Eight Keys to Eden by Mark Clifton

Pan, 1965, 171 p.

Eight Keys to Eden cover

On an Earth seemingly one political entity, long after a global conflict rendered the old powers otiose, decision making and problem solving has been delegated to a small group of highly trained thinkers called Extrapolators, E for short, whose jurisdiction is unquestioned save by elements of the planet’s police force. The plot kicks off when all communication with the colony known as Eden, suspiciously admirably suited to human life, is broken off. A junior (therefore not fully qualified) E named Calvin Gray is given the task of finding out exactly what has happened, a decision police chief Gunderson sees as an opportunity to bring the Es under police control.

Dogged by police interference and pursuit Gray travels to Eden where all evidence of human settlement has disappeared, the landscape being as it had before the colonists arrived. Any humans their devices can image are naked. On landing the party is approached by three naked humans and then the landing ship plus the rescue expedition members’ clothes also disappear. The communication breakdown was occasioned by every human artefact being removed by such mysterious means. Moreover any attempt by humans to manipulate the environment is now subverted. They cannot rub sticks together to make fire. They do not even leave footprints in the sand. The humans can survive as there is no problem eating and drinking provided no artificial means are employed in so doing. Plants, berries, raw fish are all fine. In addition in this new dispensation, people cannot concentrate on one thing for very long. The pursuing police ship nevertheless is able to image the scenes on Eden. The pictures of naked humans are seized on by Gunderson as evidence of immorality and the lever which will allow him to bring the Es to heel.

This is one of the areas where the novel shows its age. Gender roles and attitudes are firmly those of the late 1950s, their universality and infinite application unquestioned. Despite near enough instantaneous interstellar travel – the journey from Earth to Eden does take time but it is in the order of hours, not years – and the communication between Earth and the ships round Eden is depicted as having no delay, photographs require chemical processing and development, not to mention physical storage space.

Attempts at further landings to make arrests are prevented by an invisible barrier. However, E Gray proves up to his task, it seems Eden was a kind of lure to bring such an individual to the planet. Under the influence of the powers that control Eden he discovers that far from reality being a matter of equality in mathematical terms as in e = mc2 (here rendered as E = MC2) it is more fundamentally due to proportionality rather than equality. Merely finding the right way to think about it enables Gray to begin to manipulate matter.

It is the story that drives this. The characters are barely two-dimensional, their motivations simple, their interactions perfunctory. Almost as an aside Clifton implies that self-centredness is the basis of human attitude and behaviour – which is a dubious assertion at best. However, the sentiment, “any police officer will swear to any lie to back up another police officer because he might need the favour returned tomorrow,” is probably applicable anywhere, anytime.

Pedant’s corner:- hiccough (hiccup, any comparison to a cough is misplaced,) meteorolgist (metereologist, used correctly later,) chisms (context implies schisms,) “had men ever been able to settle their differences, had man been able to get along peacefully with himself, he might have developed no civilization at all” (it’s a mistaken notion in the first place since civilisation – note the “s” in British English – is entirely due to cooperation between humans; but context demands “never” for that ‘ever”,) “collar and hames rubs on their necks” (harness rubs?) “a flock of shore birds were busy” (a flock was busy,) laying (lying – used correctly a couple of times later,) “the way a herd of animals take shelter” (takes shelter,) “right were to look” (where,) “the top administrative brass were assembled” (the top brass was assembled.) “The both of them listened” (Both of them listened; or, the pair of them listened,) “he told himself that all wasn’t lost” (that not all was lost,) “but all was not lost” (but not all was lost,) innured (inured.)

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