it becomes clear that there is little that is straightforward about the story being told.
Dark Eden plays interesting games with the notion of power, which operates at a variety of levels throughout the narrative. As the novel opens, Family is controlled by fixed patterns of behaviour and belief handed down to the current generations by their ancestors and the society is dominated by women. Women exercise influence formally through control of key positions but also informally through domestic arrangements, social pressure, their control of access to “slip” (sex) and by knowledge that is passed down from generation to generation, including a “Secret Story” that contains the prescient injunction to: “Watch out for men who want to turn everything into a story that’s all about them. There will always be a few of them, and once one of them starts, another one of them will want to fight with him.”
David Redlantern is the most straightforward incarnation of male power. His ability to exercise control is based on physical strength and a ruthless willingness to use force to get his way. David’s menace is most viscerally demonstrated by the way he, and his followers, threaten women in Family with violence and rape.
John’s power is different. John’s strength flows from his charisma and ambition. He can attract support and lead people into extraordinary achievements but, in destroying the traditions that underpinned Family, he cannot rely on precedent to reinforce his position. He is, therefore, constantly worried about threats to his leadership. The breakaway group he leads contains a number of alternative loci of power. Tina is no simple love interest, she has her own agenda and she has her own resources for creating alliances with both sexes. Jeff is shamanic and the others find him both disturbing and attractive. His disinterest in the mundane and his intelligence make him independently powerful. And then there’s the passive-aggressive Mehmet, who appears most likely to challenge John’s position. Beckett handles all these threads with considerable skill and creates a convincingly intricate interplay of characters and mechanisms of control.
Beckett also makes clever use of the processes of storytelling and myth-making. John’s reflections on his place in history are used to give resonance to the novel’s events and he uses the mechanism of re-enacting key moments of Family mythology to drive home what is at stake as the plot unfolds. It is a technique that works, adding depth to the novel’s narrative and enfolding the reader in a fully realised society with a history and a future that stretches beyond the ambit of the immediate plot. The end of Dark Eden is not neat, there is no sense of wrapping up loose ends or providing tidy solutions to complicated problems, but it is satisfying.
Dark Eden is an impressive piece of writing, stylistically effective and smartly constructed. The world Beckett creates is strange but convincingly developed, his characters have depth and internal lives that stretch beyond the exigencies of the plot and, with these tools, he builds a story that is successful on many levels.