book review: dark eden

Chris Beckett’s book Dark Eden felt like it was going to be a lot like The Knife of Never Letting Go when it began. It’s about a small community called Family on a planet with no sun, but warmth comes from the trees that extrude from the ground. They struggle through their lives trying to gather enough food to keep them going another day. Every AnyVirsry they tell stories of Hitler and Jesus fighting over the Juice, and the three companions who came and settled Eden from Earth in their Veekle, and how if they stay right by the Circle when the ones who left for help return from Earth they’ll be able to get them.

Family has been waiting for the people to return from Earth for 160-ish years.

The story begins with 15-year-old (though they don’t naturally talk in terms of years or days, not having a sun, but wombtimes and wakings) John Redlantern asking why they do things the same way they’ve always done them. Why don’t they try to do something new? The rest of the book is about what happens when John Redlantern tries to do something new. Which is cool and the stuff of many an adventure tale. That’s not where Dark Eden stops though.

What makes the book great is that it really gets into what an asshole John Redlantern is, and how he manipulates people, and how that’s a part of the myth he’s creating for himself. It’s done by giving chapters to a number of other characters, some of whom are more aware of the importance of things than others. The moral ambiguity of everything in this book makes almost everyone sympathetic. John Redlantern is the kind of quintessential frontier-pushing explorer, and this story doesn’t just hold that up as a model of what people should be, but how that can break people. Killing a person was unheard of on New Eden, and they had no word for rape.

The other thing I love about the book is how it tries to avoid imposing 21st century Western moral scruples on things. Everybody has sex with everybody, and there are loads of batfaced and clawfooted people resulting from 160 years of breeding from the two people who started human life on New Eden. Sex is really interesting and eventually when things get more tense in Family you can see the germs of patriarchy and sexual control of women start to arise. There’s an incident where a character is almost raped and the way they dance around giving that act of violence a name is so intriguing.

All in all, it’s a great book and also has things to say about how we build the stories of a society and how we use the stories as well. If you’re interested in science fiction you should really give this a try.

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