In his new sci-fi novel Dark Eden, writer Chris Beckett imagines an alien world where everyone — and their society’s rules — originated with just two people. But while the plot and the title might have you thinking that a certain Bible story was the big inspiration for his book, as Beckett explains, there’s other influences at work here as well.
Let’s start at the beginning: What is Dark Eden about and where did you get the idea for it?
The short answer is that if I could sum it up in a few words, I wouldn’t have needed to write the book. It’s about a whole lot of interwoven things, and every time someone asks me about it, I probably come up with something different. Let’s say it’s about the state of being trapped in a circumstance which you didn’t choose and trying to make the best of it, which is the condition of us all, and perhaps the origin of the idea behind the original Eden myth, that we humans were exiled long ago from our true home.
At a certain point in my life, when I felt a little trapped by my own circumstances, the idea came into my mind of a young man performing a single shockingly transgressive act, an act which is selfish, arrogant, cruel even, but which opens up new possibilities. I wrote about it in a story called “The Circle Of Stones,” which was published way back in 1992. It also featured the sunless world of Eden, with its glowing trees, which I think were inspired by the glowing green letters and black screen of my computer.
More than a decade later, I wrote another short story — called “Dark Eden,” like the book —which was the back-story of the novel: the story of how a man and a woman who normally wouldn’t have come together at all, but found themselves the only human beings on a planet.
The novel version of Dark Eden obviously has its roots in The Bible. But how closely did you look a the story of Adam and Eve when you were writing the book?
That’s interesting. I didn’t look at it at all. I ran with what I remembered of it and what it had come to mean to me. It had always, for me, been a powerful way of representing a certain sense of loss, which I think is a part of being human. That sense of loss runs all through Dark Eden. In this case, expressed as the loss of Earth, civilization, fellow-creatures, and above all light.
I chose not to look back at the Bible story because what was important to me at the time was not the Biblical narrative, but what I had internalized from it. However, after Dark Eden was published in the UK, I was asked to talk about it to a group of Christians, and that prompted me to go back and look at the story in Genesis. Everything I remembered was there, but a whole lot of other stuff was there too which I’d forgotten. In particular, it struck me that the story wasn’t just about loss but also about gain, about people moving from a baby-like or animal-like state to become adult human beings. Which is surely a good thing, and surely something that had to happen. And yet it is indeed the source of that sense of loss.
Are you concerned that religious people might think your novel is blasphemous? Or do you think they might actually get something out of it that non-believers won’t?
I’m not a religious person, and I’m irritated by literal-minded religion — see in particular my novel, The Holy Machine — but I am equally irritated by literal-minded atheists who say all religion is rubbish. You can see from my answer to the previous question that, while I don’t think the story in Genesis is literally true — most Christians that I know would agree with me on that — I do think that it contains a very profound truth.
One of the first honors bestowed on Dark Eden was that it was chosen as the Big Read for the Green Belt Festival, which is a large Christian cultural festival in the UK. This meant a great deal to me by the way. I was very touched. I was invited to talk to a largish group of people there. I’d made no secret of the fact that I didn’t share their faith, but they’d all engaged with the book, and didn’t seem to feel in any way that I’d insulted or belittled the Bible story. I think what thoughtful believers are good at is recognizing that stories work on lots of different levels.
One of the things that some of them picked up on, and one of the things that I didn’t agree with them about, was the flawed nature of John Redlantern as a character. My take on that is that it is impossible not to be flawed, because our strengths are also our weaknesses. John’s arrogance and stubbornness are flaws, and yet they are necessary flaws. They were what made it possible for him to achieve what he did. In the same way, I suppose, that Adam’s and Eve’s disobedience was necessary. I guess that, as Christians, most people in the room were committed to the idea that there could be a perfect human being, a flawless person, while my own view is that a human being is, by necessity, a compromise.
What Hoban does with language in Riddley Walker is much much more extreme than what I’ve done with Dark Eden, and is utterly brilliant. Starting with the local dialect of South Eastern England, he created an entire coherent language, which probably differs at least as much from standard English as, I don’t know, Dutch differs from German. That’s an amazing achievement. Among the many delights of reading it are those moments when you suddenly get a word that had been puzzling you: Ardship of Cambry is Archbishop of Canterbury, Sarvering Galack Seas is Sovereign Galaxies. I was certainly an inspiration for Dark Eden. I considered doing something similar but ended up opting for a more modest approach.
Both Riddley Walker and The Book Of Dave deal with societies that have suffered a massive disruption and are trying to build some sort of meaning, and some sort of social order, using fragments from the past. The past has authority, it is a source of legitimacy, but we in the present reinterpret it, revise it, shape it to our current purposes and understandings. Dark Eden is all about that too, and there are several places in the book where John Redlantern grasps this. In these moments, the dialogue that’s constantly going on between past, present, and future sometimes becomes almost literally audible to him.
Are there any other books that you think Dark Eden is like, or was influenced by, but that no one else has picked up on?
I think the books you read in your teens — those early books you read at the point when you first realize that books can really be about something — continue to be an influence throughout your adult life. A book that only very recently occurred to me was probably an influence was Robert Heinlein’s The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress.
Oh, I read that a couple months ago.
That book is an absolute masterclass in world building. It evokes a vibrant human society living on the moon in extraordinary detail and — as all good world-building does — it creates the illusion that there is much more detail present than is actually there, that the narrator really does know the moon as well as we know the cities we live in.
One of the ways Heinlein achieves his effect is by creating a “Loonie” English dialect. It’s larded with Russian and other foreign words and, like Slavs speaking English often do, it drops direct and indirect articles, pronouns, and other minor words. The story itself, though it is about a rebellion, doesn’t have a lot in common with Dark Eden, and the tone of the whole thing really is completely different. But I bet the language was an influence, and I’m sure I picked up some tips about world-building too.
In Dark Eden, the people live on a planet that has no sun. Which, I think, is actually not possible. I think, but I don’t know. Did you do any research into this, and if you did, how did your research change things in the book?
It is possible. They’re known to exist, and are called “rogue planets.” What’s more, it’s perfectly possible for liquid water — and therefore life — to exist on such a planet. Even on Earth there are eco-systems that owe nothing to solar energy.
I figured all this out for myself. I did no serious research. And I’m rather proud of the fact that, after the event, I found out that my hunches and suppositions had been correct.
The planet of Eden is totally frozen and covered in snow and ice. Obviously, this is going to make people think of Hoth from The Empire Strikes Back, but was that movie actually an influence on your book?
I’d be surprised if that was an influence because, though I think I’ve seen it, it has certainly left very little impression on my memory. Who knows, though? I’m a jackdaw. I pick up shiny stuff all over the place and store it away, and it comes out in my books.
What about other depictions of totally frozen planets in movies, books, and video games. Were any of them an influence on how you depict Eden or how you show people surviving that kind of environment?
I loved the depiction of the journey across the frozen north in [Ursula K. Le Guin’s] The Left Hand Of Darkness. I remember thinking as I read it, “I wish I could write so convincingly about ice.”
Otherwise nothing springs to mind, except that, the story of Scott of the Antarctic is sort of part of my cultural heritage. The Scott Institute is actually here in my home town of Cambridge. I went to an exhibition there last year and saw Scott’s actual diary open at the very last page so we could read the final line that Scott wrote: “For God’s sake, look after our people.”
There’s also the incest aspect. If everyone is a descendant of two people, then, well, y’know. Is this something you discuss in the book, and why did you decide that you either had to or didn’t need to?
Well, as I’ve said, the Genesis story doesn’t have to be read as some sort of literal account, but if you take it at face value, then this is indeed the yawning plot hole. If Adam and Eve are the ancestors of everyone, how did we get to a third generation without incest taking place? I thought I’d confront that plot hole and deal with it, so I represented the consequences in the book. There were, firstly, a high incidence of genetic deformities — some biologists I’ve spoken to have suggested it would really be much worse than I’ve depicted, but others have said “we just don’t know” — and secondly a kind of incestuous culture. In the book, the people of Eden struggle with the fact that their ancestor Harry, who was the only son of those first two people, was the one who wrote down a set of laws that said that incest was bad, and yet himself had sex with all his sisters. They had no choice, unless they wanted to grow old and die alone.
All this makes some readers very queasy — and it is meant to be sort of queasy-making — but part of my purpose was to use the literal incestuousness as a way of conveying the stifling metaphorical incestuousness of a very small and isolated community.
Though I think I may have a stronger stomach than some people because, after eighteen years as a social worker in the field of child protection, I’ve seen all kinds of things happen in families.
Aside from your novels and short stories, you’ve also written and co-written textbooks. Do you ever, when writing a textbook, catch yourself getting too creative?
I think experience in writing fiction is a big help when writing textbooks. Textbooks can be terribly turgid, and I try and make mine into…well, not exactly exciting page-turners perhaps, but at least not so dull that you have to force yourself to turn each page.
Has anything in your textbooks ever inspired anything in your fiction? Like have you ever researched something for a textbook and had it inspire the plot of a short story?
Not directly, but I write textbooks for social workers, drawing on both my own experience in social work, and on social science literature. The experience and the reading have certainly influenced my world view.
Lastly, if someone read and really liked Dark Eden, which of your other books do you think they would also enjoy and why?
If they would like to know more about the back-story to Dark Eden, they might like to look at my short story collection The Turing Test, which includes the short story “Dark Eden” I mentioned earlier. They should also look out for Dark Eden’s sequel, Mother Of Eden.
I’m also very proud of my first novel The Holy Machine. If they’re looking for total immersion in an alien world, as in Dark Eden, they won’t find that there, it’s set on Earth. But if they like the ideas and the reflections on the human condition that are built into Dark Eden, and the less than perfect characters, then they’ll find these in The Holy Machine as well. And just as Dark Eden takes the Eden myth as its starting point, The Holy Machine has, at its core, a modern take on an ancient myth: the story of Pygmalion, who fell in love with a statue that came to life.