Everyone has experienced darkness. There is physical darkness: The countryside at night. The inside of a cave. The bottom of the steps descending into an unlit basement. And there is spiritual darkness: Boredom. Frustration. Hopelessness. But of these, none are as complete as the darkness shrouding the sunless world that is the setting of Chris Beckett’s book Dark Eden (2012, PS Publishing, UK; 2014, Broadway Books, US).
Despite its sunless skies, the titular Eden is not completely inhospitable: Its ecology includes giant trees that pump hot sap from underground, emanating heat, and bulbous fruit that give off light. The light and heat provided by the trees, and the strange animal life that feeds on them, are sufficient to host Eden’s first, accidental, settlers, Tommy and Angela. Dark Eden opens 150 years later, with Family, Tommy and Angela’s 500 descendants.
John Redlantern, Dark Eden’s protagonist, is one of Tommy and Angela’s great-great-grandchildren. Beckett introduces John to readers with a hunting trip, as members of his clan venture further from Family (both a group and a place) in search of meat: The swelling population is putting pressure on local food supplies. John and his cousin Gerry split from the group, and John singlehandedly kills a panther, an unheard of feat for a teenager. Clearly, John is destined for great things.
John abandons the goodwill he earned with his hunting prowess by speaking out of turn at “Any Versiry,” an annual ritual during which Family takes a census and recounts its mythic origins. Family’s leadership is discussing the food shortage when John pipes up: Why not further explore Eden by venturing outside of Family? John’s message is heresy: Not only would it break up Family, but, by removing people from the village, it runs the risk of leaving people behind when Earth sends a long-anticipated rescue party. Still, John finds support with his girlfriend (of sorts), Tina, and his cousins, Gerry and Jeff. They defy Family’s wishes and depart to explore Eden. It’s the consequences of this act that drive Dark Eden’s plot.
Dark Eden is about the narratives people construct about themselves and the myths that provide meaning to their lives. Like Adam and Eve, Tommy and Angela are the parents of everyone on Eden. Their journey to Eden is commemorated in plays. And Family finds the will to resist change by telling itself the story of the Three Companions, the travelers who accompanied Tommy and Angela and returned to Earth on a damaged spaceship. We can’t leave Family; Earth is coming to rescue us.
Beckett is aware of the ways in which humanity uses religion both to hold itself back and to make progress. Beckett does not seem to be saying, simplistically, that religion is inherently all good or all bad. He is more nuanced. As on Earth, so it is on Eden: There are fundamentalists and mountebanks, but there are also leaders, such as John, who use religion to drag people forward, and his cousin Jeff, whose exercise in mindfulness is at first scorned, and then embraced, by his companions: “We are here,” he says, “we really are here,” a mantra that takes on added consequence as the story ends.
Beckett is a skilled storyteller. Dark Eden is briskly paced. The “flow” of the novel is interrupted only near the end, when the narrative abruptly moves forward several years. Still, this is a minor complaint, since readers will find themselves eager to know what happens next. The story is told from the first person, but the perspective shifts: John and Tina are the main narrators, with Gerry, Jeff, and a few other characters also playing a part. The characters are blessedly complex. Readers will quickly find that John is not quite the golden boy they at first perceive him to be, and even loyal and straightforward Gerry has his nuances.
Dark Eden is a wonderful novel, a sort of Lord of the Flies set on an alien world. The setting is unique and Beckett’s descriptions of it lovely. The characters are recognizable; readers will like them, and dislike them, in turns. And Beckett’s commentary on religion, on tradition and innovation, is opinionated without being simplistic, in other words, “thoughtful.” Readers will find themselves eager for the follow up to Dark Eden (although it stands well on its own). Recommended, especially for fans of such “sci-fi” and “young adult” fare as The Hunger Games.
(Special thanks to Broadway books and NetGalley for providing me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.)