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Book Review: Dark Eden

dark-eden

Author: Chris Beckett
Genre: Science Fiction
Published: 2012

In my home holiday time is reading time, a chance to catch up on the growing digital pile of reading material that I just kept on buying throughout the year like I had all the time in the world for leisurely pursuits. Having been blown away by Adrian Tchaikovksy’s Children of Time I decided to see if anything else on the list of Arthur C. Clarke Award winners grabbed my attention, and Dark Eden seemed like a reasonably safe bet.

And so I lost myself in another culture on a different planet for the two days that I only put this book down to sleep and make the occasional snack.

The Plot

160 years ago Angela and Tommy found themselves stuck on Eden, a sunless rogue planet, after their companions Mehmet, Michael, and Dixon attempted to make their way back to a damaged spaceship and then to Earth to call for help. But help has been very slow in arriving.

In the 160 years that have passed Angela and Tommy’s 532 descendants have developed a matriarchal society (Family) whose sole purpose is to stay close to the initial landing site where Angela and Tommy landed on Eden and to “maintain the ways of Earth” so that when help arrives from the home world they will be deserving of rescue and a place on a planet where light streams down from the sky.

John Redlantern, who recently entered his teenage years, doesn’t agree with the highly conservative teachings of Family, and knows that if it continues to grow at its current rate it will rapidly outgrow the valley it calls home and deplete its already limited food source. By going against all the wisdom and teachings handed down he will eventually break Family and commit atrocities never before seen on Eden, and in doing so hopefully ensure the survival of humans on this dark little planet.

The Writing Style

Before we get into the nitty-gritty of everything there is one issue that you should consider if you’re thinking of picking this book up, and one which many Amazon reviewers have taken exception to – the language spoken on Eden. The way in which the various characters speak is relatively unsophisticated, and admittedly takes a bit of getting used to in the first few chapters. The reason for this is that Eden was settled by two adults and their later offspring – what you essentially have is a mixed dialect based on the speech patterns and sayings of Londoners (from Angela) and Brooklynites (from Tommy) and heavily influenced by baby-speak, which in turn is being used to describe an alien world. While it takes a bit of getting used to it’s (1) entirely worthwhile because the story is amazing, and (2) lends far greater understanding later on to the way in which the characters see their world.

What I truly enjoyed about Beckett’s writing is just how simultaneously amazing and horrible Eden is. Nearly all life on the planet is bio-luminescent, including its trees, which is how humans are able to see despite the lack of a star, and most of the trees are geothermal, which keeps the planet warm enough for habitation. That covers a lot of the scientific ground, but the thought of living life in perpetual night with absolutely no chance of a sun ever rising is absolutely terrifying. Equally horrifying is the fact that all the animals on Eden have been named after an Earth equivalent. For example, leopards are known to hunt on the periphery of the area inhabited by Family – except these leopards are six-legged, furless creatures with bio-luminescent stripes, feelers around their mouths, and flat, black, unblinking eyes; the people of Eden may not know the difference, but the reader sure as hell does.

The culture and people are also incredibly well described, again in a way that is a wonder and truly horrifying. If nothing else 160 years of non-stop inbreeding has taken its toll, and its reasonably common to find adults with the mental capacity of infants. Equally problematic are genetic issues inherited from Tommy and Angela, coupled with the fact that nutrition on Eden is in short supply, resulting in numerous children being born with cleft lips and palates (‘Batfaces’) and club feet (‘Claw Feet’). Again, the people of Eden know no different, and have formed a societal hierarchy based on limited knowledge that includes and makes provision for all the members of Family while simultaneously trying to reduce the number of children born with such limitations, but for the reader it’s difficult since we understand that inbreeding is dangerous (and have enough options on Earth to avoid it), and that medical issues like a cleft lip can be easily treated.

The Feelings

What really struck me while reading Dark Eden was this sense of people being completely out-of-place. While Eden may be technically habitable it’s a world that was never meant to accommodate creatures like humans – the reader knows that, and the people of Eden know that as well. But coupled with this is the conflict that forms the crux of the entire story – do you stay in one place and hope that things will magically get better, or do you strike out and make the best of a bad situation?

What really helped in creating this sense of isolation and being out-of-place is the fact that, unlike almost all other books in this genre, Tommy and Angela were not scientists. Eden wasn’t intentionally colonised by highly skilled individuals who would know how to adapt their environment to be more suitable for human habitation – Tommy was some kind of thief and Angela was a police officer, so they have no scientific knowledge to pass onto their children and brought nothing with them to make life on Eden any easier. For example, the people of Eden have a rudimentary idea of what electricity is, but have no idea where it comes from or how to generate it because Tommy and Angela, much like most people, would have known how to use it, not how to make it. This creates a culture beholden to ideals of Earth without actually knowing exactly what those ideals are, let alone how to accomplish them.

By the author’s own admittance you could probably rip many a hole through the probability of this book, but in reality Dark Eden is more a sociological adventure than one based on hard science fiction, and I look forward to reading its sequels and seeing where this world takes me.

My Final Rating8 / 10
Buy Dark Eden at Amazon.com

 
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Posted by on January 9, 2017 in Book Review

 

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Book Review: Children of Time

children-of-time

Author: Adrian Tchaikovksy
Genre: Science Fiction
Published: 2015

To be honest, I didn’t really know what to expect going into this book – I’d never heard of Adrian Tchaikovsky and I’m not one to buy something just because it won an award (in this case, the 30th Arthur C. Clarke Award for Best Novel). All I had to go one was a blurb that it turns out I’d misread, and the words “Like a Stephen Baxter novel…” under one of its Amazon reviews.

But I’m glad I misread the blurb – what I thought I was going to be reading sounded interesting, but what it landed up being was even better. Children of Time is a masterclass of science fiction writing that ranks, in my humble opinion, with some of the best classics of the genre and one that I hope will continue to be read by people for many years to come.

The Plot

Mankind stood on the verge of becoming an almost god-like species with the technology to turn lifeless pieces of rock into fully habitable worlds. One of these, known throughout the story only as ‘the green planet’, is the site of Dr Avrana Kern’s experiment. Dr Kern will populate the now-terraformed planet with primates and release a cultured nanovirus into the planet’s atmosphere. The nanovirus will go to work on the primates and help their evolution along and hopefully accomplish in millennia what would take nature millions of years to get right until such time as the planet is populated by primates with human-equivalent intelligence.

But mankind is a fickle species. A group under the banner of Non Ultra Natura (‘Not Greater Than Nature’) doesn’t believe that we should play god and try to bring up our evolutionary lessers to our level. They sabotage the station Dr Kern is working on (and through a massive EMP wipeout most of human technology throughout the galaxy), thinking that they can stop this unholy experiment from happening. They get it half right at least.

The primates are sadly jettisoned off away from the planet to a very lonely death, but the nanovirus container does manage to enter the green planet’s atmosphere. Specifically designed to not target other vertebrates (the idea being that the monkeys shouldn’t have any competition as they climb the evolutionary ladder) it instead goes to work on what else it can find – insects. The results of this are a mixed bag with the exception of one particular species – portia labiata, a type of jumping spider, who slowly but surely begin to become self-aware and intelligent.

The novel then follows, over a period of several thousand years, the growth and development of spider society from its humble beginnings as nomadic hunters to fully developed cities of scientific innovation, with all the ups and downs that a nascent civilisation and intelligence have to offer. This society will eventually come face to face with its creators in the form of the Gilgamesh, an ark ship that fled a dying and toxic Earth with the last remnants of humanity several thousand years after the Non Ultra Natura-led war in the hopes of finding a new home on the green planet. Understandably, they may not be that wild about the idea of sharing their new home with giant insects.

The Writing Style

Adrian Tchaikovksy set himself no small task when he took to writing this novel and the two enormously different viewpoints that needed to be covered – those of the spiders, and those of the humans.

For the spiders the tricky part is that you’re usually not going to spend more than a chapter with any specific set of characters given the vast amount of time that’s covered in the book’s 600-or-so pages. Instead each spider-centric chapter deals with a specific point in this society’s growth focusing on key individuals who are dealing with the problems of their particular age. Continuity for the reader in these chapters comes in two forms, firstly the main spider characters tend to share names (Portia, Bianca, Viola and Fabian being the most common), and the second comes in what is known as Understandings. An Understanding is knowledge hard-coded to a spider’s genetic structure by the nanovirus, meaning that while you may be dealing with a spider many generations removed from those in the previous chapter, they have the memories of their long-dead ancestors, so one Portia tends to be able to recall everything that previous Portias have done, helping to keep the story nice and tidy.

For the humans it’s a rather different story, because their society isn’t going anywhere. Trapped on the Gilgamesh for thousands of years, most of mankind will spend the duration of their journey in long stages of stasis, being awoken only when their particular skills are needed. This results in a disjointed sense of time where someone can feel that something happened only recently, when it fact it took place centuries ago. In comparison to the spiders rapid evolutionary climb and the vibrancy of their culture, mankind by contrast is stuck in a highly artificial environment in permanent limbo until they can find a home, clinging desperately to the feats that were achieved during the terraforming days but in the full knowledge that they’ll never be able to achieve it.

Aside from these very specific characterisations of the two civilisations, the book is generally well-written and keeps the story moving along at a reasonable pace. As with most novels of this genre the story is rather dense, but this one has forgone the usual surplus of technical language in favour of a more sociological focus on the humans and the spiders, which overall makes for a far easier read than what you would find in your standard hard science fiction novel.

The Feelings

I can’t think of a better way to describe how much I enjoyed this book other than to say that I am one of the most severely arachnophobic people you are likely to meet, and I was rooting for those spiders. Many a time were the words “Come on Portia, I believe in you!” uttered in my home.

It’s also the sort of book that leaves you in a position where you don’t really know how to feel – on the one hand you don’t want the humans to arrive on the green planet, knowing full well our propensity for destruction and feeling that perhaps our time has passed. On the other, as the species that made all of this possible and knowing our innate capability for good when we set our minds on the right path, you also see the necessity of finding the species a new home, particularly when the destruction of the Earth wasn’t the result of this particular generation’s faults.

My Final Rating: 10/10
Buy Children of Time at Amazon.com

 
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Posted by on December 19, 2016 in Book Review

 

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