Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Review of Mother of Eden by Chris Beckett

Chris Beckett’s 2012 Dark Eden was a novel whose setting glowed like a Christmas tree and whose thematic import likewise glowed for its simple but profound examination of the beliefs, practices, and rote underpinning Western social, religious, and cultural order.  Eschewing the opportunity to tell the hero’s tale (though there was every opportunity to do so), Beckett set his ambitions higher, widening the lens of his story to encompass society and how it evolves, or fails to, in the face of existential reality.  The story ending on a momentous discovery for the stranded colonists, the effect of the knowledge (that they would not be rescued) was left to the reader’s imagination.  That is until 2015’s Mother of Eden (2015, Crown Publishing).  Expanding the map considerably, producing a new cast of faces, and shifting the focus to politics and gender, the novel is a fresh follow up that fully satisfies the hunger for more of the exotic planet but which may sacrifice part of its thematic strength to over-simplification.

Set several generations after John Jeff, and Tina led the expedition away from New Home to start their own community, the population of Eden has considerably expanded itself in the time since.  Society in essence set free with the knowledge rescue will not be forthcoming, a diaspora has occurred, people moving out to explore new islands and continents.  But disagreement remains.  Calling themselves, Davidsfolk, Johnsfolk, Jeffsfolk, even Tinafolk, differences and discrimination still eat at the heart of the colonists.  Enmity among the groups seeming to continually simmer just beneath the surface, things start to boil when the descendants of John Redlantern discover metal on a continent across the Big Dark.  Believing themselves to be on the path to returning society to a state of civilization, they organize their rudimentary community along feudal lines in order to best extract the valuable material from Eden’s hothouse soil in the hopes of someday re-creating the technology which produced starships and space travel.  Trouble is, without access to real human history, they’re bound to make the same mistakes as they grow.

The main voice of Mother of Eden is Starlight Brooking.  Born into a semi-anarchical community settled on one of Eden’s islands, she is the ying to John Redlantern’s Dark Eden yang.  Gender treatment sharing one half of the main theme of the novel, Beckett appropriately locates Starlight at the center of tension.  An unexpected meeting bringing her amongst a large community of Johnsfolk, to say their view of women is blinkered would be an understatement.  (Women caught whispering “women’s tales” are put to sensational death by the oppressive male oligarchy.)  Overt, and to some degree manipulative, this portion of the narrative digs at primeval, reactive emotions while making the reader wince for the size of its moral buttons.  Self-evidence forfeiting impact, it’s more evident to say gender injustice has evolved in the West to a point more subtle.

Thus it is the larger political scenario which Starlight finds herself a part of that forms the second, stronger half of Mother of Eden’s thematic material.  Women essentially trophies of ignorance and birthing, the surrounding social ideology is naturally materialistic.  The resulting politics a frighteningly real representation of the core of modern capitalism, exposed is the greed inherent to the insustainability of resource extraction and the management thereof.  In championing their re-rise to civilization, New Earth, as the Johnsfolk community calls itself, make no effort to moderate their relationship to the environment or sympathize with the social hierarchy that forces low-level citizens to labor for the benefit of those higher in the structure with unbalanced recompense.

These economic and political concerns also worn on the novel’s sleeve, that they are fully relevant to modern economic concerns in the West, however, are what give Mother of Eden its meaning and purpose.  The gender discussion lacking this relevancy save historical comparison, it does not possess the same challenging posture or induce the same level of discussion as the social setup and goals of New Earth.  Where it’s impossible to argue women should be kept silent in society under penalty of death in the modern context, the goals of capitalism, as presented in the novel, are much more capable of evoking further conversation.  It is this political/economic content which makes Mother of Eden a worthy follow up to Dark Eden.

The last point of note is the novel’s conclusion. A fairly typical climax that leads into an anything but typical denouement, Mother of Eden ends in thought-provoking and recursive fashion that, like Dark Eden, ignores the low road (i.e. ending on a utopia) to take the high road (i.e. a place more practical). One thread running through the novel is the idea of continually maintaining social, political, and environmental perspective.  Capturing this sentiment, “We are really here” is a saying left over from Jeff that Starlight and her community often repeat.  The characters’ ultimate fates bouncing off this idea in some fashion, for better and worse, Beckett puts his money where his mouth is by once again shunning conventional hero-takes-all or utopian storytelling to arrive at a more meaningful point.  No matter Earth or Eden, we are really here, and our choices do really matter, so best to contextualize them in accordance with one’s surroundings would seem to be the message.

In the end, Mother of Eden is a solid follow up to Dark Eden that foremost performs the necessary basics to produce a good sequel.  Beckett adds new characters, perpetuates the prior storyline in a new yet natural direction, opens up unexplored areas of the setting, and develops themes of similar caliber.  There are still lantern trees and woolybucks, batfaces and clawfeet, slippings and wakings, and the remainder of the elements readers of Dark Eden are familiar with.   But of primary importance is that a fresh and no less interesting narrative of humanity struggling against its faults to evolve to a higher plane on a vividly exotic world is delivered (even if a portion is self-evident).  Possible but not necessary, it will be interesting to see whether Beckett develops Eden in a third installment.

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