I’ve just finished reading Chris Beckett’s Dark Eden trilogy. I’m not into science fiction, but this is good stuff – entertaining and stimulating. One critic described it as “theologically nuanced”. In parts profoundly theological I thought – a fascinating depiction of the human condition wrapped up in a vivid and powerful story.
The setting is the early history of a population of people on a distant planet (“Dark Eden”). The story is told in the first person through the eyes of several different individuals at different stages of that history. The whole population, we learn, is descended from two astronauts, who we know as Tommy and Angela. They were abandoned when their companions left them behind in an attempt to return to earth in a damaged spacecraft. When their own hopes of rescue failed to materialize, Angela and Tommy decided to have children in order to escape their lonely existence, trusting that one day they might be rescued.
Struggling in an alien and sometimes hostile environment, and with the consequences of in-breeding, their children and succeeding generations increase in number and learn how to survive. Crucial to their survival are the stories the tell themselves about their origin and their hoped-for return to earth. Tommy and Angela take on a mythical status, and they long to return to the bright, sun-lit earth, somewhere in the Starry Swirl of the galaxy above them. A stone circle marks the spot where they landed. A ring belonging to Angela is the only surviving physical link with her – the Mother of them all – and becomes an object of great power, representing their hopes and dreams.
The human story on Dark Eden (dark because there is no sun to be seen) develops over the course of several centuries. Starting in a state of primitive innocence, ambition and murder divide the original community. Growth in numbers and competition for resources lead to animosity, eventually threatening war. People are scattered over a wide geographical area, the different people groups developing distinctive cultures and versions of the story of their origins and destiny.
The author Chris Beckett is an experienced social worker with obvious insight into human relationships. This is not an allegory, and there are no obvious parallels with the Biblical story, but echoes of the Garden of Eden, the murder of Abel, the scattering of peoples at Babel, dreams of heaven and the Second Coming are everywhere.
Gender is a prominent theme. While the narrative is largely told through the eyes of women, it is the men who increasingly take control, particularly as relations between the different groups become more violent. Some words of guidance from Angela to her daughters is preserved among women over the generations, warning them that men will try to manipulate the story of their origins to their own advantage. Attempts to suppress this “secret story” fail, and its message somehow survives through the centuries. Another theme is disability. A high proportion of the population develop physical or mental abnormalities as a result of the limited genetic pool from which they originate. While “batfaces”, “clawfeet” and “slowheads” are generally despised, and in some communities disposed of when infants, they play a vital and prominent part in the whole story. “Mother Gela (Angela) loves batfaces especially,” one of the characters claims, “because all batfaces suffer and have to dig down inside themselves to become wise.”
One of the smaller people groups, the members of which form the basis of the second and third books, have a tradition about “The Watcher”. It is not described or reflected upon theoretically, but it seems to convey a spiritual understanding of humanity as one with the natural world. “We are the world looking out at itself” is an intriguing phrase that sums it up. Another memorable phrase is used by one character to describe the condition in which the people of Dark Eden find themselves: “the grateful darkness”. It is impossible to truly understand the purpose and meaning of our lives, it seems to imply, but we are grateful for the good things we do enjoy and the understanding that we do have. The “shadowspeakers” are women who act in a priestly fashion, maintaining people’s belief in the stories which give meaning to their lives, treading a fine line between, on the one hand, the men in power who seek to control them and their message, and on the other, their convictions about what their listeners need.
The powerful thing about the Dark Eden trilogy is that, while it is about the human condition in a profound way, it does not preach at us. The author does resort to this a bit in the third book, which is probably the least successful of the three, but the first person narrative and vivid depiction of the characters’ personal struggles make the whole thing a compelling and fascinating read. As with all good literature, it is simple and profound at the same time. Not everyone will be convinced by the elaborate descriptions of the Dark Eden planet, but these do not dominate the story. It is, of course, fantastic, but at the same time full of imagination and perceptive insights. A good book for students of theology to read.
(Chris Beckett’s Trilogy is published by Corvus. The three books are entitled Dark Eden, Mother of Eden and Daughter of Eden)
Peter Shepherd (December 2016)