(2015) Chris Beckett, Corvus, £18.99, hrdbk, 480pp, ISBN 978-1-782-39235-4
On a world without day, lit only by bioluminescence and the starry swirl above, the umpteenth generation of survivors of stranded humans has formed a primitive copper age society. The memory of the original small band of astronaut castaways is all but dim save for the remains of a crashed shuttle and the stories handed down, garbled by retelling. In-breeding has taken its toll and a significant proportion of the population have deformities. For those that rule there are comforts; for those that don't hardship; and for those that live as hunter-gatherers on the edge little but the freedom to enjoy a simple life.
The Mother of Eden is the sequel set generations on, of Dark Eden, that won the 2013 Arthur C. Clarke (Book) Award. The good news is that this novel is sufficiently self-contained you do not have to have read Dark Eden, but personally I would.
Starlight Brooking lives on a sandbank that consists of many semi-marine trees, gathering fruits and fishing. Then one day she and several others of her clan decide to travel far beyond the small settlement with which they usually barter the dugout boats they masterfully craft, to paddle for a week to get to the large town that has as its heart the remains of the crashed shuttle pod that had brought her ancestors down to Eden from the orbiting (and now deserted) starship above.
Her life is a simple one, but then she meets a handsome and powerful man who is visiting from the breakaway Johnfolk from far across the Worldpool sea. The Johnfolk are innovative and strive to be like their Earth ancestors (are as much as they can conceive their ancestors to be given what little they know). Starlight, though part of a semi-isolated community, is part of the broader Davidfolk community on her side of the Worldpool. To her, the visiting Johnfolk are exotic with their woven, colourful body-wraps, their boat that can use wind, and the strange, new, tough metal they bring. She is tempted to accompany the Johnfolk back across the Worldpool.
However, the Johnfolk strictly maintain their society and death faces those who transgress its culture's core beliefs. Will Starlight Brooking be tough enough to survive the Johnfolk's highly political hierarchy? And will she become betrothed to their leader's son and so get to wear (an original castaway) Gela's ring?
The answer to the former is possibly. (No spoilers here.) And to the latter, certainly (we find this out within the novel's first third). Along the way we learn a little more about this world's biology, and its astronomical perspective. We also explore the gritty, sometimes seedy, and occasionally violent side of what is effectively little more than a Lord of the Flies society. All in all this, like Dark Eden itself, makes for a compelling read.
This is novel is more in the new wave tradition of SF, than of hard SF (as opposed to mundane SF) space opera, though there are – what with the humans' original castaway predicament – space opera riffs occasionally manifest in the background. However as a hard SF enthusiast, I can't yet discern the true nature of this world. (It is a difficult one for an Earth system scientist to get to work.) Having read both books there are two broad scenarios I can conceive that might work (there may be others): one of which is potentially very space operatic. And such is the exotic nature of what we see of the planet Eden I am sure that other hard SF aficionados will contemplate that world's origins. (Is there a trade wind clue? And a perspective teaser near the end is tantalising.)
Having said that, like Dark Eden, the story of Mother of Eden is firmly centred on being a sociological exploration of a primitive but exotic culture, especially gender politics, and in no small part human nature. Are we that depressing a species? I fear so. But what stories we make, and what stories we tell… This is a welcome return to Eden. And as there is the vaguest of promises of a third in what might be a trilogy, we can only guess whether Chris Becket will step up to the hard SF plate or whether he will continue the exploration of his wonderfully created society. Either would be good; both would be great, and is so I'm sure take the breath away from many an SF reader. Here's hoping.
See also Peter's review of Mother of Eden.
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