Sunday, April 10, 2016

Review of Return to Eden by Harry Harrison

With Winter in Eden ending as it did, what the third and final book in the Eden series, Return to Eden (1988), would hold in store was a major question mark.  If something resembling an understanding had been established between the humans and yilane, what could drive the Eden storyline further?  Turns out, a lot.

Kerrick, having bartered a relative peace between the yilane and humans, looks to re-settle with his wife Armun and the rest of the tanu in a new community.  They do so beside a bountiful lake, but not without a moment of intense drama for the two male yilane who travel with them.  Leading to other major events, life is far from settled for the tanu.  Ambalasi, still de facto leader of the Daughters of Life, has her traditional mindset put to the test by Enge and one of the strong-willed Daughters, and in the process their whole community is tested.  And Vainte, exiled to a foreign continent, contemplates her future, and eventually comes to a conclusion—a predictable but effective conclusion.

Where Winter in Eden expanded the settings and characters of West of Eden, so too does Return to Eden.  But what is expanded, or at least concretized most significantly is theme—or rather themes, as there are many floating around Harrison’s extreme alternate history.  From race/species relations to the role of weapons, perennial philosophy to Otherness, linguistics to culture—all arrive at a relative sense of closure given the points causing tension thus far in the series.  The number of times I thought to myself “Wow, that ties back into that, and that…” is a significant indication of the preparation and organization Harrison brought to the series.

If Harrison were alive, however, what I would really clap him on the back for is not ending the series on a utopian note.  Despite having every chance to follow in the footsteps of countless books before—that happiest of most tragic of endings—he chooses another direction.  Eden acknowledging the problems humans, no matter pre-historic or contemporary, face, Harrison comes to a middle-ground conclusion—a practical view to what’s plaguing us here and now—those oh so important steps before social harmony.

Point blank: Return to Eden is the best of the series.  (Don’t believe this guy; in terms of plot, he’s partially correct.  But in terms of concepts, theme, sub-text, etc., Return is where everything solidifies in Eden.)  It goes without saying if you’ve read this far, you’ll want to continue, and if you haven’t paid attention to some of the underlying motivations and sub-textual points under examination, go back and read the first two again. In terms of storytelling, usage of character, plotting, and deployment of ideas, Return is as good as the prior books.  Where the final book pokes its head higher is in its braiding of the threads of theme introduced thus far.  Bringing everything (loosely) together, the final interaction of yilane, oustuzu, Vainte, Kerrick and everything else Harrison has introduced the reader to defines the final vision of Eden.  Soft science fiction with a practical view toward holism, where many other books propagate unrealistic utopian ideals, Return to Eden acknowledges asymmetries while tweaking a few of the more significant ones to look in the direction of something more unified yet flexible.  I don’t know if this makes the Eden series Harrison’s magnum opus, but it certainly makes an excellent argument for it.

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