A Conversation with Chris Beckett, author of Dark Eden
Q. Dark Eden began as a short story. What attracted you to the “Adam and Eve in space” angle and a sunless planet as the setting?
A. What draws me (and a lot of people, I think) to science fiction as a form is that it allows you to do big thought experiments. I’m interested in how societies grow and change, and what better way of exploring that than starting again with just two people and trying to imagine what would happen?
I’m fairly sure I first got the idea of a sunless world from the antique computer on which I wrote the short story called “The Circle of Stones” (back in 1992). It was so antique that it had green letters on a black screen, the opposite to writing on paper, where the background is light and the writing is dark. I’m fairly certain this was the origin of the image in my mind of a sunless forest filled with luminous trees. When I started thinking about it, it had so many possibilities. How would such a world function? How would its life evolve? How would time be measured? The sunlessness of Eden also underlines the sense of loss that the people of Eden feel. Generations on, they long for the world their ancestors came from, where the sky was filled with light.
Q. How concerned are you about plausibility and scientific accuracy? Do you think the planet Eden could really exist?
A. I’m not a “hard” science fiction writer. I run with my own intuitions, and what seems to work from the point of view of the story.
That said, I want my worlds to feel plausible to the reader. It struck me as likely that there would be planets in space that were not attached to particular stars (and I’m pleased to say that science confirms my hunch: they do exist and are known as “rogue planets”). It seemed to be, too, that life could still evolve in the absence of a sun, provided that the planet still had a hot core. After all, on earth there are life forms that are solely powered by geothermal heat (entire geothermal ecosystems exist around deep ocean volcanic vents, far from the sun’s reach). There are also lakes underneath the ice in Antarctica, such as Lake Vostok, where the water is liquid because of the heat from below. I see life on Eden as having evolved in such places and then slowly transformed the world around it.
One little problem—it was first pointed out to me by a schoolboy when I was giving a talk!—is the question of how the human population of Eden obtains vitamin D, which of course on Earth we mainly obtain by synthesizing it in our skins using sunlight. I decided that, on Eden, there were sufficient dietary sources of the vitamin, but perhaps I was allowing myself a bit of poetic license here. I’m not sure how likely it is that all the nutrients that human beings require would be available in an alien diet. But then again, who knows? Perhaps for life to exist at all, it needs to have similar chemistry to our own?
Q. Many people comment on the language in Dark Eden, which is slightly different from English. What was your reason for this decision, and why did you change the language in the way you did?
A. I felt I needed to acknowledge that after 160 years without any contact with Earth, the language of Eden would have changed. The Adam and Eve figures—Tommy and Gela—came from Brooklyn, New York, and Peckham in South London, so the language would obviously still be English, but not exactly either American English or British English as we know them.
The people of Eden would have given new names to things that did not exist on Earth, but at first they would tend to name them after familiar things. A spotted predator is called a “leopard,” for instance, but its resemblance to leopards on Earth is pretty tenuous.
In the absence of days, nights, or years, they would have developed new ways of talking about time. They speak in terms of wakings and sleeps, and while they still have the concept of a “year,” it seems pretty arbitrary to them, and they often refer to “wombtimes” —the human gestation period— as a rough way of measuring longer times.
Words that they had no use for would be forgotten. When they first encounter an ocean, for instance, after many landlocked generations, they no longer remember the words “ocean” or “sea” and have to coin a new name.
Finally, the first generation born on Eden would have lived in a family where there were no adults but Mom and Dad. Parents with young children tend to lapse into baby talk a bit, I’ve noticed, even when the children aren’t present, and I felt that this might result in a permanent change to the language, in the absence of a wider adult world to draw the language back to its more “adult” form: hence the duplicated adjectives (“big big” instead of “very big”) and the tendency to drop direct articles.
*Starred Review* Imagine a world called Eden populated by a mere 532 inhabitants, all descended from two common ancestors, Tommy and Angela, who came to the planet 163 years earlier by spaceship and stayed to populate a world. Imagine this, and you have the setting for British writer Beckett’s superb novel of speculative fiction. Its protagonist is 15-year-old John Redlantern, whose act of rebellion defies sacred tradition and changes his world forever, resulting in his being banished from his rudimentary hunter-gatherer community. He will be joined in exile by three young friends, and theirs becomes a compelling story of both survival and discovery. It is told in a number of distinctive first-person voices that beautifully define character and reveal the fact that Eden’s language has become corrupted; thus, anniversary becomes Any Virsry; radio, Rayed Yo; electricity, Lecky-trickity; and so forth. Beckett has done a brilliantly imaginative job of world building in both global concepts and quotidian details. The planet, for example, is sunless, the light being provided by trees and animals; leopards sing to their prey; time is measured in “wombtimes”—thus, John, 15, is 20 wombtimes old. None of these specifics gets in the way of a suspenseful, page-turning plot, however, and the book is a superb entertainment, a happy combination of speculative and literary fiction. And it is not to be missed. --Michael Cart
--This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.