Dark Eden by Chris Beckett

There comes a point in a book’s reading life where I can feel deep inside that the book isn’t going to be satisfying. Sometimes this happens early: a gut feeling as characters make flippant remarks about the worthlessness of women. Sometimes it’s right at the very end when I look at the small chunk of pages remaining and know that there’s no space to wrap up everything. But most of the time it happens quietly and somewhere in the middle: some mistake in the weaving that goes unnoticed until later when suddenly all the thread is being to fray and the piece unravels. This is what happened with Dark Eden.

It is the future and a group of 500 or so people are living on a dark planet called Eden. Eden has no sun to speak of, all light emitting from strange creatures and fauna that has developed on the planet, Eden itself warmed from the center of itself, heat and steam rising up from pools of water. The group is all called “Family” because that’s what they are. 5 generations ago, a small group of astronauts from Earth crashed on this planet and while 3 of them returned back to Earth to try to get help, 2 of them, Tommy and Angela remained. Now there are over 500 of them, after years and years of incest, and food is running out in Circle Valley, the place where Tommy and Angela first crashed. A young newhair (teenager) named John Redlantern believes that Family needs to travel up through Snowy Dark (mountains) and cross over to the other side, taking them away from Circle Valley, and the place where Angela promised Earth would return for them.

Right off the bat, I’m hooked. Give me a sci-fi story that focuses around space colonization and humanity having to deal with living on strange new worlds? I am here faster than you can figure out how to farm space corn, which might actually be fairly slow. Point being is that I love this subgenre. I also love the idea of watching how a culture that originated from one identity evolves over time and changes as certain truths and understandings get lost, so more points in this book’s favor on that account.

A thing you’ll notice fairly immediately, and has been brought up time and time again regarding why others didn’t like it that much, is the book’s use of language, specifically how everyone in Family talks. It’s at this point I’m going to mention that I listened to Dark Eden on audio, so expect some spelling mistakes as I heard everything rather than read it. One of the weird ticks that developed after 5 generations away from Earth (comboed with the aforementioned inbreeding) is that the Family of Eden has lost a great deal of nuance when it comes to language. Adverbs in general seem to have disappeared, with no way to qualify greater degrees of a certain emotion, like sadness. So instead of saying “I was very sad” or “I was depressed” or “I felt a hole in my very being so deep that all emotions fell into it and were sucked away until I was empty” the people of Family say “I was sad sad.” Ditto for “He was smart smart,” “I was tired tired” or “she was weird weird.” On top of that, everyone in Family has a very simplistic and childlike way of speaking, given that they only had 2 actual Earth people to teach them language and how things were, and lots of information has been lost generations down the line.

Although it took some time to get used to, I rather liked the strange dialectic that Family had. The narrators all had British accents and British euphemisms were often used (blimey, bloody hell, etc) since Tommy and Angela originally came from London, but they took it one step farther and made everything with an “a” sound be more like “eea.” So it’s “John Redlee-an-tern” or “Fee-amily.” This was a nice touch regarding how language might have developed on Eden, so far removed from Earth. Family also has forgotten how to read and write, having decided against “school” 2 generations ago when food in Circle Valley became more scarce, so the story of Tommy and Angela is passed on only though the Oldest, now. Concepts like “lecky-trickety” “sky boats” and “rad-yoh” are lost on the new members of Family, unable to figure out what these forms of technology could have been.

So what went wrong? If this is a anthropological look at space colonization and a somewhat twisted retelling of the Genesis story, why am I feeling so utterly disappointed by Dark Eden? To be honest, I’m not entirely sure. I’ve been scouring goodreads looking for 2/3 star reviews to try to capture what I’m feeling and I just… I don’t know. Many people cite the language style as the reason for their lack of interest, but I loved it. Some say that they found the concept too unbelievable, but I have no qualms with a lack of realism in sci-fi. Some say that the female characters were weak and served only to produce children, but I disagree with that statement wholeheartedly as for the grand majority of the book, Family is a matriarchy and no one knows who their father even is. Women have all the power to slip (have sex with) whomever they like without shame and rape never has occurred on Eden to the point where they don’t have a name for it.

I think the problem for me was less one specific thing and more a combination of elements that just didn’t mesh. For one thing, the characters are overly simplistic and not that interesting. Dark Eden is told from several POVs (but mainly John Redlantern and Tina Spiketree) and although there are definitely differences between them, they all feel kinda samey due to how simplistic Family is in its thinking process. But combined with the flat characters, I don’t know what point Chris Beckett wanted to make with this book. Not every book has to have an underlying message, I know, but sometimes you just feel that the book is trying to tell you something. Dark Eden reminds me a bit of Oryx and Crake, where people make bad decisions and the characters aren’t very likable but Margaret Atwood is clearly using the novel to make a point about human ego and the dangers it poses when mixed with god-like science.

The closes Dark Eden comes to a point, I feel, is in its Genesis roots. Clearly Tommy and Angela are meant to be a twisted version of Adam and Eve (the book is called “Dark” “Eden” after all), and the novel itself has some similar beats found in Genesis: the paradise of Earth that Tommy and Angela find themselves separated from, their subsequent procreation of the human race, the eventual first murder, etc. But the Biblical overlay serves no point other than window dressing, in my opinion. Angela is simultaneously Eve and Mary: the mother of all of Family who is revered like a God herself while also being human. Tommy is a mix between Adam and Noah: father of all of family but also a sometimes cruel father who slept with his daughters. There is a first murder and it is technically between brothers in that everyone in Family is related, but the fill in for Cain has no other connection to the story other than he kills someone. The death is not caused by jealousy, and the one who commits it is seen in the right as the potential Abel was in the process of beating someone else to near death.

What am I supposed to take from these connections? What is the overall point? Dark Eden is not a book that excels in its plot or characters but in its worldbuilding and overall concept. Maybe that is why 80% into the book when we’ve exhausted everything we could regarding the world and Family’s mental and physical journey and instead tell only the conflict between John and other members of Family, that I grew bored and disastified. The characters are flat, the plot boring and the interesting Genesis comparisons are a surface dressing only. I loved the imagery of Eden and learning how this new civilization grew up, but in the end, Beckett still is telling a story about people and his people are simple simple and boring.