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Review: Dark Eden by Chris Beckett

I came to Dark Eden with high expectations, after an extract posted by my favourite book-blogger (The Speculative Scotsman) and a very favourable and thoughtful review in that not-entirely-genre-friendly (although nor is it hostile to genre fiction) publication, The Guardian.  Chris Beckett's "superior piece of theologically nuanced science fiction" instantly attracted my attention, and looking at the beautiful, simple cover of the novel (the best depiction of a slake-moth that isn't meant to be a slake-moth I've ever seen, incidentally) simply confirmed that this was a book I ought to read... and I am seriosuly glad that I did.

The plot is a complex, thoughtful and brilliant piece of creation all on its own.  Dark Eden takes place on the planet Eden, populated by the five hundred person family, all descended from the same couple (and so various deformities - harelips, or batfaces; and deformities of the feet, or clawfoot - are relatively common); and that population lives in hope that one day, they'll be rescued and returned to Earth - though, having forgotten much in the century and a half since the original couple arrived, they don't understand things like Rayed Yo, Lecky-Trickity and Telly Vision.  The plot of the novel sees one member of the Family, John Redlantern, breaking away from the traditions of the family and trying something new; it's a social novel, seen through a number of characters' first-person eyes including John himself, and we see the increasingly stakes-raising actions of John as he rebels against the strictures of a society that stifles innovation and is slowly strangling itself.  The extent of his rebellion increases over the course of the novel, and Beckett makes the relatively slow plot engrossing and engaging in its development and thoughtful building up - and with the underlying theories of history behind it.

The characters are also well-written and interesting; Dark Eden has a population that is, of course, alien and yet akin to us, descended from a population in our future.  They are constrained by the strange dystopia that is the planet of Eden, and the static (if not degenerating) society of the Family); and that makes them brilliant, combined with the quality of their writing.  John Redlantern is well-written as an introverted, restless young man; he's not a hero - he does bad as well as good, and he can make mistakes, endangering others; he also doesn't necessarily think consequences through.  But he is an interesting and sympathetic character; an impulsive, sometimes-unwise young man who is driven to change things for what he sees as the best.  Tina Spikehair, another of our major characters, is an outside observer of John's actions: a young woman of about the same age, at first she's drawn to John by his impulsiveness, and it's mostly through her we see his very mixed character, because she's the one who best of all gives us insight into his flaws as they're expressed to her.  In fact, Tina is a thoughtful and interesting character in her own right; not a visionary like John, but instead more of a character who can both see the flaws of the Family and with her feet on the ground.  The rest of the cast are slightly less fleshed-out, but are still well-written; we see some fantastic characterisation, especially when they're written from a first-person perspective, but less attention is paid to them and their motives.  The focus is very much on John but over the course of the rest of the novel, the entire cast is really fantastically portrayed as thoughtful and interesting.

In the end, Dark Eden is a fascinating, intellectual and ground-breaking novel, not only well-written and with a good cast but immersed in its world and in the ideas that make up that world; this is deeply thought-provoking science-fiction, and very much worth the read. I'll definitely be back with Chris Beckett for more!

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