(2012) Chris Beckett, Corvus, £18.99, hrdbk, 404pp, ISBN 978-1-848-87463-3
John Redlantern lives in Eden, a valley illuminated by bioluminescence and warmed by trees drawing up geothermal energy. Surrounding Eden are mountains in the dark, covered by snow and ice. John Lantern's community has grown over the years and now numbers 532. Food is beginning to get scarce and this leads John to wonder if there is a way out of Eden and what lies beyond?
John's community is the 'Family', the descendents of Angela and Tommy who originally came to Eden in the 'Landing Veekle' from the starship Defiant. They are patiently awaiting rescue. Meanwhile, as the years pass, in-breeding is taking its toll on the Family with physical deformity and cloudy minds, so that only a few can begin to comprehend John's vision: most in the family want to stay near the circle of stones that mark the point where the 'Landing Veekle' had originally landed and where some of the crew departed to get help as it is to there that a rescue party will return.
It soon becomes clear from the reader's perspective that Eden is a either orbiting a low mass brown dwarf (that emits no visible light) or is a rogue planet (wandering through space without a parent star) and so it in perpetual night; hence the book's title, 'Dark Eden'. And also that it is located on the edge of the galaxy, possibly at right angles to the Galactic plane. Because of this it is important that the native life in the valley includes many species with bioluminescence so that our protagonists can in these places see.
Dark Eden is a carefully crafted, well written novel that has echoes reminiscent of William Golding's classicThe Lord of the Flies (1956): a community reduced to primitive tribalism as the memories of civilization dim. As with The Lord of the Flies – which is SF in that it is implied World War III is looming in the background, it can be read as a mundane, non-genre novel – Dark Eden can almost be read as non-genre given that other than the alien landscape the characters are human and even with the landscape much of the alien life has its terrestrial analogue. Furthermore, the book falls into that well-worn category of castaway novel, only this time the Swiss family Robinson is portrayed a few generations down the line.
John Redlantern's story flows easily with narration that engages the reader such that I finished the novel over a weekend. Most of the chapters are told from the perspective of the principal protagonist, John Redlantern, but a few from a handful of the others. And so we get not only John's increasing frustration at the difficulty he has in getting the need to explore and change across to the rest of the Family, but also the Family's own back-story. This is revealed in a distorted piecemeal manner as the Family's lore is recounted and the recollections of the eldests' memories of what they themselves had been told by those a few generations ago that actually knew the original Angela and Tommy. There are tales: of Earth and its bright star, and not the dark that is only illuminated periodically by the Starry Swirl; of technology with lecky-tricktity; of wonders that they too would share once they were rescued…
It would be a bit of a cliché to say that Dark Eden is a modern classic: it certainly is a modern tale and it certainly draws on (if not classic) traditional themes both in mundane (day-to-day) fiction, such as the castaway theme, and speculative (more exotic) literature with elements of a quest together with the exploration of a weird landscape. Dark Eden was nominated for, and indeed won, the 2013 Clarke (SF) Award. Now, for those of you that follow the SF book scene you will realise that awards do not always fulfil their remit and the Clarke is no exception as sometimes it rewards 'writing' as opposed to 'excellence in British SF'. However this year the Clarke judges have chosen well. Dark Eden: has a coherent story with a beginning, middle and end; is well written; and has its feet firmly planted in SF tradition. Finally, being a story of space exploration, Dark Eden is a novel that one could imagine Arthur himself greatly enjoying; you can't say that about all Clarke Award winners.
Keep an eye on Chris Beckett. If this debut novel is an indication of his potential then further additions to his oeuvre could very well include some remarkable contributions.
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