Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Review of Dark Eden by Chris Beckett

I was lucky enough to have seen Avatar in 3D at the cinema.  I say ‘lucky’ because, despite the simplicity of the storyline, the visuals were truly a feast.  There is one particular scene wherein the main character has just been rescued by a woman and she leads him back to her community.  As darkness settles in, the jungle comes to bright neon life—the electric blue flowers, pink fronds, and yellow leaves literally vibrating in the air, creating an organic, hallucinatory experience impossible for television to emulate.  Relying on visual effect, Chris Beckett’s Dark Eden (Broadway Books) possesses this same stark contrast between darkness and color, but embeds the setting with a more intelligent story than James Cameron’s.  Throwing down the gauntlet to society and its perspective on time, the novel is among the top sci-fi books published in 2012 (UK) and 2014 (US).

Dark Eden is the story of the descendants of the space ship Defiant.  Like the Mayflower, the Defiant left Earth seeking freedom from oppression.  But upon arriving on the planet Eden, new problems arose, forcing some of the crew to return to Earth and leave three behind to await rescue.  Six generations later, the three have grown into a small community—genetically dysfunctional, but a community nonetheless calling themselves the Family.  More than 500 people now live in Circle Forest—a piece of land that glows with neon life amidst the perpetual darkness of Eden.  But population increase has not had a positive effect; times are getting harder and harder.  Where there were once many animals and fruits available, provisions have become scarce as the number of mouths has multiplied and the available resources diminished—and nobody wants to climb the dangerous ice-clad mountains of night that surround Circle Forest to see if sustenance lies beyond.  Hunting one day, John Redlantern encounters a night leopard, and rather than climbing a tree to escape, decides to face down the deadly creature.  Living to see another day, John goes on to challenge status quo at community council, proposing a new group be set up in a different part of the forest.  In the aftermath of the ensuing conflict, the Family on Eden is never the same.

It is at that point in Dark Eden that Beckett could easily have taken the narrative down a path trod bare by sci-fi and fantasy: the path of The Hero with a Thousand Faces.  John Redlantern dares to defy the elders, his family, and the rules the group lives by, forcing them to take action against him.  And it is precisely here that most other genre writers would cast John out of the group into the wilds, where after learning numerous lessons and defeating many enemies, he would return with wisdom and strength to lead the group through the troubles that inevitably arose in his absence, and guide them to a better quality of life—happily ever after.  Beckett tosses this idea over his shoulder and writes his own story.  Events escalating simplistically but realistically, the juxtaposition of the climax is original in fiction but unfortunately all too common in reality.

Falling wholly on the Brian Aldiss and Ursula Le Guin side of the science fiction/fantasy fence rather than the Robert E. Howard or Richard Morgan side, Dark Eden is about looking to the future, the casting aside of ideas which prevent the progression of society, and the need for group understanding if humanity’s issues are to be resolved, that is, instead of confronting the world’s problems with single-handed aggression and violence (man vs. the world! Huw-wah!) or giving in to the idea that the only way to survive is look out for number one.  In other words, the novel is not about a muscular hero getting girls and treasure and setting the world aright with the power of his sword, rather an examination of society, the elimination of beliefs which have served their purpose but are no longer valid, and an altering of perspective to look ahead, instead of behind or at one’s own navel. 

Accordingly, there are a few relevant interpretations of Dark Eden.  With the story set up as it is, and the conclusion arriving where it does, the novel is both commentary on and a challenge to any aspect of society which holds status as ‘unquestionable’.  Be it economic paradigms, religions, political systems, social programs, cultural habits, or just how you brush your teeth everyday, Beckett confronts the reader with elements of life and society and forces them to ask whether these elements are in practice for long-term benefit, or just because grandpa did it that way.  It is a re-contextualization.  Rather than looking backward and clinging to the knowledge of the past, he asks that we reevaluate which aspects progress society positively, and to abandon those which do not.  Perhaps most importantly, he also asks the reader to think upon what new paradigms might be put in place to balance the damage done.

Given the reference in the title, the Cain and Abel sub-story, the content of conversation and group rituals, and the unconditional waiting for rescue, the strongest parallel of Dark Eden is Western religion.  The Jewish, Christian, and Muslim faiths all originate in a utopian story, ritualize their histories, and believe someday Yahweh/God/Allah will return to take his (not ‘her’, hmm?) followers to heaven.  And after more than a millennium, still they await the great return.  The Family of Dark Eden has likewise been waiting, and for those 150 years has evolved little—the strongest, most propagated belief among them being that the Defiant will any day return and rescue them so they should stay put and not attempt anything radical.  They pass along legends about the original three inhabitants and participate in theater, complete with props and scripts that depict stories from when the Defiant first arrived on Eden.  They do this despite the fact that the circumstances of the Family’s existence have changed drastically, namely population increase, food scarcity, and environmental degradation.  Western religions evolving at an exponentially slower rate than society, our world too has become a vastly different place from that which is described in the Torah/Bible/Koran.  Yet there remain believers who cling to the stories in hope of the great return, and in effect distance themselves from the realities of modern life.  Beckett does not delve into spiritual aspects (i.e. the idea of, or belief in a god), he instead critiques Western religion for the manner in which it is applied, the main thrust being the stilting of societal progress which ensues.  For example, at many locations in the world, the practice of Islam prevents women from having key civil rights.  It has so for centuries, just as the unconditional belief the Defiant will return puts blinders on the Family’s worldview to the effect they have remained primitive in behavior and technology for more than a century to the detriment of many.

And Becket tackles gender, too.  John Redlantern is not the Golden Age male hero with brains and brawn.  His wits do not extricate him from every scrape, nor does his strength prevent him from getting hurt—emotionally and physically.  Though possessing a stronger sense of leadership than others, he and several other men in the story remain aggressive, power hungry males—something offset by the inclusion of Tina Spiketree, Jeff Redlantern, the oldmums, and other key characters with more than simple vengeance and power on their minds.  Continuing to subvert the hero myth, what John, Tina, Jeff, and the others accomplish is done as a male/female team that is not dependent on one person to do all the work, in turn validating the idea of a synthesized society.

But for as strong as Dark Eden is from a cultural, behavioral, and social standpoint, it does possess some weaknesses from a literary standpoint.  And it all begins with the choice in perspective.  The novel divided into viewpoints rather than chapters per se, each is told in the first person, John Redlantern and Tina Spiketree featuring most prominently.  But for each viewpoint, Beckett is most often unable to instill a unique voice.  As a result, the book reads like a third-person narrative despite the continual pronoun ‘I’.  A problem resulting directly from this is the simplicity of the narrative.  It is understandable that such a technically-deprived, primitive people would not be speaking Shakespearian English, but that there is no omniscient narrator to overlay the unsophisticated speech and thought of the characters with a voice more informed and probing leaves the narrative’s style unambiguously on the simple side.  Again, it was obviously Beckett’s to present the story as such, but at times it feels too basic when placed alongside the more sophisticated themes.

This observation aside, Dark Eden remains a stimulating read with strong sub-layers to ponder upon; the idea of a stranded group trying to survive in neon darkness can be spun in a few different directions.  Not a typical hero’s tale, it is a society struggling with the past, present, and future in a bizarre nighttime world with trippy neon trees and animals.  Regardless of one’s religious views, the setting will leave an impression on the imagination.  Readers who enjoy Ursula Le Guin (Planet of Exile, City of Illusions, etc.) and Brian Aldiss (Non-Stop, Hothouse, Helliconia, etc.) should also like Beckett’s offering.  Given the primitive nature of the Family and setting, Jean Auel’s Clan of the Cave Bear and Kim Stanley Robinson’s Shaman also come to mind, though the parallels to those works are more distant.  And lastly, Michael Moorcock’s Behold the Man, for its questioning of the myth behind Christianity, likewise holds some similarities, though to be fair, Beckett’s offering is social in aim while Moorcock’s is personal.

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