Last year, writer Chris Beckett explored the idea of a new Earth, one without a sun, in his sci-fi novel Dark Eden. But in his sequel, Mother Of Eden (hardcover, paperback, digital), Beckett continues the story of this human world not by picking up where he left off, but two hundred years later. Which, as he sees it, was a much more interesting way to continue this now ongoing saga.
To start, what is Mother Of Eden about, and how does it fit in — chronologically, narratively, all that good stuff — with the first book in the series, Dark Eden?
The events in it take some two centuries on from Dark Eden. A lot has happened between then and Mother Of Eden. There’s been a bitter and bloody conflict between the followers of David and the followers of John, which ended up with the Johnfolk, as they came to be called, being driven out of much of the new land they discovered. At the centre of the conflict had been Gela’s ring — a ring which belonged to the mother of everyone on Eden — which John found in Dark Eden, and which the Davidfolk believe should rightfully belong to them. As an old man, John Redlantern, with the ring still on his own finger, had decided to attempt to find new land on the far side of Worldpool, the sea he discovered in Dark Eden, and set out with some followers. Nothing more was heard of them for generations and they were presumed drowned.
During the conflict, two of the other characters from Dark Eden, Jeff and Tina, had each led a group of followers away from the fighting. Jeff’s followers — they call themselves the Kneefolk — established a peaceful community on a small island some ten miles out into the water, and the main viewpoint character, Starlight, grew up there. At the beginning of Mother Of Eden, the Kneefolk learn that John Redlantern’s followers did not drown, but have established their own society on the far side of Worldpool in a place they call New Earth because its avowed aim is to emulate the half-remembered technological sophistication of Earth. They have discovered how to make metal, and they have started crossing the water to trade. Starlight, a bright, ambitious young woman who’s always found her own community too quiet, organizes a trip down to a trading center called Veeklehouse, the site of the final scene in Dark Eden, hoping to learn more, and while she is there she meets a handsome and wealthy young man who is the son of the Headman of New Earth. They immediately fall for each other, and Starlight returns with him to New Earth.
It is only when she is already on the way that Starlight begins to learn the role she will be expected to play. She will become the Ringwearer. She will wear Gela’s ring, and will be expected to be a sort of embodiment of Gela herself. Much of the rest of the book is about Starlight’s gradual discovery of what a brutal, tyrannical, and misogynistic society New Earth is, and how she attempts to use her position as Ringwearer to change it.
Why did you decide to set Mother Of Eden two hundred years after Dark Eden, as opposed to fifty years or five thousand years?
I am interested in the process whereby real events gradually become transformed into myth. In Mother Of Eden, the events that happened in Dark Eden are still remembered as history, but they are tipping over into becoming mythological. Fifty years would have been too short for that. After five thousand years, any trace of those original events would be more or less unrecognizable, and there would have been almost no continuity between the two books.
How much research, if any, did you do to figure out how the society would’ve changed in those two hundred years?
I didn’t do any research specifically for the book, but I do read a lot of history and follow current events, and so I feel I have a sense of how societies and their ideas evolve and change. If I had done research, I guess I would have looked into things like how quickly the population might have expanded, but I’m not really going for that level of scientific precision in these books. They are just not that kind of book
Dark Eden took a lot from The Bible. Is Mother Of Eden equally rooted in religious texts?
Dark Eden obviously borrowed from the book of Genesis and the idea of the Fall, as well as the story of Exodus. In fact, I’d say it did more than borrow, it was my own personal take on the idea of the Fall and what is to be Fallen, a topic which I am sure I will come back to again because it fascinates me.
Mother Of Eden doesn’t draw on any Bible story in that kind of way. However, it deals with religion. It’s a portrait of a society which has the beginnings of an organized religion, with its own priesthood, its own orthodoxy, and its own heretics to be punished. I was interested in exploring the way that truths and mysteries are co-opted by the powerful and bent to their purposes. I’ve read a lot recently about the Tudor period in England, when the country veered from Catholic to Protestant under Henry VIII and Edward VI to Catholic again under Mary, and back to Protestant under Elizabeth, with the rival version of Christianity being banned and persecuted in each case. And I guess, like most of us, I’ve been thinking too about more modern movements, such as Islamic State and Boko Haram, that attempt to impose “belief” — and ban all contrary beliefs — by force. The odd thing about humans is that we often come to really believe in the things that our ancestors were forced by threat of violence to say they believed in.
Another thing I was thinking about was the cult of Mary as found in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches, the sanctification of a certain idea of womanhood.
The central character in Mother Of Eden is a woman named Starlight. Why did you decide to go with a female protagonist and what did that bring to the story that a male one would not have?
I chose to have a female protagonist because I was aware that my three previous novels, and the majority of my short stories, have male protagonists. I guess the default position of a writer is to chose protagonists similar to oneself — that’s why there are so many novels out there where the protagonist is, guess what, a writer — but I think it’s good to challenge yourself to look through different eyes. Starlight is a woman, she is less than half my age, and she is a very different kind of person from me as well, much more energetic, much more of a doer, as opposed to her older friend, Julie, say, who is more of a quiet observer, which is how I’d describe myself.
In a science fiction novel, where you are introducing the reader to a new world, it’s good to have a character who is an outsider, someone for whom the world is new also. They will notice the little things that the reader wants to see, and ask the naive questions that the reader needs answering. Starlight serves this purpose by being an outsider both in respect of New Earth, and in respect of Veeklehouse. But being a woman makes her a kind of double outsider in New Earth. This is patriarchal society, a society where men make the rules and define what a woman should be. Coming in from outside and being expected to play the role of a kind of idealized mother figure, Starlight can see this very clearly. There’s a body of feminist ideas called Standpoint Theory which says that, as a general rule, marginalized groups can see much more clearly what is really going on, than can privileged groups. It makes a lot of sense.
Given that you are not a woman, but have women in your life, did you ask your wife, daughters, female friends, or even your mom to read Mother Of Eden to make you were actually writing the character as a woman and not just making her a guy with a woman’s name?
I asked my friend and fellow sci-fi writer Una MacCormack to look at an early draft, and I asked her pretty much that question: Does Starlight seem like a woman? I also asked my daughter Nancy, who’s a brilliant writer herself. An early version of this novel — very different, as it turned out, from Mother Of Eden — also appeared in serial form in an online magazine edited by Barbara Ballantyne, who gave me some excellent feedback as well. Finally my excellent UK editor was Sara O’Keeffe.
So, one way and another, I’ve had quite a lot of female feedback on this book. Some of that feedback, especially Sara’s, has been very challenging, and forced me to rethink a lot of things, but I have to say that no one has suggested to me that Starlight is a guy with a woman’s name.
I suppose my take on this is that men and women are not as different as we might think. I assume there are some innate differences, but the main differences between us are to do with upbringing and cultural expectations, and therefore not so much fundamental differences inside us, as differences in the way the world treats us and reflects us back to ourselves, which in turn change the way we think of ourselves. Starlight comes from a community where men and women treat each other as equals and finds herself in a world where women are regarded as subordinate to men. In thinking myself into that, I guess I also had to think myself into what it would feel like to be a woman in any patriarchal society.
When you were writing Dark Eden, did you know it would be the first in a series?
I actually saw it as a standalone book when I wrote it, and I wrote the ending with a somewhat open-ended conclusion because I happen to prefer that kind of ending. I often think that neat endings that tie everything up are a bit of a disappointment. Isn’t it always a bit of an anti-climax in a detective story when you learn who actually did it? My editors at the time wondered whether the ending should be more conclusive but I didn’t want to change it, and it was them who suggested I might think about a sequel. All of which means that I didn’t have any plans for a sequel until Dark Eden was already quite late in the editing stage.
That said, Dark Eden owes its origins to an odd, brutal, little short story I wrote back in the nineties called “The Circle Of Stones.” At the time, I planned a sequel for that story, but never completed it — I guess it wasn’t really a short-story kind of idea — in which John Redlantern and some of his followers crossed the water and reached a country which was pretty much like what was to become New Earth. So there was the seed of an idea for a sequel in my mind, even before Dark Eden was written.
Do you know ultimately how many books you’ll write in this Eden series, or what the end of it will be?
Yes, I’m going to write one more. I’m some way into writing it now, and I have a broad idea of what the end will be, though I’m not going to say anything about it now.
Do you think someone needs to have read Dark Eden to get what’s going on in Mother Of Eden? It seems, from your description, that you’d need to.
I wrote it as a standalone story, in the sense that there is enough information in it for the reader to infer what has happened to bring us to this point. However, I think you’d get more out of Mother Of Eden if you’d already read Dark Eden, because — as in Dark Eden itself — a big theme of the book is the way that we are inevitably to some extent prisoners of the past, and the past of Mother Of Eden, which people keep referring to, is Dark Eden.
One interesting thing about Dark Eden is that you set it on a planet that has no sun. But were there any times when writing Mother Of Eden that you regretted that decision? Like you started talking about someone being tan and healthy and then were like, “Ah, dammit”?
I do sometimes find myself writing things like “next day” or “at the end of the day,” and I’d have to check from time to time to make sure that none of those words have crept in. But when I am immersed in the world of Eden, I never really forget that there is no light from the sky, or that all the light comes from bioluminescence, or from firelight. The trick is to be sure that I have really visualized the scene before I describe it.
So no, I didn’t regret that I’d committed myself to this sunless world. It is the case, though, that in Dark Eden, the absence of sun serves a stronger thematic purpose than it does in Mother Of Eden. In Dark Eden, it serves as a tangible reminder of the loss of Earth, the fallen state of the people of Eden, which goes back to that word from Christian theology. The characters in Mother Of Eden are a lot further away from memories of Earth, and they don’t go on so much about Earth and its light. To them, the darkness of Eden isn’t so much a reminder of exile as just the way things are, though even they experience the occasional pang.
Perhaps because of this different take on it, I particularly enjoyed describing Eden in the present book. A number of events take place on Worldpool, for instance, and I really loved visualizing it. It has wide continental shelves which shine pink and green because of the luminescent life below the surface — out in the middle of that, you are a dot of shadow with this great expanse of soft light stretching away to the horizon on every side — but in the deeper parts further out, there is no light from below, so that the only light is the light of the stars, when they’re not covered up by cloud. Towards the end of the book, there is an episode on Brown River, which I think contains some of my most vivid evocations of Eden from either book: Eden not as a symbol of loss, but simply as another manifestation of this strange and mysterious universe in which we live.
The last time we did this dance, I asked which of your other books you’d recommend to fans of Dark Eden. So this time, I’ll ask this instead: If someone’s read Mother Of Eden and Dark Eden, what book of someone else’s would you recommend they read and why?
I’m going to recommend Dream London by my friend Tony Ballantyne. And yes, he’s the husband of Barbara who I mentioned earlier. It’s a title which pretty much tells you what to expect. London has become dreamlike. Things change and mutate all the time. Places that were next door to each other one moment, may be far apart the next. The tunnels of the London Underground have shrunk to cramped little pipes, packed with iridescent beetles. Sinister figures stalk the streets, including a character with eyes at the end of his tongue. Tony is one of the most original thinkers I know and, as a computer science teacher with a degree in math, he brings his own particular kind of steely intellectual rigor.