Imagine the human race starting again on another planet, from two people, in a very different world. Dark Eden is about exactly that. Two people, Tommy and Angela, were stranded on Eden after a discovery mission from Earth went wrong sometime in our future. Three others attempted to take a damaged landing vehicle back to the main ship in order to return to earth to get help, but they hadn’t been heard of since leaving. Now it is five generations later, and the two have multiplied into 580, and trouble is brewing in their hunter-gatherer civilisation.
The planet is not like earth. There is no sun giving light from above, and consequently no day and night, and no heat from above. All the light comes from trees and is borne deep underground, where life on Eden begins. The trees flower and the flowers produce heat and light as they pump up their boiling sap from below. As a result, forests are warm and permanently light; everything else is dark, cold and snowy. Animals have evolved to either develop their own source of light from a part of their body, or they can see in the dark.
Five generations later, the human inhabitants of Eden are starting to get too large for the small patch of forest that they happen to have been placed in. Food is getting scarce and space is becoming cramped. They are surrounded on three sides by dark, snowy, impassable mountains, and on the other the stream makes its escape through a narrow gorge and huge waterfall.
The novel picks up the story as a young man, John Redlantern, merely a teenager, starts to challenge his community, known as ‘the family’ into leaving their little forest. His actions are not popular and threaten the unity and identity of Eden.
At this point I should say that I don’t usually read Science fiction. But here, Chris Beckett has written a marvellous book, which I urge you to read. His writing is lucid and brilliantly opens up this other world to your imagination. I’m going to write about the themes of identity which evolved from a common story, and the issues of leadership from a headstrong and impulsive young man. If you plan to read the book (and you should) you might want to stop reading here and come back afterwards as there are spoilers coming.
Firstly though, about Chris’ writing. Eden is a world that has to be completely reimagined, and he has thought through it brilliantly. What would a world be like where you have to start again? There is no technology, materials are new and different. The memories of things remains and is passed down, but the ability to build them has been lost. What would we do if future education began with only what a couple of people know and can remember? Tommy’s advice to their descendants is to ‘keep building boats and eventually you will work out how to build a boat that is capable of flying home to earth’. This is true, and this is how the process of innovation can happen provided people push at the edges. For the people of Eden, five generations later they were still building very basic boats.
What would a world be like where there is no rising and setting up the sun? We mark our time through the passing of days, weeks and years. We can tell when a day is over because it gets dark. But in a world which never gets dark and thus, ‘a day’, ‘a week’ and ‘a year’ have no meaning, how do you count? What unit of measurement would you use? The one that Beckett picked as readily available was the human gestation period, known in the book as a ‘wombtime’. John Redlantern, at the beginning of the book, is about 20 wombtimes old. He is known as a newhair, not a teenager. (I’ll let you work that one out).
Beckett has also thought through the implications on a society that would have emerged from just two people. Tommy and Angela, the first father, had four children. With no other humans around the third generation was a product of the second. As you can imagine, relationships, which are not monogamous, quickly become incestuous with the expected effects on the subsequent generations. There is a high number of people with cleft palates, club feet, and infant mortality is high.
The main story is about John and a group of his followers who take matters into their own hands, destroy the sacred places of the family and set of over the snowy dark mountains in search of another place. In doing this, they find answers to the story handed down through the generations.
Story as identity
The story of Tommy and Angela and how they came to be on Eden is the thing that drives the identity of all people, even five generations later. They are wedded to the belief that eventually Tommy and Angela’s three companions would have somehow got the message back to earth so that eventually earth would come and rescue them. The possibility that the message didn’t reach earth does not bear thinking about. Consequently, the family are a people in waiting, waiting for rescue, and people who feel they do not belong in their land but yearn for another place, the place with the big light in the sky. They do not move far from where Tommy and Angela originally got stranded, So that, they think, earth will be able to find them when they come.
Of this story is one they repeat, tell each other, and re-enact at each anniversary. But it is a story without an end. They are the people in waiting.
That situation led me to think of the nation of Israel in its early days. They were people with a very strong identity based on historical story – the calling of Abraham, their subsequent slavery in Egypt, and their rescue by God, led by Moses out of Egypt, across the Red Sea and through the wilderness to the promised land of Israel. This story is a key identity marker in the formation of the people of Israel, and the old Testament is littered with references to it. Look back, they are told, to what God has done for you and for your ancestors. Look back and remember who God is and therefore who God will be to you in the present and future.
Israel was a nation Governed by this story and therefore believed, for the most part, in the hope that this story promised. And eventually, in their next hour of darkness, God rescued them again.
I believe all of us live by a story even today which shapes our beliefs, hopes, and actions. However, that story isn’t one that pervades all society like Eden or Israel. We each have our own, as society is more individualistic. In both Eden and Israel the story was one of national identity as well as individual. In Eden, as the story cuts to the heart of who they were, any alternative stories were vehemently opposed. Dark Eden Explores the outworkings of this as John Redlantern takes a group over the dark cold mountains to another place, and in doing so begins to explore alternative stories and therefore threatens the family’s unity and identity.
Loss of story
So, what happens when this story is threatened? (Some major spoilers here) Firstly, the group is split. A small group goes with John, most of the others stay with the main group. But what was previously an easy, consensual unity in the main group now feels oppressive.
Second, right at the end of the book, after John’s group have made it over the mountains and found a vast, vast forest, easily enough to provide ample hunting ground for a population many times the size, the group make a dramatic discovery – one that affects the whole way they think about themselves, and which justifies John’s actions. Their story is dead.
Here, I started to wonder that happens to a society that loses the story by which it defines itself. The book doesn’t really explore this as the discovery comes in the final few chapters. But what about in history? The USA has a story that it is ‘A Christian Nation’, which sprang up from the fact that it was mostly Puritans who set up the country by escaping persecution in Europe. They also cling to the notion of a ‘Spirit of Adventure’ which came from the pioneers going West. How true are they now? Perhaps not as much as they were. In the UK, I feel we have lost our story, part of which was defined by the English Reformation and the state church, and as the Olympics Opening ceremony so wonderfully reminded us, the Industrial Revolution. But how relevant are they to the story by which we live our lives now? For most people, not so much. Our society has lost it’s story and, perhaps, is sucked into the secular default of self-improvement.
When the nation of Israel wandered away from their story in the Old Testament, it was characterised by moral decline and distance from God. Only when it was obvious that going on their own wasn’t working for them, and the exile happened, did they return to their original story of ‘God as rescuer’. With the loss of the ‘wait for rescue’ story on Eden, it remains to be seem what story they may turn to.
Dark Eden also makes you ponder about the nature of leadership. John Redlantern is a natural leader. He sees a problem, has a vision and is relentless in pursuing it. Only, he is young, impulsive and immature. His actions cause him to be exiled from the rest of the group, and is later joined by others. He doesn’t mind facing opposition in pursuit of his goals.
However, he needs to be the leader. There is one moment during the climb over the dark mountains when it seems that everything is lost. They have lost their source of light and are under attack from an unseen monster. The others start to turn on him and he has no ideas as to how to get out of the situation. Suddenly, one character, a young boy called with a claw foot, who had been separated from the group in the monster attack manages to come back and save the day. Initially, this was a cause for rejoicing, but John begins to see the boy as a threat to his authority. Actually, the boy had no desires to lead the group. But John is still worries, and his reaction is to keep him close as a number two. This is an act genius as the boy turns out to be one of the most intelligent of the group who can turn his mind to solving problems.
But the reality of leadership in John is highlighted throughout the book – negotiating the opposition, grumbling, possible threats whilst keeping as many of the group together to press son towards the goal.
This is probably the best example of contemporary fiction I have read for a long time. Please read it. I am very much looking forward to the sequel!