Living by the Light of Starry Swirl

dark eden

I recently finished listening to the audiobook Dark Eden by Chris Beckett. To be honest, I was attracted by the paperback cover of the book at my local bookstore—holographic shimmer on black background with fireflies—yes please! I found it excellent listening while I gardened and shoveled gravel.

(possible spoilers, though nothing terrible)

Chris Beckett conjures a dark and distant world heated by geothermal trees, lit by only the Milky Way (now called Starry Swirl for lack of lexical continuity from Earth), small lantern flowers and the occasional angler-fish-wooly-herd-animal (with six legs, mind you). There, a colony of humans stranded after their forebears escaped/fled/absconded from the Earth is finding their expanding family is having to repeat a number of human civilization milestones as it grows beyond the small valley, limited food and resources, and lack of creative thinking.

Where six-legged “Leopards” with shimmering coats of cascading light wail like dying children disappearing in the night right before they pounce, you know you’re not in Kansas anymore. All the creatures on Dark Eden seem like something out of a dark Starship troopers novel: lots of legs, strange mouth-parts, clearly unearthly, and yet have been named with such basic terms like Bat or Buck or Slinker, giving a cosy feel to the narrative.

My only complaint of the novel, especially as a scientist, is how a world ecology could evolve to be sustainable for human life without a star to power it. While Beckett explains some of its plausibility, and I’m willing to give a fair bit of slack for the sake of an interesting world and social allegory, pulling off a coherent ecology requires the right character and verbiage that the characters literally do not have.

Where Beckett soars, as is no surprise for his background as a social worker in England, is his role as social analyst, and he does a rather magnificent job of blending both simple language (akin to the low educated future tribe of Cloud Atlas) and sociological commentary on the role of conservatism and iconoclasm in the microcosm of his 500 person inbred colony. As the colony loses touch with the written word and can’t seem to remember how to invent new language (or anything else for that matter), their social structure handed down through five generations begins to fail as they have no method of creative renewal, constantly waiting for the return of their Earthen relief and salvation.

The multi-thematic story touches on both Christian mythology and Human societal urges without being overt, inauthentic, or dogmatic. The colony begins to understand the betrayal of tradition, even murder, and the twisted and imperfect mythology handed down from Earth (Hitler killed Jesus, you know). Chapters from different character points of view help shed the story and confound the conflicting perspectives wonderfully. All this blends seamlessly in adventure as exiled youth drive to discover novel and sustainable lands while yearning to stay connected with people who no longer respect them and their new ideas.

The novel was regarded with an Arthur C. Clarke award and made some other lists of best novels when it was first published in 2012. The paperback hit stateside this last April and is worth a read or listen.

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A Hero’s Companion

 

JCCompanion

I finally finished reading, in toto, Reflections on the Art of Living: A Joseph Campbell Companion (google books; amazon). I found it in my Father’s Library when I visited for Christmas and have been hanging out with it casually since then—half a year to finish ain’t so bad (I have been reading other things).

It’s organized in small 3-5 page chapters, each of them edited from talks or books of Campbell’s aggregating the essence of his life, understanding of mythology from around the world, interpretations of Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism and the world’s story he can grok. And grok well he does. While it does encompass most of his mythological structural underpinnings, it reads more like spiritual literature, so its byline of Reflections on the Art of Living is apt. I found them profound, touching, and intimately teaching. Each segment is so dense, touching on the basics of life in the world, it was a better book to hang out with than read directly; its implications for life as an artist, writer, dancer or otherwise strike deep and keep resonating for me. I can tell it will be a book to keep nearby, something to keep the flow of creative juices bubbling forth. It blends both poetry, pull quotes that function as poetry, and citations of his own and others into a basic and aesthetically pleasing read. I’ve read snippets of his seminal The Power of Myth, of course, but that one reads more as non-fiction, albeit as a cohesive interview experience; this Companion works in a more complementary way to one’s own life.

Here are a few excerpts from the end pieces, which were parts of the beginning too:

Participate joyfully in the sorrows of the world.

The obvious lesson…is that the first step to the knowledge of the highest divine symbol of the wonder and mystery of life is in the recognition of the monstrous nature of life and its glory in that character: the realization that this is just how it is and that it cannot and will not be changed. Those who think—and their name is legion—that they know how the universe could have been better than it is, how it would have been had they created it, without pain, without sorrow, without time, without life, are unfit for illumination. Or those who think—as do many—”Let me first correct society, then get around to myself” are barred from even the outer gate of the mansion of God’s peace. All societies are evil, sorrowful, inequitable; and so they will always be. So if you really want to help this world, what you will have to teach is how to live in it. And that no one can do who has not himself learned how to live in it in the joyful sorrow and sorrowful joy of the knowledge of life as it is. (cit. Myths to Live By)

We cannot cure the world of sorrows, but we can choose to live in joy.

 

The world is a match for us. We are a match for the world.

 

The first function of mythology is to sanctify the place you are in.

 

Follow your bliss.

 

If you want the whole thing, the gods will give it to you. But you must be ready for it.

 

A bit of advice given to a young Native American at the time of his initiation:

“As you go the way of life, you will see a great chasm.

Jump.

It is not as wide as you think.”

Thanks Joseph. Your amazing technicolor language continues to instruct us.