"Watch out for men who want to turn everything into a story that's all about them. There will always be a few of them, and once one of them starts, another one of them will want to fight with him."
'Dark Eden' is an engaging SFnal coming of age tale, in which a young man, disillusioned with the world he's grown up in, breaks free from its confinements and discovers a truth about the world that shatters the status quo. SF is particularly well suited to telling this kind of story, as demonstrated by the number of iconic works in this mold, from exemplary works like 'The City And The Stars' by Arthur C. Clarke and 'Non-Stop' by Brian Aldiss to more experimental or unusual takes on the form such as Russell Hoban's 'Riddley Walker' and John Crowley's 'Engine Summer'. What makes Chris Beckett's story so fresh rather than being merely an admittedly well done revisiting of familiar themes is its vivid and striking setting, and its willingness to deconstruct its protagonist's role as hero in his own story. The end result is a powerful, uncompromising look at society's need for change, despite the frequently high cost.
The book follows a colony descended from two people who crashed on Eden, a sunless, isolated world heated by geothermal activity alone, who preserve the culture of Earth whilst waiting for rescue. The protagonist, John Redlantern, resents the authority of the Council, the traditions of a planet he has never lived on, and the way nothing ever changes, and realises that the small valley they are trapped in will not support the colony for much longer. Part of the appeal of 'Dark Eden' is the vivid way in which Beckett evokes this alien world. This is partially achieved by the language; the story is told in the first person from a range of characters' perspectives, and they all speak in a degraded, slang-heavy English. While not as radical as Anthony Burgess' nadsat in 'A Clockwork Orange', or the thick future dialect of Russell Hoban's 'Riddley Walker', it still creates a sense of estrangement, of stepping into a different world with a different perspective. However Eden is more prominently and effectively rendered by Beckett's imaginative descriptions. Much of the appeal of science fiction is its ability to transport the reader to fantastical worlds, and Eden, with its eternal darkness punctuated by glowing geothermal trees and insectoid, six-limbed, luminous animals, is gloriously and enticingly strange.
The use of multiple point of view characters is unusual for a book of this type. Most coming of age stories are intensely focused on their protagonist's point of view, a reflection of adolescence's self-obsession, and the need to know oneself before one can know the world. Frequently, shifting the point of view to another character would in some ways dilute the intensity of the vision. However, while this doesn't always mean that the author always means for us to agree or approve of the protagonist's actions, it can be easy to get more swept up in the protagonist's own view of their importance and rightness than perhaps we should. While it would probably be possible to tell this book's story using only John Redlantern's viewpoint chapters, that would deprive us of the opportunity the other viewpoints give for us to see John in a less flattering, more rounded light, and also to fully experience the damage and disruption his actions cause. The standard narrative of all these coming of age stories is that the protagonist breaking up the restrictive society that he comes from is a good thing, and whilst Beckett argues that John's innovations and pioneering spirit are necessary for the colonists to break out of their rut and actually start living their lives, he also explores the impact the destruction of the old culture has on the ordinary people living in the colony, as well as the selfishness and naivety that drives a lot of John's decisions. Tina Spiketree's chapters are particularly valuable. In a less well conceived book she'd be merely John's love interest, but Beckett crucially makes her a well-developed and strong willed character in her own right, who is friends with John, believes in his cause and has a sexual relationship with him but is perceptive and well grounded enough to see all his flaws, and strong enough not to be pushed round by him.
'Dark Eden' also explores aspects of gender and how they relate to society. The book describes a matriarchy on the verge of transforming into a patriarchy, as the society splits up into factions in direct competition for resources and the spectre of war begins to raise its head. It is refreshing to read a story about a society that has reverted to the primal without erasing women's roles, or setting up the men as hunter gatherers while the women stay behind, look after the young and cook. Most of the leaders are women, with a secret history passed on from mother to daughter from Angela, the original stranded colonist. The society is by necessity sexually very liberal, and the women choose who they want to sleep with. However, despite the fact that they do not have a word for rape, it's clear that sexual abuse does happen, an early sign that the naive society of the Family is not as idyllic and innocent as at first it appears. The scene in which John is molested by group leader Bella Redlantern is intentionally deeply uncomfortable, with Beckett exploring the confusion and difficulty this awakens in John by having this done to him by someone he cares for and respects; it would be a very different scene if the characters were gender flipped. Beckett is also interested in how people with disabilities live in his fictional society. Due to the level of inbreeding, deformities of the mouth and feet are common, and are stigmatised in the society. However Jeff, one of the most compelling characters in the book, is born with foot problems, and so is excluded from the hunting and other social activities. But this gives him the chance to hone his intellect and his unique perspective, and he becomes a key figure in the story of the progression of the tribe, figuring out how to domesticate the animals of Eden so that he can transport himself more easily.
The loss of innocence is a common thread running through the book, as John becomes not only the first person in Eden to find away across the barren snowy mountains above the valley but also the first person to kill another human. John is always aware of the historical implications of his actions, that people will tell stories of the things he is doing, but as he grows and matures he is able to see other people's side of the story. He realises that his actions have had dire consequences as well as good ones, and that history may judge him very differently from how he judges himself. The ending of the book is bleak and deeply moving, with John and his tribe discovering that they truly have no chance of ever being rescued by Earth, but it is not without hope, as this gives them the closure to begin living their life fully on Eden, no longer recirculating useless traditions and huddling round the spaceship landing site, but free to explore the world around them and make their own culture.