I have just submitted a proposal to give a talk on the SF novel Dark Eden, by Chris Beckett.
Here it is:
Chris Beckett’s novel Dark Eden is not literally an adaptation, but in fact it “adapts” and rewrites a number of foundational Western texts regarding the origins of human society and civilization. Its sources range from the Book of Genesis, through Robinson Crusoe, and on to major 18th- and 19th-century works of social theory by such prominent thinkers as Rousseau, Bachofen, Nietzsche, and Engels.
The novel is set on a dark planet, one that does not circle any sun. The only energy source is geothermal, arising deep within the planet’s core. Plant and animal life forms have evolved, using this energy for fuel. “Trees” and other plants draw up heat energy from deep beneath the planet’s surface, and provide the ecosystem with warmth and light. Animals either forage on this plant life, or prey upon other animals.
A small number of human beings — five hundred or so — live on this planet; they are all descendents of a founding heterosexual couple, astronauts who were stranded on the planet, unable to return to Earth. The novel deals mostly with the social organization of this group. At first they live in a tightly-bound, matriarchal, “primitive,” and more or less egalitarian society. But in the course of the book we witness the splintering of this society: a “fall” from a putative “state of nature” into a more “historical” situation.
This “fall” is the result of a number of pressures: most importantly, environmental stress (as a result of overexploitation of limited resources), and the frequent appearance of detrimental recessive genetic traits (cleft palate and clubfoot) due to the restricted nature of the gene pool, combined with adolescent restlessness, and a certain drive against tradition and in favor of innovation.
The consequences of this “fall” include the “invention” of rape and murder, the transition from egalitarian matriarchy to hierarchical patriarchy, a growing tension and discordance between generations, as well as between men and women, and an energetic burst of exploration and technological invention.
In recounting these developments, the novel gives us an updated version of what I would like to call speculative anthropology. Following the classical thinkers I have already mentioned (Rousseau on the origins of inequality; Nietzsche on the origins of morality; Bachofen and Engels on the origins of family structures and differentiated gender roles), Chris Beckett speculates about “primitive” society and the development of the social institutions that today we take far too readily for granted.
I call Beckett’s “adaptation” of these sources an updated one, however, for several reasons. In the first place, Dark Eden is definitely “hard” science fiction; it revises the famous mythological and philosophical accounts upon which it draws in the light of our contemporary understanding of Darwinian constraints. In the second place, Dark Eden forcibly calls our attention to the way that the “origin” it recounts is not a true beginning, but remains parasitic upon previous human social developments. Marx famously observed that Robinson Crusoe does not really build civilization from scratch; he starts out with both his already-ingrained bourgeois assumptions, and the large amount of material that he is able to salvage from the shipwreck that threw him on his island. Dark Eden makes this structure of antecedence entirely explicit: the lives of all the human beings on the planet are dominated by a kind of social memory, in the form of the myths, legends, gossip, and practices that have been handed down to them from the founding couple’s reminiscences of life on Earth.
There is no true origin, therefore, but only a repetition or “adaptation” (using this word both in the literary sense and in the biological one). The realm of myth is itself the consequence of historical contingency. Dark Eden is an unsettling book, not just because it offers a pessimistic and nonutopian account of human potentialities, but also because it strips this very account of any mythic, originary authority, and places it instead in a context of chance, arbitrariness and existential fragility.