Dark Eden is an umbral spin on the Christian creation story.
Eden haunts me. As a child of Presbyterian parents, the biblical story feels threaded into my bones. I remember the way it snaked through my skin when I tore it out. I just can’t continue believing in that fairy tale.
Unless I believe in all of them.
Dark Eden is an umbral spin on the Christian creation story. Prideful men stole a spaceship from Earth and crashed into the luminescent treetops of a strange, nocturnal world. Dark Eden’s god skipped sun-day, so the only light comes from towering, glowing trees. Without their light, humans are blind.
God didn’t make this world for humans: bizarre insectile creatures with beetled eyes and green-black blood scurry in and out of a boiling underworld. Imagining five squishy humans stumbling out of their whirring spaceship into this shadowed land sends shivers up my spine, but we never get their full–or truthful–account. Memories, theatrics, and rumors tell us how Angela and Tommy remained on Eden while their three companions took to the sky for help. Earth will send a rescue ship any day now.
One-hundred-and-sixty years later, Angela and Tommy are dead. Their grandchildren and great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren live chained by this promise of celestial salvation. The “Family” as they refer to one another–and they are all family– sing songs, practice rituals, and live clustered around the stones where the landing “veekle” left for Earth many wombs ago.
“Wombs” is how the Family marks time now, and the term is one of many linguistic drifts Beckett employs as he explores the evolution–or de-evolution–of language. The Adam and Eve of this Eden were neither linguists nor teachers, and even I balk at the idea of carrying over all of Earth’s descriptions and history with nothing but my memory as reference. Beckett’s characters speak in lyrical train-of-thought patterns and use reduplication for emphasis, but time eroded the (approximately) 30,000-word vocabulary of most Earth-born adults. Some words, like “lantern,” “leopard,” and “boat” survive, but other words like “electricity” “vehicle” and even “sex” get mangled by the growing Family.
And they are growing. Sex, or as Family calls it, a “slip,” is something everyone’s doing. They slip with mothers, brothers, sisters, and sometimes fathers. They slip with young men and old men, young women and old women. But all this slipping has led to some sliding of the genetic pool: children born with club feet and cleft lips (or “bat faces” as they’re referred) plus other alluded medical issues associated with incest make up a visible portion of the five-hundred-strong Family.
However, there are rules to slipping, rules refreshingly matriarchal. Beckett gave Dark Eden’s Eve daughters, not sons. So women control all the slipping. They can slip with whomever they like, including teenage boys, but there’s an unspoken taboo about men slipping with young girls. Women also make up most leaders in the family and excel in multiple roles like hunter, gatherer, mother, nurse, and adviser. Because Angela’s children and grandchildren skewed heavily female, the Family operates as a communal, cooperative structure where women and girls have voices and power, and horrors like rape and murder don’t even have names. While the Family struggles with ideas of expansion into the snow and ice above the valley, growing numbers of hungry mouths, and doubt about Earth’s promised rescue, it’s a thriving community, and would have continued thriving if it weren’t for John Redlantern.
“Watch out for men who want to turn everything into a story that’s all about them.”
― Chris Beckett
Beckett’s creation story often reads like a red flag book about men and toxic masculinity. Our protagonist, who I waffled between rooting for and rooting against, is one of those boys born waving crimson streamers. He’s restless, entitled, narcissistic, and smart. He’s an entire Manifest Destiny stuffed into the skinny body of a fifteen-year-old boy. Things don’t move fast enough for John Redlantern, and he going to do something about that. His selfish actions cause a Cain-like rift in Eden, and the entire world rides the rumbling aftershocks. As Tina Spiketree observes, “up to now it had been the women in Eden that ran things and decided how things would be, but now a time was coming when it would be the men.”
Beckett’s use of multiple perspectives in the novel shows us how dangerous the Hero’s Journey is. Unlike traditional coming-of-age stories, Beckett gives us perspectives outside of the young ingenue and dips the reader into the minds of those who love, hate, help, and hinder him. John’s actions are courageous and history-making for sure, but by forcing us into the minds of those around him, we can no longer see his actions as a singular story. Beckett rips these minor characters (John’s NPCs, one could say) from their two-dimensional tropes and thrusts them into the spotlight as protagonists with their own stories.
And in some of them, John isn’t the hero. He’s the villain.
I won’t tell you anything else about Dark Eden except it’s one of three books in a trilogy about blind belief, the rippling actions of the rash, and the unintended consequences of sin. Despite Beckett’s alien setting, his story is eerily familiar.
You should read this book if: you’re a fan of science fiction or creation myths, enjoy multi-perspective books, or didn’t have to look up the term “linguistic drift” (spoiler, I did). There’s something in Dark Eden for most readers, and after reading other reviews, it’s clear this “something” is different for everyone. I might have cut the creation story from my bones, but in its place is a restlessness akin to John Redlanterns. If you’ve ever felt the same anxious stirrings, give Dark Eden fifty pages of your time; you might end up finishing the whole series.