Chris Beckett’s Dark Eden highlights the evolution of narrative in a quiet coming-of-age story set on an alien planet with no sun. The novel spends much of its first half detailing the ways in which humans cope with life on a dark world. Light and warmth comes from “lantern trees,” which pump up hot liquid of some kind from the center of the planet. People hunt dark animals with green-grey meat. They measure time in “wombs” (the amount of time it takes for a baby to be born), as well as in “wakings” and “periods.” Words in the Dark Eden universe have developed double meanings to make them emphatic, as language evolved from standard English. All five-hundred members of Family (as they are called) are descended from two humans who decided to stay on this strange planet, called Eden, and that the “Three Companions” made a risky attempt to return to Earth. Now, once a year (years are the Earth-time kept by the oldest members of Family), they gather to see the story of their origin acted out in drama, and to touch items from Earth.
Chris Beckett's 'Dark Eden'
The foundation provides an interesting world to explore, but where Beckett’s story sets itself apart is in the growth of its protagonist John Redlantern. At the beginning of the novel he kills a “Panther” by himself. Rather quickly, John finds himself walking the line between being celebrated and being hated by those jealous of the attention he receives. However, John also begins to develop an attitude of superiority, and the story’s alternating first person perspectives round out a complex character who is at one point brave, another cowardly, another ahero, and also an arrogant child.
John is charismatic, and as he explains his reasoning to the reader, it is hard not to be swept away in his easy confidence, his forward-thinking iconoclasm, and his persistent questioning of all tradition and expectation. At the same time, as the perspective changes to John’s friends, family, and lover, the reader sees how what has been presented as charisma and confidence is actually arrogance, secrecy, and a troubling messiah complex. John Redlantern wants to make his mark on his dark world. He wants to be the subject of a drama. Along with the reader, he has fooled himself into thinking his motives are pure.
Possibly the most important theme in Dark Eden (even more so than an unreliable protagonist and his growth on an alien world) is the discussion about how narrative binds communities and guides people, either to a new future or to a bitter stagnancy. Life in Family revolves around the True Story, in which a group of people stole a starship and traveled to Eden while pursued by Orbit Police. After landing on Eden, three of them decide to try to return to Earth. Two stayed, Tommy and Angela, and from them the Family was born. Now the Family must wait by the Circle of Stones, the place where the landing shuttle took off and where Earth will supposedly know to find the stranded humans.
What is remarkable is the degree to which this story is reflected on, interpreted, reinterpreted, defended, twisted, and ultimately canonized. No one doubts the reality of the True Story, but its lessons and meaning are debated constantly. The Oldest, who knew the original settlers from Earth, are the most conservative in their interpretation. They argue that people must stay near the Circle and never leave. The Oldest are supported by a creepy woman who claims she can communicate with “Shadow People,” and thus with Tommy and Angela.
On the other end of the spectrum is John, who believes that the Family will run out of food if it does not spread and learn out how to leave their small, warm valley. John is inventive, and determined to figure out how to travel over the mountains which have no trees to keep them warm or provide light. The need to cross “Dark” encompasses the plot of the latter half of the novel. At that point in the story the “One More Chapter” factor rises. I read the final hundred pages in one too-late night next to my fiancee. It is a good thing she can sleep with the lamp on, because the trip across Dark could not wait until the next day for me.
It occurred to me at that point that what I just read was, really, the best SF treatment of religion I have encountered since The Sparrow. It is easy to shoehorn these debates into a narrative of science vs religion, or with big parodies of priests and of ecclesial structure. Some even create complex doctrines for fictional religions, providing a heavy-handed critique of theology as a field of study. Instead, Dark Eden is concerned with the anthropological implications of religion. There is no talk of theology or of gods, and yet, there is a divinity in the Shadow People, an eschatology surrounding the return to Earth, and a veneration of Tommy and Angela (the Mother and Father of everyone).
Control of the narrative provides control of the society. In this case, the need to explore is not a moving away from the religion, but, as it has often been in the ancient world, a reimagining of an old story, a new way of enacting religion. The True Story, ultimately, is what guides John ideologically even as necessity guides his actions. As a result of his reimagining, other new elements come into the world.