This science fiction offering was a BSFA nominee and the winner of the 2013 Arthur C. Clarke award, so I was interested to see what all the fuss was about. Would my tastes line up with those who felt it was an outstanding read?
You live in Eden. You are a member of the Family, one of 532 descendants of Angela and Tommy. You shelter beneath the Forest’s lantern trees. Beyond the forest lie mountains so forbidding that no one has ever crossed them. The Oldest recount legends of a time when men and women made boats that could travel between worlds. One day, they will come back for you.
You live in Eden. You are member of the Family, one of 532 descendants of two marooned explorers. You huddle, slowly starving, in the warmth of geothermal trees, confined to one barely habitable valley of an alien, sunless world. You are John Redlantern, a teenager and agent of change for life in Eden.
This book has a 1970’s feel about it – but with modern nuances and the story being told through a number of the most prominent characters in first person viewpoint. John Redlantern, the main protagonist who feels that the Family emphasis on the past and insistence on staying put in the Circle Valley despite the increasing scarcity of food, starts off as a classic hero. But Beckett is far too sophisticated to leave him as the idealised leader-in-waiting for the group. Despite his intelligent farsightedness, John is essentially far too calculating and self-absorbed to be an effective leader. There is also a sense that the colony’s very open-ended attitude towards sex has caused harm to youngsters like John, who are in demand from the older women. The dynamic between the sexes is very interesting. While the Family is static over a period of time, the Leaders are mostly women who govern through a series of meetings. Once the situation becomes more tense and fluid, this group of women are by-passed as a group of the most effective male hunters take over and decide that they will fix the problem using more aggressive methods. Because the story unfolds through the characters’ viewpoint, Beckett allows the reader to decide which option is preferable for the long term stability and wellbeing of the Family
The backstory of the colony is poignant and effectively depicted, and as the Family’s eldest members all recount the stories of a place where they belong – a place with light – the majority of the colonists yearn to return to Earth. One of the interesting twists, is that one of the original astronauts had a cleft palette and with the amount of inter-breeding that has occurred, there are a number of colonists born with this defect and other more significant problems.
The prose is spare, with a number of invented words and phrases the colonists have coined during their time on Eden (an ironic choice of name), but this belies the richness of detail and complexity Beckett has managed to include in this tale. Several other reviewers have speculated as to whether there will be a sequel. Like others, I would certainly go to some lengths to seek out a continuation of this fascinating story – but my hunch is that Beckett has so effectively portrayed the plight and ongoing situation of this lost strand of humanity, he sees no need to revisit this scenario. And if you only ever pick up a handful of science fiction books a year, make this one of that handful. You won’t be sorry if you do.