Chris Beckett’s superb SF novel Dark Eden, which won the Arthur C Clarke Award last year, has finally been published in the United States. I wrote briefly about it on this blog a while ago; but now that it is generally available here, I thought I should present the longer version of my comments, which I presented at several conferences, but which I have not previously published. So here goes.
Chris Beckett’s science fiction novel Dark Eden was published in 2012. It won the 2013 Arthur C. Clarke award for the best science fiction novel published in the UK in the previous year. Beckett has been publishing science fiction for more than two decades, but this is the first time that he has received any widespread recognition. Dark Eden is Beckett’s third novel; he is also the author of two volumes of short stories. Mother of Eden, a sequel to Dark Eden taking place two hundred years later in the same world, will be published by the end of 2014.
Dark Eden can best be described as a book about deferred and repeated origins. Needless to say, this phrasing is paradoxical, or even oxymoronic. An origin is what comes first. If it is deferred or repeated, then it really isn’t an origin after all. In these late-postmodernist times – after Derrida and Baudrillard, and in a culture dominated by remixes and remakes – we have of course become accustomed to such self-contradictory twists. The result of this is often a kind of smug cynicism. Either we pass off the-origin-that-is-not-one as an inevitable deconstructionist double bind; or else, we cite it “in quotation marks,” and laugh, ostentatiously registering the irony that any such claim to originality is instantly disqualified by the very fact of having been made in the first place.
Nonetheless, I don’t think that these sorts of doubts and qualifications really apply in the case of Dark Eden. For I think that the book – like many of the most adventurous cultural productions of the last few years – is thoroughly post-ironic. This means that it registers a full awareness of the ironic circumstances that I have mentioned; but it takes them as a beginning-point rather than an end-point. In other words, Chris Beckett takes seriously the condition of living with factitious and always-deferred origins; he sees this condition, not of a loss of some mythical wholeness or authenticity, but as itself the ground of our situatedness.
In Dark Eden, therefore, Chris Beckett tells us the story of an origin that we already know to be a repetition and a regression. The title of the novel is both literal and metaphorical. It presents us with a sort of minor-key paradise, one that is diminished from the outset, because it is devoid of light. And the novel does indeed recount a Fall from this paradise: a descent from myth into history, or from a state of Edenic harmony and stasis into one of violence, rupture, betrayal, and dynamic change. But the starting Edenic situation is itself already a state of loss from which some sort of redemption is ardently desired; and the rupturing of this situation is itself driven by a kind of utopian impulse. Chris Beckett casts a cold eye on all sides of these tangled alternatives. He has no nostalgia for a lost paradise; but he also refuses to idealize the logic of progression or development, or to ignore the human costs of what we now, at a much later state of our own history, call “creative destruction.”
Another way to put this is to say that Dark Eden views both the “primitive” and the “advanced” states of humankind retrospectively, through a kind of inverted science-fictional extrapolation. I use this term advisedly. Science fiction as a genre doesn’t really claim to predict the future. Rather, it works by extrapolating from elements of our actual world. It takes trends and tendencies that are already at work in the world around us, and imagines what might happen if these trends and tendencies were able to develop to the utmost, and to unfold their full potential. We might say that science fiction presents us with a world that “real, but not actual” – which is Gilles Deleuze’s definition of what he calls the virtual. Instead of telling us what the future will actually be like – something that is impossible to do, for the future always surprises us – science fiction portrays and develops those elements of potentiality, or indeed of futurity, that already exist in the present moment. It takes the implicit and makes it explicit; it unrolls and reveals that which exists in a cryptic and undeveloped form.
In this way, science fiction can be both utopian and dystopian. This alternative is a both/and, rather than an exclusive either/or. Science fiction can register the full horror of the social and physical conditions under which we live, in a way that a purely mimetic account could not. But it can also register the utopian seeds of hope – the possibilities of difference and transformation – that are also buried within the present moment. It can nourish these seeds, and allow them to grow, to come to bloom in their full vibrant and monstrous glory. In this way, science fiction offers us what might be called, following Deleuze, as a counter-actualization of the present moment. Even at its most negative, science fiction still embodies what Ernst Bloch called Das Prinzip Hoffnung (The Principle of Hope).
Because of the way that it concretizes futurity – or that which, in the present, is real but not actual – science fiction always demands to be taken literally. Any successful work of science fiction produces a powerful reality-effect. We cannot take its descriptions only as allegories or metaphors. We also need to accept them as factual conditions that have unavoidably been given to us – or to the characters in the world of the novel. In speaking of givenness, I am trying to suggest that these conditions both display to us their contingency or arbitrariness, and at the same time stare us directly in the face with their inescapable, ineluctable actuality.
It is only by reading a science fiction novel literally that we can unlock its visions of the difference and otherness that is paradoxically already contained within the here and now. A science fiction narrative presents us with contingencies that we must accept as factual, but which are also sharply different from our own actual conditions of existence. In doing this, it both underlines the sheer contingency of everything that we take for granted, and provides us with strange alternatives to this taken-for-grantedness. We are led, on the one hand, to envision possible alternatives to the world that we live in, and on the other, to feel the arbitrary and circumstantial – or genealogical, in the sense of the word used by Nietzsche and Foucault – sources of our own embededness.
Dark Eden fits well into the schema that I have just described. But it also complicates this schema somewhat, because it projects towards a future in which we recapitulate our past. The novel reflects upon the ways in which the past, no less than the future, is “real but not actual,” or unexpressed by implicitly at work, in our present. Dark Eden can therefore be described as a work of speculative anthropology. It follows, not only in the tradition of science fictional elaborations of lost or counterfactual social formations, but even more in the tradition of nineteenth-century ethnographic speculation. While Nietzsche’s Zur Genealogie der Moral (On the Genealogy of Morals, 1887) is probably the best-known of these works today, I am thinking even more of such books as Johann Jakob Bachofen’s Das Mutterrecht (Mother-Right, 1861), Lewis Henry Morgan’s Ancient Society (1877), and above all Friedrich Engels’ Der Ursprung der Familie, des Privateigenthums und des Staats (The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State, 1884), which draws upon both of these previous works. I don’t think that historians today regard any of these texts as reliable reconstructions of what actually happened in humanity’s pre-literate past; nonetheless, these books still have value as instruments of speculation, detaching us from taking our present contingencies too much for granted.
Dark Eden, of course, engages these themes somewhat differently, as it an explicit work of twenty-first-century science fiction. But this means that it is overtly conscious of, and directly reflects back upon, its own belated position in relation to these earlier texts. Chris Beckett’s speculative anthropology – with its story of tainted origins – does not claim to tell us who and what we really (deeply and truly) are. Rather, it leads us to recognize the contingencies and bifurcations – but also the fatal chains of cause and consequence – that have made us into what we are, and that both limit and allow for what we might become. The novel might well have taken as its motto Marx’s dictum that “men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please.” In Dark Eden, this even applies – on a meta-level – to the emergence of history itself.
Dark Eden is set on a dark planet, one that does not circle any sun. Such a situation of course has deep allegorical significance. We are given a “dark,” or diminished, version of our supposed Edenic origins. And this visceral darkness is also a condition of extreme isolation. But if the novel also cries out to be taken literally, this is the case above all because Beckett is so meticulous in his science-fictional world-building. The planet called “Eden,” on which the book takes place, is an orphan, a dark body, a wanderer. It is alone in the cosmos, without a sun, without moons or other planets, and even without a galaxy. Eden seems to be located somewhere beyond the confines of the Milky Way. On the rare occasions that the sky is free of clouds and fog, the inhabitants are able to see what they call the “Starry Swirl”: apparently this is our own galaxy, not viewed from within as we observe it, but seen from the outside, in its full spiraling glory.
As Eden lacks a sun, its sole energy source is geothermal. Heat arises from deep within its core. This warms the surface to Earth-like temperatures. The gravity, too, seems to be Earth-normal, and the planet has an Earth-like atmosphere, and plenty of water. Evidently, there are no seasons, since the causes that would give rise to them are absent.The lower altitudes of the planet’s surface are warm and fertile. Plant and animal life forms have evolved, using geothermal energy for fuel. Of course, the planet’s tree- and other plant-analogues do not photosynthesize. Rather, they pump up heat from deep beneath the planet’s surface, providing themselves with energy and warmth. This activity drives the ecosystem as a whole. Animals do not have any internal sources of heat, but they bask in the warmth provided by the ground and by trees. They either forage on the plant life, or prey upon other animals.
These native lifeforms also provide the planet with a certain amount of light. The plants’ flowers contain “lanterns,” as do the horns of animals. Of course, nothing here can rival the brilliance of sunlight back on Earth; the inhabitants of Eden recite legends about how the Sun of Earth was “so bright that it would burn out your eyes if you stared at it” – something that they are unable to directly imagine. But the forests and valleys of Eden are illuminated with a soft perpetual glow, more than sufficient for the people to see, and to find their way.
At the higher elevations, however, “with no trees to give off light with their lanternflowers or to warm the air with their trunks,” everything is “dark dark” and “cold cold.” Valleys are separated from one another by nearly impassable snowy ridges and mountain ranges. Once you get up past the treeline, the only light comes from the Starry Swirl’s distant glimmer – at least on those rare occasions when the sky is clear.
A small number of human beings live in this dark and diminished paradise, in what we might call, without too much of a stretch, an artificial but nonetheless actual “state of nature.” There are five hundred or so people altogether, all huddled together in one small valley. These people live in what they call a single (capital-F) Family, subdivided into eight “groups” or tribes. The people all work together, and equally share their food and other goods. Everyday life rests mostly upon the guidance of customs and myths. There are few explicit laws, and most decisions are made by consensus. Authority, such as it is, resides in the hands of the elders, and particularly the women.
All in all, therefore, the society in place at the start of Dark Eden is something like the matriarchal “primitive communism” described by Morgan, Bachofen, and Engels. This is especially evident in the peoples’ sexual practices and gender relations. “Having a slip” – the term the people on Eden use for having sex – is a frequent and quite casual activity. There are some rules about sexual activity – all sex must be consensual, and sex between very near relatives, or between older men and adolscent women, is discouraged. But these rules don’t really have the sense of prohibitions or taboos; they are more or less taken for granted by everyone, so that there is no allure of transgressing them. In consequence of this easy sexuality, there is no monogamy, no sense of anything like a nuclear family, and no “ownership” of wives by husbands. Children are raised collectively; they retain ties with their mothers and their maternal siblings and cousins, but most of the time they do not even know who their fathers were.
However, at the same time that Beckett presents us with a primordial social form, he also forces us to remain aware that these are not “true” human origins. It’s more a question of something like a degraded copy, or a blurred repetition. Eden was discovered by astronauts from Earth, who reached it by passing through a wormhole in space. All the human inhabitants are descended from a founding heterosexual couple, who were stranded on the planet’s surface two hundred Earth years before. (Of course, the concept of “years” makes no sense on a planet that doesn’t orbit a star, and doesn’t have days and nights, or seasons. The younger inhabitants tend to measure the passage of time in “wombtimes,” or the period – nine Earth-standard months – from conception to birth).
The legendary, long-deceased astronauts Tommy and Angela are the Adam and Eve of this lesser Eden. Tommy was a Jewish man from Brooklyn; Angela, a black woman from London. We gather that they didn’t particularly like one another; but as the sole human beings on the planet, they felt impelled to be fruitful and multiply. Generations later, their memories of life on Earth, and their story of how they came to be stranded in Eden, persist among the Family in distorted form. This founding narrative is supplemented by a salvational one: the tale of the other three astronauts who arrived with Tommy and Angela, but then tried to return to Earth on their damaged starship. They were supposed to get help, so that Tommy and Angela could be rescued. Part of what holds the Family together is their quasi-religious belief that one day a spaceship will in fact arrive, in order to transport them back to the bright light of Earth. All these legends are passed down through frequent tellings and reenactments. Gossip grown old becomes myth, as Stanislaw Lec and Harold Bloom have said; such is literally the case for the Family in Eden.
In any case, the people of Eden live diminished lives, compared to their Earth-born ancestors. They are hunter-gatherers, who eke out their lives at a subsistence level. They have lost many Earth technologies. They do not know how to find, process, or use metals. They have no modern medicine, no long-distance communication devices, and no electricity. Also, a good number of them suffer from birth defects, as a result of the lack of genetic diversity: harelips and club feet are common.
What we have in Dark Eden, therefore, is a sort of self-consciously artificial primitivism. I think that this self-consciousness and artificiality deserve underlining. Recent accounts of so-called “evolutionary psychology” have claimed that “human nature” consists in instincts and capabilities that evolved over the course of the Pleistocene, during the time that our distant ancestors lived as hunter-gatherers, when they first evolved into anatomically modern human beings. Moreover, evolutionary psychology often argues from observations of low-technology hunter-gatherers alive today, as if such people were living fossils, closer than anyone else to the condition of primordial humanity.
Of course this is nonsense, since all human beings alive today are equally “evolved” and equally “historical.” There is no such thing as a “primitive tribe” whose lifestyle has not been deeply affected by contact with Europeans and other groups that have more powerful technologies. The Yanomami are no closer to human origins than are hipsters from Brooklyn. Beckett underlines this fact by presenting his “primitives” as, precisely, descendants of high-technology cosmopolitians from Brooklyn and London.
The 19th-century speculative anthropology of Morgan, Bachofen, and Engels has often been rejected – from their own time right up into ours – on the grounds that it is nothing more than wishfully romanticized backward projection. In a certain way, Beckett literalizes this critique, since the whole point about his “primitives” is that are not really originary. But the novel also suggests that speculative anthropolgy does have value, precisely to the extent that it is understood as a retrospective projection – which is to say, already as science fiction. In this sense, Beckett’s novel presents itself as a heuristic parable, that helps us to understand our own present, precisely by retrospectively extrapolating it. And it encourages us to understand the texts of Morgan, Bachofen, and Engels in the same way. What I am calling speculative anthropology works, above all, as a necessary riposte to the “just-so stories” of evolutionary psychology. We might say that Engels and Chris Beckett both tell better stories than, say, Steven Pinker, or Leda Cosmides and John Toobey, do; but also that Engels and Beckett, precisely because they are aware that they making retrospective projections, do not commit the evolutionary-psychological error of reading the neoliberal model of Homo economicus back into all of evolutionary history.
Dark Eden, like many SF texts, doesn’t give us any omniscient narration. We infer what the world of the story is like from the voices of narrators who are embedded within it and take it for granted. The storytelling of Dark Eden is divided among eight first-person narrators, who all give their own differing perspectives on the events they recount. In the course of the book, we get to know both their common linguistic conventions, and their divergent interests and desires. The characters’ language is especially interesting, as it reflects the constrained conditions under which these people live. There are odd constructions, like the repetition of adjectives (as in “dark dark” and “cold cold”) to indicate intensity. There is the corruption of words that only appear in the myths, and that refer to things that the inhabitants no longer possess: such as “Veekle” (for “vehicle”) and “lecky-trickity” (for “electricity”). And there is the development of neologisms like “wombtime” and “slip” (both already mentioned) and “newhairs” for “adolscents.” All these help to draw us further into the world of the novel.
This divergences among the narrators, on the other hand, helps to convey the way that Eden’s small society splinters in the course of the novel. The society’s center fails to hold. One index of this general collapse – much more a symptom than a cause – is itself the end of common assent to the Family’s mythical narrative. People stop believing both in the value, here and now, of a communal life, and in the promise of an ultimate salvific return to earth.
In this way, Dark Eden recounts what in other language could be called the “fall” of humanity from a primitive-communist “state of nature” into a more explicitly “historical” situation. This “fall” is the result of a number of pressures. The most important factor, though it is only presented obliquely in the text, seems to be a quite material one: environmental stress. The Family lives in one small valley, and as their numbers expand, they find themselves overexploiting and depleting their limited resources. Animals become scarcer and harder to catch. This stress magnifies the effect of adolescent – particularly male adolescent – restlessness, and serves to awaken a certain drive against tradition, and in favor of innovation. Through these factors, we see in Beckett’s novel, just as we do in Engels’ treatise, the recapitulated “origins” of nascent inequality. (The novel, however is more limited in scope than Engels’ account – it hints at, but does not go long enough in time to depict, the emergence of the full-fledged institutions of the family, private property, and the state).
The most important of the book’s narrators, and the one who comes closest to being a central protagonist, is John Redlantern, a restless “newhair.” John feels the strain of limited and decreasing resources, and he feels stifled by the Family’s conservative adherence to tradition. After coolly and deliberately desecrating the Family’s central symbols, he leaves with his (also “newhair”) followers, in order to establish a new social order elsewhere. Their exodus requires, and thereby leads to, an energetic burst of social and technolgical innovation. John and his followers learn to domesticate the planet’s native fauna; they devise new means of transportation; and they manage to produce warm clothing, which nobody ever needed before, but which they require in order to cross the dark, snowy mountains in search of another fertile region.
In the course of the novel we get a lot of John’s inner feelings. He is genuinely imaginative and innovative, able to imagine alternatives and escape routes where others aren’t even capable of realizing that there are problems in the first place. But he is also a bit of a control freak, continually calculating and manipulating the image he projects to others. He wants things to change, but he also has a compulsion to lead, and doesn’t like to see anyone else take the initiative. John’s character type is what, in our own late-capitalist social setting, would be that of an entrepreneur; but in a world without money, and with very different conditions and institutions, he channels his drives and ambitions quite differently.
John’s most important ally, but also sometime rival, is his cousin Jeff Redlantern. Jeff suffers from a club foot, one of the stigamtized (though all too common) conditions in the world of Eden. Jeff could also be described – to use terms that apply in our own world, but that do not exist in his – as a person who is located somewhere along the autistic spectrum. Jeff is original and inventive in ways that even John is unable to imagine; but he has none of John’s ambitions to lead, or to manipulate and control the way he appears to others.
Tina Spiketree is another particularly important narrator – and the novel’s most prominent female character. She is a “newhair” the same age as John, and there is a mutual attraction between them. But she is also the most “objective” and insightful of all the characters in the novel, the one who is most able to see beyond her own immediate interests. She coolly observes John’s flaws and compulsions, as well as his charismatic appeal. She is aware, for instance, that John is “scared” of her, or of anyone else whom he might have to treat as an “equal” instead of a follower or hanger-on. Tina understands the urgent need for change in Eden’s society more powerfully than anyone else, even more than John himself. But she is also more aware than anyone else of the problems that come along with innovation and change.
Tina is especially aware of a dangerous tipping point in gender relations. She knows that John’s necessary initiatives will also result in bad times for women. “The time of men [is] coming,” she reflects at one point; “in this new, broken-up world it would be the men that would get ahead.” This new inequality also means that having sex will no longer be entirely consensual on both sides; “a time was coming,” she reflects, when a man would be able to “do to me whatever he pleased and whenever he felt like it, with whichever bit of my body he chose.”
Tina, of course, turns out to be correct in this grim assessment. John’s own compulsions toward leadership lead to stresses among his friends and followers. At the same time, in response to John’s secession from the Family, the group of those who stay behind also changes. The older women are eased out of the picture by a group of angry, bigoted, and self-righteously moralistic men who seek to take violent revenge upon the defectors. Almost without anyone’s concrete awareness of what is going on, the portion of the Family that stays behind moves rapidly from an egalitarian matriarchy to what seems like the beginnings of a violent, militaristic, and hierarchical patriarchal order. The conflict between John’s group and the remnants of the original Family also leads, among other things, to the (re)invention of rape and murder, which previously had been unknown on Eden.
Chris Beckett, like Engels before him, is aware of how the state of a given society’s gender relations, in addition to being of concern in itself, is also an index, and a harbinger, of social relations more generally. And Beckett’s narrative also works to demonstrate how gender hierarchies cannot be read off directly from genetic differences between men and women, as today’s evolutionary psychologists like to claim, but have to emerge in the course of complicated developments that cannot be separated into supposedly “innate” and “cultural” components.
In summary: Dark Eden offers us a speculative reconstruction of human origins; but it also forcibly calls our attention to the way that this “origin” is not a true beginning, since it remains parasitic upon the legacies of 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, and which they cannot help responding to, whether reverently or rebelliously.
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. In the course of the history recounted in the novel, the form of society and technological development that we take for granted is first dismantled, and then partly built up again.
Beckett’s historical reconstruction isn’t particulalry gratifying, or flattering to our own self-conceptions. But as a thought experiment, it has several particular virtues. One is that it demonstrates the contingent emergence of the very gender binaries that, today, despite the past half-century of feminist activism, we still cannot help taking for granted. Another is that it imagines the way that power relations might function, and potentially change, in the absence of anything like capitalism: in a world without money, commodities, regimented production, surplus extraction, and wealth accumulation. It imagines a world that comes before such activities arise, but also after they have been dissipated.