The Early Days of a Better Nation

Friday, August 31, 2012

Dark Eden

Monday evening's 'Scary Fururistic Fictions' chaired by Stuart Kelly and featuring Chris Beckett and me, was one of the last events at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. It went well, with Stuart steering our discussion in interesting directions, and plenty of good questions coming from the floor. I met Chris for the first time an hour or two before, in the Authors' Yurt (the festival's spacious, imaginative and civilized version of a Green Room) and liked him a lot. We'd received copies of each other's books a fortnight or so earlier, and Chris had already responded to reading mine with a thoughtful and appreciative review. By Monday I was about half-way through my copy of his book Dark Eden (which he kindly signed) but that was already enough for me to be enthusiastic about it and to comment on it in the discussion.

I finished reading it a couple of days ago. The main reason it took me about a week to read is that I kept stopping to think. It's one of those books like The Left Hand of Darkness that gets you so convinced by and immersed in its world that you come out of it looking at the real world in a new way. By imagining realistically a planet without a sun, and its ecosystem that runs on geothermal energy, Beckett gives us picture after vivid picture of alien beauty that highlights the different wonder of Earth.

As its title suggests, Dark Eden takes an SF trope so tired nobody uses it any more: what if an isolated man and woman on an alien planet were to become the Adam and Eve of a new world?

Well, for a start, their descendants would have lots of genetic defects ...

The rest of the outcome is likewise logical, and ruthless. The echoes of the Old Testament are there, and deliberate, but the tale also recapitulates the more recent origin myths told by Freud and Engels: the small society we start with is a primeval, promiscuous matriarchal horde, into which the actions of the main character - and reactions to them - begin to introduce patriarchy, and with it the family, private property and the state.

Myth and its meanings are themes of the story, and often darkly funny: one of the legends of the mismatched founding couple re-enacted by their descendants unto the third and fourth generation is called The Big Row. Regular readers of hard SF may feel that the back-story's Earth and its nascent starfaring but troubled society are too crudely sketched - until the late, chilling moment where we glimpse them as they were, and remember through whose eyes we've seen them hitherto.

All that's just the background. The story itself is gripping, full of character, incident and adventure.

Now I find myself in an awkward situation. Like I said, Chris has reviewed my book, and we got on well when we met. If I were to give Dark Eden a rave review, it would look like the sort of mutual authorial back-scratching that Private Eye annually skewers with damning quotes from 'Book of the Year' features. No one would take it seriously.

Fortunately, I don't need to do that, because Dark Eden already has many rave reviews, from an impressively wide range of critics and readers, in the genre and out. Read them, then read the book.


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