Dark Eden by Chris Beckett
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
It’s often said of SF that it is always, or should always, be a reflection on the present, and while it often is I think that limits what it’s capable of. It should, like all good fiction, be about human nature. The great thing about SF is the freedom to mix up the board, change aspects of society and reality as a way of bringing different aspects of humanity into focus.
Dark Eden is a book in that tradition, reducing a group of people to hunter-gatherers on an alien world. Though I think the Eden as a world is wonderfully realised, a place of warm but eternal darkness, it is what Beckett does with the tribe of inbred humans that really interests me. Family are the descendants of a single pair marooned on the planet, who have become a tribe of a few hundred people. They have stayed clustered around the original crash site, eagerly waiting to be rescued and returned to the mythical Earth.
I hope I am being vague enough about the plot from now on to avoid spoiler issues, but forewarned is forearmed etc.
Anyway, this religious need to stay close to the crash site has meant that the expanding population of Family is denuding the dark forest of food. John Redlantern, young and restless, wants to expand out into the world, and has little reverence for the stories of Earth and the survivors. Through a reckless act he gets the expansion he wants, but at the cost of the peace and unity that had bound Family together.
My favourite part of this book is Beckett’s ambivalent take on change, and John’s reasons for upending his whole society. These stories are too often simplistic, with the hero being the only one with the vision or the nerve to do what is ‘necessary.’ Beckett undercuts the idea that John is some kind of leader of his people almost immediately, showing how his own restlessness drives him as much as the wisdom of what he proposes. It’s clear that they will have to move, but it is not desperate, and he forces the change for his own reasons.
Angela, the first mother of Family, told the women to beware of men who would want to make the story of life ‘all about them.’ John is one of those men, and leaves others to pick up the pieces, to do the hard work of making something new out of what he has broken.
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