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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