15 October 2013
For the first few pages we seem to be in a post-Apocalyptic Earth full of mutant creatures and people scavenging with spears. Specifically, with references to London and ‘Peckhamway’, it seems to be the same bit of south-east England covered in Russell Hoban’s Ridley Walker. They speak British English – there’s an ‘arse’ in there – but as in Hoban’s ground-breaking novel, the language has had its edges rubbed off and there are crude neologisms. But we’re not in the Home Counties, we’re on a different planet entirely, generations after a starship has left behind some of its passengers. Ok. So what’s Chris Beckett going to do with his microcosm of society, condemned to life in a kind of Stone Age? What new questions is he going to ask?
There are multiple narrators, mainly fifteen-year-old John and Tina, the girl from another part of ‘Family’ that he quickly establishes a relationship with. John, it’s clear almost from the beginning, is going to be the Moses for this closed little community of 500-odd people. They are in a valley closed off at one end by impenetrable Himalayas-scale mountains and at the other by Niagara-scale cataract, and only John seems to be concerned that the burgeoning population is outstripping resources. He speaks out at the Anniversary celebrations of the community’s foundation – and is ostracised for it. Except… after giving him a highly audible telling-off for the benefit of those listening – i.e. everyone – the leader of his sub-set of Family tells him she agrees. But the conservative elders, the Oldest, insist on sticking to this little world’s version of scripture: they must wait in the same spot until people from Earth come to take them all back.
‘Back’? John is sarcastic about the idea of going back to a place they’ve only heard of in stories. He doesn’t doubt the truth of their origins any more than the others, that Tommy and Angela from Earth were their Adam and Eve 150 years before… but John doubts that Angela wanted them all to starve, Angela being the one usually held up as knowing what she was talking about, which is why he has spoken out. John is the constant questioner, someone whose very being shouts out against the kind of conformity that won’t get them anywhere. There’s usually one like him in these closed-world stories, which are usually aimed at children and young adults: Katniss in The Hunger Games, Doon in The City of Ember, even ‘Z’ in Antz. The intended readership for Dark Eden is adult.
Anyway. When confronted by the black-toothed, six-legged, green-blooded creature they call a leopard in this world John doesn’t do what absolutely everybody else would do. His likeable, predictable cousin Gerry runs to climb a tree. John stays where he is, waits for the right moment, and sticks his cut-down version of an adult’s spear down its throat. What else would he have done? As he explains later to Tina, ‘I wasn’t just deciding what I wanted to do, I was deciding what kind of person I wanted to be.’ Ah, the joy of individualism.
Ten chapters in (out of 40-odd), something needs to happen soon. Sure, more has happened to John in the few days covered so far than in the fifteen years of his life before the novel opens. A trip up the icy mountains further than anyone else in his party; the killing of the leopard; meeting Tina who, thanks to a kindly author, thinks exactly as he does; and speaking out at the Anniversary ceremony as no adolescent has ever done. But it’s mainly scene-setting and Beckett has signalled loudly enough to us that something has got to give. What we don’t know is how John and Tina are going to get everyone out of there. Perhaps they’ll be helped by Jeff, John’s disabled cousin, who has a similar prophet-like role to that of Simon in the grand-daddy of closed-world novels, Lord of the Flies.
I should mention some things about the mise-en-scene. The language is British English as spoken in the early 21st Century, but right from the start Beckett has a go at giving it a few tweaks to make it sound a bit primitive. There’s new vocabulary, like Starry Swirl, far brighter than the Milky Way as seen from earth, newhairs, wombs – which, as John needlessly explains, are periods of time as long it takes from ‘slip’ (no comment) to birth – and names for the endlessly weird flora and fauna, most of it shining brightly. There are no days in this sunless world lit only by the bright phosphorescence of plants and creatures that derive all their sustenance from underground – how Family dreams of a bright light in the sky – only wakings. Superlatives are made by repetition, which can become annoying annoying. And as in the boy’s narrative in Emma Donahue’s Room, definite articles are omitted before important nouns like forest and Oldest. It’s a kind of routine respect for what is both important and taken for granted. But often, one or other of them slips so entirely into the idiom of London – London, England in 2013 – that it sounds like careless writing. ‘That is really crap…. It’s the most half-arsed thing I ever heard.’ English three or four or five centuries hence? Nah.
Other stuff is to do with the anthropology – Chris Beckett’s background is in the social sciences – but I’m not massively convinced by it yet. Sex is free and surprisingly unproblematic, despite the occasional niggle. No murders yet, anyway…. Gender issues are also surprisingly sorted, with six out of the seven sub-families led by women, although women also do most of the looking after of kids and invalids. There are big problems with the gene-pool: a high proportion suffer from a cleft palate, known on this planet as bat-face, and many others are born with ‘claw feet’. There’s a taboo about breeding, ‘slipping’, with close relatives, but thinkers in Family understand that in the early days the founders mated with sons and daughters, and are uneasy that nobody is distantly related. There are African genes in there, and some of them are darker-skinned than others – but, as with so many other potential sparks for conflict, like the minor tribal and territorial rivalries that we’ve seen, this hasn’t been an issue. Yet.
But John, we know that things are going to get worse if you don’t sort them out.
It doesn’t become any more plausible, but it does become more interesting. The name of Eden, as we always knew it would, is beginning to have a hollow ring. Things are happening so fast that it’s hard to believe that the community lasted as long as it did before the implosion that John has set off. Having spoken out of turn at the Anniversary, he’s now destroyed the ring of stones supposedly created by Angela, a hallowed space. Following a kind of kangaroo court – tell you later – John is thrown out. But time spent in the wilderness has got to be better than crucifixion, which had been one suggested fate for him.
The problem I’m having with this novel is to do with the structure of the historical narrative that Beckett has set up. What we have at the beginning is a society based on co-operation and consensus which has, we are told, been running more or less smoothly for over 150 years. We have to take Beckett’s word for it that as long as food has been plentiful, there is no violence, no prejudice, no factionalism. Differences of opinion exist, but are resolved through discussion, and the community that has supposedly grown out of this consensus is inclusive on so many levels I’ve lost count of the PC boxes that Beckett ticks. Boys can be gay if they want, skin colour is a matter of interest rather than discrimination, disability is pitied and not seen as a mark of inferiority. Crucially, women seem to have had more opportunities than men to influence attitudes.
You can believe that if you want to, that hundreds of people can co-exist in a harmony that really is like a new Eden. Except, of course, Beckett has only cobbled it together in order to knock it down. As soon as John begins to criticise it, it begins to collapse. It isn’t because nobody has noticed that the population is outgrowing the available territory: over a generation or two, scavenging by everyone, including children, has replaced hunting by a few adults. But a reverence for the status quo is the nearest that Family has to a religion, and we are to believe that nobody has dared to raise the long-term issue in public. (Beckett has Bella explain the difficulty to John in the telling-off session that turns into something else. Tell you later.)
What happens when John breaks up the stone circle,? It’s almost symbolic. People who have behaved like the ants in Antz for over a century suddenly discover human nature. Before now, supposedly, they have always – always, always – swallowed any qualms they might have about the running of things. But these chapters seem to be showing how quickly things can fall apart.
Beckett has signalled for us in an earlier chapter narrated by the leader of Family, Caroline, that the hegemony of women is a fragile thing. Angela, considered the true founder of the community, has made sure that a Secret History is passed down through the Alpha females explaining how men mustn’t be allowed to take over. Women, the inherited wisdom goes, keep the Family together whereas Earth history shows how men split off into tribes and factions. (I’m paraphrasing, but it’s close enough.) Now, over a few days, the strongest of the women, Bella, has been sidelined, and issues between her and John have led to her suicide. At the same time David, a nasty piece of work Beckett introduced on the first page of the novel, uses John’s unprecedented withdrawal from the established form of the meetings as an excuse to indulge in some demagoguery of his own. It’s just as Angela predicted: men thrust forward their individual agendas to cause rifts and gain control.
Of course, John isn’t really doing that, but Caroline is certain that she can see happening exactly what Angela warned of and she ignores any voices that suggest he might have a valid point. The voices belong to Bella and Tina, and it is easy for David to dismiss them as John’s sexual partners. (He isn’t right about Bella, but he nearly is: she uses pressure from John’s unwilling fingers to reach orgasm, and everyone outside her shelter assumes they can hear normal sex going on.) Caroline doesn’t even try to keep proper order at the extraordinary meeting they have – she interrupts and cuts short the two minutes John is given to defend himself – and the decision to exile him is quickly reached. She might not have given into David’s suggestion that they should ‘spike him up like Jesus’, but Beckett has established who the enemy is.
So, is John Moses? Jesus? Or, as he plans to conquer the snowy peaks with his trusty band of followers – you can guess who – perhaps he’s Napoleon or Hannibal. There aren’t any elephants, but thoughtful, nutty Jeff suggests they might tame some of the big ‘woollybucks’ living up there because he won’t be able to cross the mountains on his claw feet…. But I’m not sure whether I’m really joking about John as Napoleon. He’s a visionary, he’s capable in everything he turns his mind to, and he isn’t scared to shake things up. But I wouldn’t be surprised if Beckett wants us to see some problems in his male, individualistic way of doing things. Here’s this fifteen-year-old boy who has given an inward-looking, hidebound community the kick up the backside it needs. But is there going to be a terrible cost? Is he the hero of the awful Avatar, the testosterone-fuelled young man who sorts out the seemingly intractable problem that faces the tribe? Or, like Napoleon, is he going to leave a trail of destruction?
There are other questions. Are Jeff’s remarks about life in Eden being like living in a cave profound, or a re-hash of the Plato’s Cave idea that we had in Room? Does the world need a leader in a crisis? Whatever, Beckett’s presentation of Family’s self-mythologising in its annual creation drama is genuinely interesting, as is the way John tries to imagine his own behaviour as it might fit into the dramas played by future generations. He feels some kind of link between himself and Angela – aided by a rather silly authorial trick when he finds the gold ring whose loss Angela never fully recovered from. Being John, he doesn’t tell anybody about it, but now he has it secreted on his person, awaiting the moment when he can use it most effectively.
One other interesting thing is how, through the narratives of Caroline and Tina, Beckett can occasionally puncture John’s inflated sense of his own importance. With Caroline it’s easy to see the sceptical view of the ultra-conservative… but Tina often gets it right. John really is too controlling, and when she and the others arrive to join him high in the foothills, she sees right through his cool reaction to their appearance: ‘What a poser.’ But… it doesn’t stop him being as enterprising in his thinking as he is brave, as he plans how they will have to make and hide away the clothing they will need for the journey. And it doesn’t stop her from letting him shag her, properly, twice in quick succession. And she’s the one who hadn’t wanted babies.
Moses or Napoleon? The jury’s still out, but John seems to be a mixture of both. He certainly has the rhetorical skill and sense of political theatre that either of them would be proud of, which isn’t bad for an un-schooled adolescent from a place where the level of utterance never rises above the mundane. Ok, Bella has told him you can’t just spring ideas on people unannounced… but his finely-tuned control of any conversation or meeting goes a long way beyond that. So, as it has from the start, this tale is working better for me as allegory than as a plausibly literal narrative. John is an archetype of what might be necessary in a leader, and it doesn’t do to keep questioning how plausible it all is.
So let’s not worry that by the time he’s been living with a few others near Cold Path for not much more than a few days he’s already had a go at inventing tailoring, trade agreements with the rest of Family, the skills of diplomacy when negotiating with Caroline, and contractual law. Meanwhile Jeff has taken his idea of domesticating woollybucks and is having some success with it. I was beginning to wonder whether Beckett might be intending to squeeze in the complete history of human development when, in a chapter narrated by Tina, things slow down a bit. As agreed with Family during the meeting that John is already turning into myth in his head (‘John and Caroline agree’), they are taking no more than the 20-odd who have already joined by this time. Then ten months pass in a sentence, which gives John time to build up a stock of clothing, food and weapons….
What’s missing? How about treachery, rape and killing, never heard of in Family before now? They don’t even have the words – killing is always ‘doing for’ a creature, but never a person, and rape never does get a name – but all three come together now. Three young men from Family, clearly sent by David, ignore the agreed territorial marker and arrive in the midst of the camp while most are away hunting. They spear Jeff’s baby woollybuck and are close to beating Jeff to death when Tina arrives. Their leader turns on her and, backed up by his cronies, is about to become the first person on Eden ever to commit rape. Luckily John and some others arrive back and chase them off. When they return they are shaking uncontrollably, and John tries to convince the others that they had no choice but to kill them…. I decided at this point, on page 249 (out of 404), that Eden is really Earth. Or a version of the island in Lord of the Flies. For over a century – in Golding’s novel it’s only a few days – their new life is simple and based on co-operation. And then they remember how to be human.
Now, much further on, I’m not quite so sure. Following the killings, John knows they will have to move fast. But everyone is traumatised, and the meeting turns into bickering and blame. John decides to go into Moses mode, and this is when produces Angela’s ring. It works but, somehow, John is never certain of his authority from now on. Tina has long felt alienated by his single-mindedness, and has been spending more time with gentle Dix. Now she uses the ring, much to John’s disgust, to calm everybody with a playing of the relevant Anniversary drama. She is Angela in the play, but later he insists that if anyone is Angela, he is. The others are constantly doubtful. At best they still plod along loyally. At worst there’s open dissent, particularly from one called Mehmet…. And it continues even after they set off on their trek up to the mountain pass.
Reader, he gets them out of there. They have enough clothing, and the remaining woollybucks’ knowledge of the paths gives them enough guidance, for them to make it first to a single tree that gives them enough warmth to carry on, then to an area of tall, bright trees and new creatures. It isn’t the Promised Land yet – John isn’t letting anybody think it is – but he’s proved that, as told in one of Angela’s stories, Eden is covered with lights, and therefore with life.
However…. With a quarter of the novel remaining, John is damaged in the eyes of his followers. At the site of the single tree, John called out a warning to a child-sized bat that was about to be attacked by one of the giant millipede-like creatures they call slinkers. What, talking to animals? Crying when it flies away just in time? Clearly, what nobody wants is any sign of sentimental humanity. Back in the snow-fields one of their number, a pregnant young woman, has been seized by a yeti-style ‘snow leopard’ which also kills one of their light-giving woollybucks. The other, with Jeff on its back, runs terrified along the path ahead. The precious embers have been spilled in the panic, so nobody remembers the way that John made them form a spear-spiked circle against the snow-leopard. All they know is that they are cold and have no light.
I’m not sure what it’s turning into an allegory of, precisely. The burdens and sorrows of leadership? John feels more and more alone as he leads them on, slowly, by feeling for the tracks of the panicking woollybuck. But, inevitably, he goes wrong and has to admit that they must go back. Everybody knows they are going to die in this pitiless place…. Luckily, they are in a novel, so Jeff spots them and shouts down to them from the right path. So who gets all the thanks? Not John, that’s for sure. And in the chapter I’ve just finished reading, John is working out what to do about Jeff and the respect with which everyone now treats him. He starts by getting everyone to cheer him for rescuing them. But then what?
Chapters 35-46 – to the end
Things speed up so that, in some ways, more happens in these last 100 pages than in the previous 300. (If I was being cynical I might say that’s not difficult.) I wonder at what point Beckett decided that he wasn’t going to give us a tidy ending, that he could leave it open for a sequel or two. To be honest, I’m not really interested enough to find out, some time in 2014 or beyond in Part 2 or 3 of the Dark Eden Trilogy, what shape the battle between John and David might take. John will have to win, obviously, but which of his trusty crew will die in the longed-for victory? (Sigh.)
Do we learn any more about the human condition than we had when our intrepid explorers reached what comes to be called Tall Tree Valley? Basically, following the kick-starts to history that John delivered by destroying the Circle, inventing killing and going exploring, not really. Now that they know how to behave like human beings after their 150-year sleep, that’s what they do – behave like human beings. Mehmet, with the requisite sarcasm and accusations, creates a splinter group with five or six others who remain high up in cold Tall Tree Valley while John, with twice as many followers, leaves to find a much bigger, better place. Time passes – long enough for several children to be conceived and born – and from now on it’s nearly all plot.
Beckett needs us to know what’s happening back in Family, so he passes the narration to one of the adults there. Three years on, it’s horrible. David behaves exactly like Jack in Lord of the Flies, to the extent that I wondered whether we might be getting a re-run of that novel. We aren’t, despite David having gathered around him his Guards, just like Jack’s Hunters, and by using his rabble-rousing skills to get a mob to join him in a chorus of ‘Kill! Kill! Kill!’ He knows that John and the others have survived because Mehmet and some others pay a visit, and the spin that Mehmet gives to the story of ‘killer John’ make it easy for David to get other members of Family on to his side. And if they don’t like it, he has his enforcers.
David also has a theology to bolster his proto-fascism. There’s always been a sad little charade of religious observance in this world, with its creation myths, hallowed ground and relics of the founders – pieces of astronauts’ clothing, models of houses and cars made by the early inhabitants. The character called Lucy Lu, a self-indulgent fantasist, has always claimed to receive messages from Angela and the Shadow people, their version of the souls of the dead. Mehmet arrives during an Anniversary meeting at which Lucy Lu has been in full flow, encouraged by David who likes her anti-John messages. Mehmet’s news about killer John enables her to confirm all David’s claims, and therefore confirm his status as de facto leader. The clergy, eh? But… I’m tempted to shut up about the implied commentary on our own society because Beckett isn’t telling us anything terribly new.
Of course, Beckett likes getting us to think about the personal as well as the political. But I’ve written as much as I want to about that as well. We have restless, questing John, thoughtful, living for the moment Jeff, and pragmatic, commonsense Tina. As ever, it’s John who is behind the acceleration of the plot. No more settled in this vast new space than he has ever been, he decides to take his trustiest friends to see how Mehmet and his chilly crew are getting on in Tall Tree Valley and instigate a bit of trade. Oh dear. He and Jeff notice a certain caginess in Mehmet’s manner, and ill-disguised hostility in his spear-fingering cronies. Luckily, a young woman who fancies Jeff – he’s grown up to be the darling of the girls – tells them that Mehmet has been waiting for this visit so that he can tell David where John’s band can be found. And so on.
The last few chapters take us back to Family so we can watch David gathering a posse. This is narrated by Jeff and Gerry’s mother, who is also John’s aunt, and there’s a highly plausible moment when she confronts some of the adolescents ordered to keep watch while David is away. It’s Beckett’s version of Ralph’s conversation with one of Jack’s crew when he is being hunted near the end of Lord of the Flies, and shows how easy it is for a demagogue to co-opt decent people into doing what they otherwise wouldn’t dream of….
And then it’s the end. Or the beginning…. John knows they’ll have to move now – he loves this, as Tina is keen to tell us – and they travel for several ‘wakings’. They discover – and don’t even bother to ask what the chances of this might be – the landing vehicle of mythology. Inside are three skeletons – which, it takes them some time to realise, means that they never got back to the mother-ship. Earth, far beyond the wormhole the ship travelled through, doesn’t know that Eden exists. John, in one of his rousing speeches, uses a phrase of Jeff’s that had previously always seemed childish to them all: ‘We really are here.’
I kept wanting this novel to be better than it is. There are plenty of things to like, but it would be easier to go along with the preposterous science if the imagined sociology were more convincing. I like Chris Beckett’s decision to make ‘Family’ essentially a matriarchy, the consequence of the ancestor with true leadership qualities being the new Eve rather than the reluctant Adam. But he never makes a plausible case for the system to have lasted so long. He is quick to show us that it’s creaking under unsustainable pressures at the beginning of the novel, but generations of men like David would never have hung around so long before allowing their true natures to emerge. Free sex would be no compensation for days, months and years filled with nothing else beyond scavenging and listening to a tired theology of second-rate myths. There’s no art, no music or dancing… no outlet for creativity or any activity that would allow men a sense of their own value. (It’s no surprise at all that in Lord of the Flies – the novel I kept thinking of as I read this one – a cobbled-together society collapses in less time than it takes for hair to grow an inch or two.)
Any reader rejoicing at the hegemony of strong women is quickly disabused as a young male kick-starts a version of history we can begin to recognise. The old system isn’t merely running out of steam as the people run out of food; it is shown to be entirely unfit for purpose as soon as an enterprising man is in charge, getting things done. I wondered whether it was deliberate on Beckett’s part to present a female hegemony as ultimately useless. With the tiniest of tweaks he could have had Tina in the role occupied by John, but he doesn’t. Instead, he has chosen make the expansion out of ‘Circle Valley’ entirely driven by male characters. He shows this to be highly problematic. As soon as history is allowed to begin, the sisterhood is proved right in having warned of the threat posed by men: when they start to make the decisions, raping and killing soon follow. But ultimately, Beckett seems to insist, there’s nothing to be done to prevent history being like this. The society we see at the end of the novel is far more plausible than what we are told has lasted for generations before it opens.
Where can Beckett take his pared-down version of the story of mankind? Exploration, expansion, colonisation… John has invented them all, among other things, and in order to see where he might go next I decided to google ‘Dark Eden sequel’. There are to be two. One is already written and published in online instalments with a book version to be published in 2014 and – spoiler alert – it’s set 200 years after Dark Eden. As you’d guess, there are now separate colonies, proto-nations and, unsurprisingly, ‘dangerous power games that sustain the Johnfolk and the Davidfolk and the re-emerging conflict between them.’ But such a story can never hope to represent the real history of human expansion into new territories because there are no indigenous peoples to be put down. I won’t be reading any sequels because this writer hasn’t convinced me that he can tell me anything new about how human societies really work.