Dark Eden by Chris Beckett

Corvus, 2012, 404p. This is the novel that has recently won the Clarke Award.

Family (there is only one, hence no qualifying article is required) lives in Circle Valley on Eden, a planet with no external light source save that of the faint Starry Swirl in the sky. The forbidding mountainous surroundings are known as Snowy Dark and no-one has ever climbed over them – nor wanted to. From the founding pair Tommy and Angela, marooned when their companions took the Landing Veekle up to the damaged spaceship Defiant to try to get back to Earth and help, Family has grown to over 500 members. Respect for tradition and its Oldest keep Family’s way of life as it has always been. But life is a continuing struggle. John Redlantern has realised that someday the food will run out. The novel describes the consequences of his actions in breaking Family tradition.

This reworking of the Adam and Eve story could have been a disaster (it is one of the hoariest clich├ęs in SF) and there is a certain inevitability about John’s behaviour; we know it must be so to drive the plot. We also know that someone will eventually climb over Snowy Dark.

However, Beckett has peopled his novel with some compelling characters – not only John Redlantern, but also Tina Spiketree and clever, clawfooted Jeff, who is given to saying, “We are here. We really are here.” (Apart from claw feet the main genetic consequence of the inbreeding unavoidable in Family’s situation is in severe hare-lips, “batfaces.”) Moreover at the conclusion the plot also delivers a twist so that we and the characters are forced to reappraise their situation. And a nice touch is the reworking of the old phrase about Tom, Dick and Harry into a Family profanity.

The main viewpoint narrators are John and Tina but others also have the odd chapter. The frustrations John and his fellow youngsters feel at the restrictions and boredom of the AnyVirsies and Strornies where Family’s past is mythologised (mentions of telly vision, kee boards and lecky-trickity serve only to confuse the youngsters) or where disputes are resolved, are well articulated and so is the point of view of the adults who cling to what they know. The young count in wombtimes rather than years and are upbraided for it. The transition of the matriarchal, consensual, more or less cohesive Family life where even the concept of rape is unknown – there is nevertheless a lot of relatively guilt free sex – to a more confrontational, male dominated future of strife, of events allowing the domineering to take over, is a key one.

Beckett’s story-telling brio overcomes any nagging doubts at the scenario. (There can be no photosynthesis here, so what kind of carbohydrates would be available? Would the local flora and fauna really be compatible with humans? Would they be comprised of the same amino acids as on Earth, allowing them to be eaten successfully? Would the necessary vitamins be present? Who is this story being told to? These have to be discounted, for without these conditions there would be no story for us to read – and the last applies to any work of fiction.)

While the characters frequently repeat adjectives for emphasis – cold, cold; dark, dark etc – the issues of inadequate proofreading which slightly marred the readability of Beckett’s previous novels Marcher and The Holy Machine are more notable by their absence here.

Whether read as Science Fiction or simply as fiction Dark Eden is good stuff, well worth its Clarke Award. I suspect it will stay with me a long time.

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