Lacking the support of modern infrastructure in a fully-developed society–this is a common theme in science fiction that a stranded colony will regress if abandoned by Earth or lost to them. The idea has been visited many times by many authors. Chris Beckett’s take, Dark Eden, explores a new twist on being marooned I’ve not seen before: one man and one woman have children, and what has happened about 150 years later.
The book centers on John Redlantern, a teenager who thinks his Family is on the wrong track. 532 people live on an alien world wearing animal skins, living in shelters, and on the edge of survival. John thinks ahead, urging people to explore beyond their isolated valley, to see what’s beyond the glaciers that lock them in. This gets him into trouble with the adults and alienates him from his peers, even most of his friends. Along the way, he attacks the proto-religion of his elders, develops tactics for big game hunting, and “invents” cold-weather survival gear. His relationships with his allies (It is inaccurate to call them friends–John is very much a loner who sets himself apart) develop, but usually deteriorate.
There are many plusses in this novel. An alien world is original, well-realized, and integral to the story. The main character is complex and deeply flawed. Multiple themes are thoughtfully explored: gender roles, survival, genetic inbreeding, violence, family, sex, human creativity and imagination, and the rediscovery of technology.
This novel is on track with what I consider superior science fiction. It is also well-constructed, unfolding logically from beginning to end. Nothing is really forced in 400-plus pages of Dark Eden.
Any flaws in the book could be considered nitpicking on my part. It took me about fifty pages to care–the set-up for conflict is slow. By chapter seven I was hooked. There are moments later where the pace lags. About every twenty pages a character uses words that are a surprise, because otherwise Mr Beckett presents a society in which technology is lost, schooling is abandoned, and people are on the edge of survival.
There’s a nice shock at the end of the book, not unlike Charlton Heston’s encounter of a half-buried Statue of Liberty on the Planet of the Apes. But a sequel is also set up. I suppose a publisher can’t be blamed for wanting more of a good thing.
Some reviewers speak of the exploration of “theology.” I can’t agree. The religion in Dark Eden is more a groping for connections with ancestors not well understood. There is a “visionary” who claims to hear the voices of the original mother, and others. There are rituals for remembering stories of the early days on planet Eden. Jesus is mentioned as killed by Hitler: this gives you an idea that John Redlantern’s people are post-post-Christian.
This novel is a very good read. Better than average fiction, and one of the best sf novels I’ve read this past year.