Mother of Eden | Chris Beckett | 2015, Pb 2016 | Corvus | 468p | Review copy | Buy the book
Chris Beckett’s Dark Eden was one of my top reads of 2013 and was winner of that year’s Arthur C. Clarke SF award. Although that was a complete book in itself, it was good news indeed to learn that there would be a sequel – Mother of Eden. I would recommend that you read Dark Eden first because it contains the most enchanting worldbuilding – Eden is an intoxicating, stunning planet – but Mother of Eden is set a fair few years after the close of the previous novel and it tells an original story.
Several generations have passed since John Redlantern and his friends, including Tina, Gerry and Jeff, turned their backs on Family and years of tradition, heading across Cold Dark into the unknown, to find new territory and start life afresh. These figures have now passed into legend, the founders of new societies, each remote from the other, mysterious and exotic. Starlight Brooking is the descendant of Jeff. They have established a small community, living an island life, surviving by making and selling boats made from bark. They seldom see other communities except to trade and, occasionally, to breed. Their life is a simple one. They wear few clothes, the women hurry to bear children, each evening they all gather in a communal space to share their folklore. The legends they speak of were brought with them by John, Tina, Gerry and Jeff – the story of Angela (Gela) and Tommy, the First Couple, astronauts from Earth who were marooned on Eden and seeded the planet with human life.
Life is hard – years of incest and inbreeding have resulted in deformities and an extremely high mortality rate amongst infants. But despite this the world of Eden is a beautiful one, populated by bioluminescent animals and trees, everything pulsates with light and life. Rivers are patrolled by monstrous man-killing fish and other strange animals live in the woods, bats mimic human voices and can grow to enormous sizes. The strangest creatures on Eden, though, are its humans, with their longing for Earth, a planet they will never see, and their own developing language. These are Earth’s children, abandoned, surviving as well as they can as they continue to degenerate through the generations.
For some it is not enough. Starlight Brooking is another figure like John Redlantern – she wants to explore. Accompanied by her uncle Dixon, brother Johnny, best friend Angie (a ‘batface’) and her friend Julie (clubfooted), Starlight paddles a journey of many days to Veeklehouse, a settlement that includes the Veekle, the capsule in which Angela and Tommy landed on Eden. Here, the beautiful Starlight encounters a society that deals in trade, is led by greed and prejudice and is contolled by cruel punishment. She also meets another distant traveller, Greenstone Johnson, a flawless young man, a chief’s son from a remote settlement that manages to produce the one thing everyone else wants – metal. Swept off their feet, Greenstone and Starlight agree to marry and Starlight accompanies him back to Greenstone’s mining world, built from caverns, served by giant bats and slaves. And there Greenstone places on her finger the ring of Gela, a precious item, and from that moment on she becomes Mother to Eden.
Mother of Eden, just like Dark Eden, is a beautifully written novel. Its language is simple but evocative and Eden enchants. The story is also a simple one. Starlight’s experiences as Mother dominate the novel as she tries to motivate her young husband to change his society, to rid it of slavery and its deep suspicion of women. This is a community in which women who are feared are executed – the only exception is the Mother. But Starlight wants to challenge even that. Teachers and chiefs dominate, the Big People control the Small People and the Small People have noone to control but the bats, whose wings they cut. This is a dismal, brutal, dark world, lit only by Starlight and her loving husband.
The story itself is slightly too simplistic for me – it is predictable. These are familiar themes from history and watching Starlight take them on has a depressing inevitability about it. The ending is also far too rushed and untidy, jumping across time and place, with some key characters disappearing all together. As in Dark Eden, chapters shift from character to character, each speaking to us in the first person, and this provides a range of perspectives on the different ways to survive on this planet. Starlight’s story contrasts strongly with that of her sister who has chosen to spend her days raising children, hoping against hope that at least some of them will survive. This is bleak, indeed.
Mother of Eden suffers from following an original and outstanding novel, one that arguably was not in need of a sequel. The appeal of Dark Eden was for me the originality and beauty of the world and its language. Mother of Eden misses this sense of wonder as we now know what to expect. I also missed the revelations about Angela and Tommy, the rise of the folklore. Nevertheless, I was very happy to spend more time in Eden, it is more than rich enough to provide material for a string of novels, and Starlight proved to be an attractive companion, feisty and outspoken, and similar in spirit, one thinks, to Angela, the original Mother of Eden.