Every year, the judges for the Arthur C. Clarke Award face a challenge. They have to read a truly heroic amount of books. They have to critically evaluate each of those books. They have to agree amongst themselves on a shortlist of six books, representing the best science fiction novel published in the UK in the last year (while, as the award’s administrators faithfully remind us every year, arriving at their own definitions of “best,” “science fiction,” and “novel”). And they have to pick a winner out of the six, and do so in the wake of a fannish response that almost inevitably decries their choices as too populist, too literary, too traditional, too experimental, too political, or not enough of any of these things. The judges for the 2013 Clarke award, however, faced an extra challenge. This year, on top of all the usual tasks, it was incumbent upon them to produce a shortlist that would prove that we have not, in fact, lived and fought in vain.
I don’t want to start guessing about the effect that Christopher Priest’s much-circulated, wonderfully ornery screed against the 2012 shortlist had on the decision-making process of this year’s judges. But looking at the shortlist, there are certainly traits it evinces that aren’t always found in the Clarke. It’s a shortlist that feels, in many ways, very old school. Two of the novels on it are, in their basic concepts if not necessarily in their execution, meat-and-potatoes SF—a space opera, a planetary romance, and both fundamentally about those core SFnal values of the exploration, colonization, and transformation of alien worlds. Another is near-future-set social and political SF; arguably, not the most common of subgenres, but one whose barriers for entry are low to the point of nonexistence. Even the by-now traditional mainstream SF entries—and there are two of these this year—are of a very familiar type, the apocalypse or post-apocalypse novel, of which there have already been several examples on previous years’ Clarke shortlists. Possibly the most decisive indication of this shortlist’s relative traditionalism is the fact that this year’s off the wall, gonzo nominee—a position previously filled by such entries as The Red Men or Martin Martin’s On the Other Side (2008)—is a bestselling, quasi-historical, clockpunk technothriller.
Another observation that can—and has, repeatedly—been made regarding the 2013 Clarke shortlist is that, for only the second time in the award’s history, it contains no female authors. The discussion of this result and its possible causes has run hot but, for the most part, not very productive. Critics of the shortlist seem to have taken the stance that an all-male shortlist is inherently indefensible. Among the many problems with such a stance is its unspoken implication that if there were even one woman on the shortlist, it would be acceptable. Thus, the fact that there are rarely more than two female nominees for the Clarke, that over its lifetime only a quarter of the works nominated for it have been by women, and that that number has dropped precipitously in the last decade, are ignored in favor of what might easily be described as a statistical anomaly. Defenders of the award, meanwhile, though correctly pointing out that the Clarke reflects the reality of UK publishing, and that given the paucity of female SF writers with UK contracts, the inevitability of such a result was easily foreseeable, have been too quick to lace this defense with an undertone of “so that’s all right then,” which also serves to stifle discussion of the Clarke’s obvious, years-long bias.
What’s been missing in all this is any discussion of the shortlist itself. Which is particularly unfortunate since—and I’m indebted to Niall Harrison for first calling my attention to this fact—lost in the shuffle of the consternation over the absence of female authors from the shortlist is the parlous state of its female characters, and the fact that in most of the nominated novels, these characters are sidelined, viewed from the outside, treated as the male protagonist’s reward, or made subservient to his heroic journey. This strikes me as a more cogent, more urgent criticism of the shortlist than the outrage surrounding the absence of female authors from it—though there is, presumably, a correlation between these two problems—and it is a shame that that outrage is obscuring, and perhaps making it difficult to have, a conversation about this second issue.
All that having been said, we’re still left with one crucial question: is the shortlist any good? As might perhaps have been predicted from the old-school tenor of the selected books, the 2013 shortlist is solid. Not very exciting, and with no small amount of room for improvement—lost in the shuffle of the outrage over the shortlist’s gender imbalance are two other books by men that oddsmakers were expecting to see here, M. John Harrison’s Empty Space and Adam Roberts’s Jack Glass, either one of which might have raised the tone considerably if brought in to replace any of three or perhaps even four of the current nominees—but on the whole, not a bad bunch of books. There’s much to be said for, and often against, each of these nominees, and with that we should perhaps close this preamble and begin.
In the past, when I’ve reviewed the Clarke shortlist, I’ve ordered the books in the review according to my response to them, from least favorite to most. This year I’m breaking my tradition and starting with a book that, if I’d read it outside of the shortlist, I might have made a positive if unenthusiastic report of. Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars is engaging, well-written, and a quick read. It has several appealing characters and a premise that is, if not in any way original, then handled with some grace and in a manner that is at least somewhat distinctive. On the Clarke shortlist, however, The Dog Stars feels entirely inessential. It’s hard to imagine how anyone might have classed this book as one of the six best science fiction novels of 2012.
The Dog Stars‘s narrator, Hig, is one of the few survivors of a flu epidemic that has mostly depopulated the United States (and possibly the world, though Hig never says one way or another, and towards the end of the novel there are hints that other countries may have been less severely hit). A former contractor, wannabe writer, and amateur pilot, Hig now lives in a small Colorado airfield with his aging dog, Jasper, and a fellow survivor, a taciturn gun nut named Bangley. Hig and Bangley’s partnership is founded on the tactical advantage conferred by Hig’s still-functioning plane: he can use it to scout the surrounding countryside, spot other survivors headed in the direction of the airfield, warn them off, and, if they don’t comply, inform Bangley of their number and direction so that the other man can use his encyclopedic tactical knowledge and scarily broad arsenal to drive them away before they overrun the airport, loot its supplies and kill its inhabitants. It’s a system that has been working, and keeping the two men alive, for nearly a decade. But when Jasper dies, Hig is suddenly struck by the realization that he has been living for nothing more than survival, and wants more. Almost on a whim, he sets his plane towards a heading where, years ago, he heard a faint transmission, and journeys past its point of no return to see what he can find out there.
Right away, The Dog Stars feels like a work covering well-trod ground. Post-apocalypse has been the dominant flavor of mainstream SF for the better part of a decade, sparked by the success and influence of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006). There’s something about the image of an emptied, silent Earth, partially reclaimed by nature, that seems to capture the imagination of both writers and readers, and especially in the mainstream it seems to encapsulate what SF is (two of this summer’s SF films, Oblivion and After Earth, trade on these images). Heller himself seems to be aware of this fact, and yet at the same time not aware. “Back before,” he has Hig tell us, “there was a TV show: Life After People.”
I watched every one. I recorded it. I was gripped. By this idea: New York City in a thousand years would look like an estuary. A marsh. A river. Woods. Hills. I liked it. I can’t say why. It thrilled me. (p. 26)
Of course, the fascination that Hig describes is the very reason that books like The Dog Stars get published, and while it might be more generous to assume that Heller’s calling attention to that fact is a metafictional device, an acknowledgement that Hig’s experiences and his world are a fashionable trope, the rest of the novel is too earnest to support such a reading. Heller is too caught up in descriptions of just the kind of resurgent nature that Life After People showed its viewers, in the landscapes that Hig travels through and the methods he devises to overcome or simply survive them (the fact that Heller is an outdoorsman and nature writer no doubt contributes to this feeling that The Dog Stars is too earnest; the apocalypse often feels like an excuse to bring his nonfiction preoccupations into a novel). Rather than recognizing the artificiality of these survivalist adventures, he instead insists that they represent something primal and fundamentally real.
The problem here, obviously, is that we have seen this all before. On the Clarke shortlist, in fact: Marcel Theroux’s Far North (2008), another novel about the lone survivor of a population collapse who sets out across a wilderness to find what’s left of humanity, was on the shortlist in 2009. It’s a much better novel than The Dog Stars, not least because it doesn’t give in to the kind of sentimentality that Heller revels in (it also would have made a better winner of that year’s Clarke than China Miéville’s The City and the City). And even on this year’s shortlist, The Dog Stars feels redundant. Adrian Barnes’s NOD, though describing a different kind of apocalypse in a different moment, is fundamentally about the same things as The Dog Stars: the collapse of human society, man’s inhumanity towards man, the need for human connection. The Dog Stars is better written than NOD, and lacks many of its flaws, but it’s also a lot less interesting, a lot less original.
Still, if The Dog Stars is to be judged on its own strengths, not in comparison to other post-apocalyptic mainstream SF novels, or past Clarke nominees, or other novels on this year’s shortlist, is there something here worth reading for? Heller’s most distinctive choice in the novel is Hig’s voice, full of short declarative sentences that jump from one topic to another, from past to present and from action to observation, with little warning. It’s also a novel driven by descriptions of nature, and of Hig and Bangley’s Competent Man-style interactions with it, whether hunting, fishing, building, farming, maintaining machines, or killing.
I have seen elk sign. Not so old. If there are still elk. Bangley says no way. Way, but. Never seen one. Seen plenty deer. I bring the .308 and I shoot a doe and I drag her back in the hull of a kayak which I sawed the deck off so it’s a sled. My green sled. The deer just stayed on with the rabbits and the rats. The cheat grass stayed on, I guess that’s enough. (p. 5)
Shortly afterwards Hig tells us that he has been affected by “Two straight weeks of fever, three days 104 to 105, I know it cooked my brains. . . . Thoughts that belonged, that felt at home with each other, were now discomfited, unsure, depressed” (p. 8). There’s little in Hig’s behavior or general competence to suggest brain damage, however, and Heller doesn’t sustain the choppy style of these early chapters for very long. By the end of the novel, Hig’s descriptions are more flowing, but still they continue to stress the importance of nature, emptied of its human component, to achieving the novel’s affect.
Overgrown track swings away from the smaller river to climb a ridge. Bank right to follow it into another drainage and the country I used to hunt. But. Off to the left in the path of the creek a flash of red rock, the upper wall of a canyon just revealed. Always amazed that such a small stream can leave such a landmark, that so much big country stays hidden in these clefts. I bank back to take a look. (p. 163)
In the canyon Hig finds what he’s been looking for: humans who are not trying to rob, rape, and kill their way to supremacy, and who, like him, are simply looking for human connection to replace some small portion of the world they lost. This is also the point where The Dog Stars loses what little liveliness it possessed, and succumbs completely to the clichés inherent in its premise. For all the tension in the scenes immediately following Hig’s discovery of former doctor Cima and her crusty father, and for all that the three survivors’ growth into a group is slow and halting, there’s never any question of what role these two—and particularly Cima—will play in Hig’s life. Hig wants a family, so a family he finds. The rest is just embroidery, a fun adventure story to make Hig’s ultimate happiness feel earned (this has the affect of making Cima feel even more like Hig’s reward than her mere presence in the story had initially suggested).
This is a particular shame because before Hig meets Cima and her father, The Dog Stars has an interesting throughline in the relationship between him and Bangley. To begin with, Bangley seems like a typical survivalist, the kind of person that Max Brooks, in his effective deconstruction of the zombie and post-apocalypse genre, World War Z (2006), quite succinctly summed up with the acronym LAMOE (LAst Man On Earth)—someone whose self-actualization only became possible following the death of nearly every human being on the planet. There’s a mingled disgust and admiration in how Hig views Bangley in The Dog Stars‘s early chapters—he’s sickened by the death that Bangley casually deals out to anyone who approaches the airfield (and by his own complicity in that death, which extends to feeding the murdered scavengers to Jasper), but acknowledges Bangley’s competence and the fact that it has kept Hig alive. As Hig describes him, Bangley is someone for whom Maslow’s hierarchy of needs ends at the lowest level, someone perfectly happy just to survive:
I’m not sure if he thought of himself as a solider or even a warrior, but he was a Survivor with a capital S. All the other, what he had been in the rigors of his youth, I think he thought of as training for something more elemental and more pure. He had been waiting for the End all his life. . . . I think if he somehow died of something that he didn’t deem a legitimate Natural Cause, and if he had a moment of reflection before the dark, he would be less disappointed with his life being over than with losing the game. With not taking care of the details. With being outsmarted by death, or worse, some other holocaust hardened mendicant. (p. 71)
That this is a reductive portrait becomes clear around the point that Hig begins describing his and Bangley’s relationship as a marriage coming off the rails in the wake of Jasper’s death. Like many marriages, this one’s deepest roots lie in things that are not said, in roles that its partners don’t acknowledge they are playing. Bangley may grouse and complain at Hig’s need for something more than survival, at the incredible risks he takes in going hunting, fishing, or even simply exploring on his own (“He would have called it Recreating, which he called with scorn anything that didn’t directly involve our direct survival” (p. 56)), but he enables this behavior, and does his best to protect Hig as he engages in it, because he recognizes that Hig needs it. Just as he helps Hig prepare to leave the airfield because he realizes that this is something Hig needs to do, even though, as Hig realizes later, this abandonment hurts him deeply. (Left unexplained throughout the novel is how this relationship ever came about, an especially unlikely occurrence given Bangley’s propensity to “Shoot first ask later” (p. 97); this may be another indication that Heller hasn’t entirely grasped where the heart of his novel lies.)
That Bangley is absent throughout The Dog Stars‘s second half—replaced with a by-the-numbers instant family so much more emotionally available than him, and so much less vulnerable than he turns out to be—tears away the novel’s most interesting aspect. That he returns as a much less complicated figure, stripped of the potentially offputting tendency to kill even those who may have been innocent which so soured his and Hig’s bond, turns The Dog Stars into something much more simple and much less interesting than it might have been. (Not helping matters is the fact that at the end of the novel Hig is starting to see signs that the depopulated US is being invaded or colonized, and that these intruders are Arab-speakers. It’s not a point that Heller belabors—in fact it’s mentioned briefly enough that one almost wonders why he bothered to introduce it—but it casts a pall over its final chapters.) What’s left is a fairly straightforward and familiar apocalypse that, while well done, has little to distinguish it, and thus little to explain why it should be given a spot on the Clarke shortlist when so many of last year’s SF novels must have done more with their premises.
If The Dog Stars is competent but unremarkable, NOD, the other apocalypse on this year’s shortlist, is risible. The fact that this may have been the response that Adrian Barnes was aiming for doesn’t actually make it any better, because it’s simply not clear why he would bother. For all its gestures towards outrageousness, NOD is ultimately as by the numbers as The Dog Stars, its progress just as predictable.
Paul, our narrator, is a linguist who writes general interest non-fiction with, so far, not much success, and lives with (and off) his girlfriend Tanya. His latest work is “a book about the history of sidetracked words, of orphaned and deformed words” titled Nod. His carefully regulated, and for the most part cut off, existence is shattered when, after a night of tossing and turning, Tanya returns home to report that, with the exception of a few people like Paul, no one on the planet slept at all. As the sleepless nights pile up, humanity faces the cold facts: after six days of sleep deprivation, psychosis sets in; after three or four weeks, death. In a month, the human race will be gone. And before that happens, the world will descend into madness.
At first glance, this seems like a novel, chilling premise. We take sleep so much for granted that it’s hard to accept that its absence could destroy us, and that that destruction could take our minds before it takes our bodies is all the more terrifying—not least for Paul, who is about to be surrounded by monsters. And yet, either because of Barnes’s execution, or simply because it turns out that there aren’t that many ways to tell an apocalypse story, NOD turns out to be essentially a zombie novel. Paul and Tanya scramble for food and shelter; they leave their home in search of safety, steering clear of those who have already lost their minds; they adopt an abandoned child, Zoe, who is also a sleeper; Paul is forced to commit violence to protect Tanya and Zoe; the trio encounters toy despots and self-proclaimed kings who have taken the opportunity of the end of the world to remake society in their own image. The basic plot points, in other words, of your average episode of The Walking Dead.
Where NOD sets itself apart from most zombie stories is in the figure of its antagonist, Charles. Or rather, not so much in Charles himself, who is very much the quintessential mad prophet that one encounters in such stories. Bitter over never having amounted to much in the real world, reveling in his newfound power over the addled, easily led sleepless, he sets up his kingdom in a local school, where he amasses an army, tortures sleepers, and makes himself a harem. What’s different about Charles is his credo, which he borrows from a manuscript of Nod left behind by Paul.
in forgetting words, my thesis ran, we abandon them. But the realities those banished words gave voice to don’t vanish: old, unnamed realities lurk eternally in dark woods, in nursery tales, police reports, and skittish memories.
To Charles, Nod describes a world coming into being: “It’s not just a book! Of course it’s not. They’re not just words. It’s a map. All these words have been hidden away and now they’re coming back to the main stage.” He sees the world of the sleepless as Nod, the land to which Cain was banished after the murder of Abel, where all the ugliness previously suppressed and even removed from our language returns to haunt us. Sleeplessness is thus a gift, a means of seeing the new world. Charles sets his people against the sleepers, and particularly children like Zoe, whom the sleeplessness plague seems to have transformed into a new kind of being.
The problem here is that Barnes’s cosmology never quite coheres. Nod, as Paul describes it, is merely a list of lost words. That a madman might take it for a prophecy is presumably not impossible, but it’s never made clear just what Charles believes. He thus collapses into the garden variety lunatic he started out as. Similarly, Paul treats Zoe and the other children like her as if they were a new brand of human: “if I’m forced to hazard a guess, Zoe and her friends are probably just some sort of next step in evolution.” But it’s never made clear what that means, and what we see of the children is unremarkable—they are silent, friendly, “universally-benign,” as Paul puts it, and utterly unaware of the danger posed to them by Charles and the other mad sleepless. Hardly a compelling argument for evolution in action, and even if we’re to take the term less literally, the otherworldliness that Paul perceives in Zoe and the other children never makes its way through the novel’s pages.
Or perhaps the core problem here is Paul himself. The last novel I read before NOD was John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, a tearjerker about teenagers with cancer. Green’s protagonists are forced to cope with what is, to them, the end of the world—even if that world is only their personal one. And yet, coming to Barnes’s novel, I was struck by the fact that Paul talks about the apocalypse in exactly the same terms as these sick children—as if it is something that is happening to him, a loss that he is experiencing. (It should be said that despite being mentioned in such company, Green’s novel, though manipulative, is witty and affecting in a way that NOD could never hope to be.) There’s no compassion in Paul for humanity, no sadness for its end, not even any pity for the deterioration of people around him, even those he’s closest to—very early in her slide towards insanity, Paul is dispassionately, and with no small amount of disdain, cataloguing the loss of Tanya’s looks. His pity is spared solely for himself.
A misanthrope who “didn’t have a lot of time for people” before the sleeplessness plague, Paul spends the novel saying things like “Everybody dies eventually. So if eight billion of us die in the next four weeks is that significant?” and “you might be surprised to learn that I’m of the opinion that while things are bad now, they really weren’t much better before.” That this is deliberate is obvious, but what’s less clear is what Barnes was hoping to accomplish. Is Paul meant to be shocking? He comes off as a disaffected poseur, desperately trying to seem cool and unmoved by atrocities that are so much more shocking than he ever could be. Is he supposed to have learned and grown through his ordeal? There is some hint of this in Paul’s reminiscences of Tanya towards the end of the novel, but his rhapsodizing about how much he now realizes that he loved her rings false, as does his sudden devotion to Zoe. And anyway, the notion that the apocalypse had to happen so that an unpleasant man could get in touch with his feelings is hardly a point in the novel’s favor.
Making things worse is the novel’s treatment of Tanya, or indeed all its female characters—Paul has a tendency to describe women in terms like “She was a tank-faced woman of Slavic descent who looked like she’d spent her youth being fed steroids in some old Soviet bloc waitress training facility,” and none of the sleepers (i.e. the people who get to hold on to their faculties and make rational decisions) are women. Tanya, meanwhile, has to suffer the indignity of losing her mind and then falling under Charles’s spell. Over the course of the book there are not one but two scenes in which she is sexually humiliated (of the second one, in which Charles takes her as a sex toy, Paul muses that “Why wouldn’t Charles have made this happen? Why wouldn’t he have taken even this from me?”). Perhaps the only scene in which Tanya feels like a person in her own right is one in which, in one of the manic phases of her deteriorating mental state, she lashes out at Paul, telling him that even if the world hadn’t ended, their relationship wouldn’t have lasted:
It wasn’t enough, what we had. You know that. You know you weren’t offering me enough. You fucking idiot. No friends, no life. Your stupid books and your stupid fucking sour attitude! There was nothing there to make a life from. One more fucking sushi night with us alone in the apartment might have done me in! You hate people. You wanted me to hate people, and if I’d stayed with you that’s what would have happened.
A few moments later, Tanya returns to “herself” and assures Paul that she loves him. But it’s the earlier Tanya who makes sense, whose reactions seem realistic given everything we’ve seen of Paul, and assuming that we’re meant to see her as an actual human being rather than as Paul’s wish-fulfillment fantasy. It’s the latter, however, who is present from this moment until the end of the novel, when Tanya is so reduced that the only thing left of her is some stereotype of saintly womanhood. With her last spark of sanity and humanity, she helps Paul save Zoe—a child who, in real life, Tanya knew for only a few days and has absolutely no reason to feel such a deep devotion towards.
NOD gives the impression of a novel convinced of its own uniqueness and transgressiveness, while actually delivering something trite and all too familiar—a garden variety zombie plot, a cosmology that doesn’t hold water, a protagonist too unappealing to make working through his misanthropy worth the readers’ time, and a depiction of women that is all but sickening. Its presence on the Clarke shortlist is disappointing and baffling.
After clearing the hump of not one but two mainstream SF apocalypse novels, it’s something of a relief to come to Chris Beckett’s Dark Eden and find actual, proper SF. Indeed, for all that I have serious reservations about Beckett’s novel, there’s no denying that its handling of a familiar, even old fashioned SF trope is both engaging and thought-provoking. Beckett posits a rogue planet with no sun, where geothermal energy reaches the surface in the form of “trees” that grow out of the heat channels, thus providing enough heat and light to support plant and animal life in small clusters, outside of which the planet is covered in snow. Two hundred years ago, several castaways crash-landed on the planet, giving it the portentous name of “Eden.” Two of them, Tommy and Angela, chose to have children. As the novel begins, the resulting Family, already afflicted by the physical and mental effects of prolonged inbreeding, has hunted its oasis nearly to extinction. Some of the young people, led by a boy called John, want to try to traverse the dark, snow-covered expanse at the edge of the oasis in the hopes of finding another home, but the elders, wrapped up in the cult that has grown up around Tommy and Angela’s story, are convinced that to do so would risk missing the rescue party coming from Earth, which might arrive at any time.
What Beckett has written, then, is a story of scientific curiosity, exploration, and discovery. The form that these take, however, might be more familiar from anthropology than from science fiction, as Family’s stores of knowledge have deteriorated to next to nothing, and in order to bring his plan to fruition, John and his cohorts have to learn how to domesticate animals, make coverings out of their pelts, and render their fat into glue to make shoes out of. Beckett, in other words, has written The Clan of the Cave Bear as set on an alien planet. The result is a rollicking adventure, a compelling narrative of people discovering and learning their world, and a family drama about the conflict between traditionalism and the drive towards the new and unfamiliar that both calls back to our own history and imagines an utterly alien future.
For all that he’s recalling some very old school SF tropes, and the equally old school values of exploration and scientific curiosity that underpin them (not to mention the YA stalwart of a plucky young boy who bucks tradition and saves his community), Beckett is also calling these values into question through his ambivalent depiction of John, who is both a hero and a deeply limited person who, the novel finally concludes, might pose as much danger to his society as he can do it good. Though John is one of the few people in Family who not only recognize that it is facing a catastrophic resource shortfall but has ideas about how to address it, he is also a flawed figure, incapable of compromise or cooperation, desperate for control through any means, from manipulation to outright coercion, and caught up in a restlessness that will forever see him upending the lives of those around him in order to satisfy his wanderlust.
In the novel’s early chapters, John and his cousin Gerry encounter a “leopard” (most of Eden’s native life has been named for Earth lifeforms in a way that roughly corresponds to those animals’ traits; a leopard, then, is a dangerous carnivore) against which, the conventional wisdom says, the best defense is to run and climb a tree. But when he considers that course of action, John thinks that
a story like that might be fine and good but it wouldn’t reflect on us specially, would it? People would enjoy the story for a waking or two but it wouldn’t make them think better of Gerry and me. We’d only have done what anyone would have done: spot a leopard, look for a tree, run.
This type of thinking is typical of John, but so is what he does next: stand his ground and kill the leopard. It’s a scene that establishes that John is brave, capable, and smart, but also that he’s willing to do whatever it takes to get what he wants. Which isn’t, despite what the quote above might suggest, public adulation, but rather control. The novel’s second protagonist, Tina, John’s sometimes girlfriend and grudging supporter, spends much of the novel trying to puzzle him out, coming to an increasingly frustrated and precarious balance between disdain and admiration, while John’s point of view chapters show him alternating between bloody-minded determination and moments of deep depression and self-loathing, in which the hollowness that underlies his drive to explore is laid bare.
As an exploration of this kind of personality and the effect it has on its community, Dark Eden works extremely well, and its attempts to complicate the SFnal tropes at its core through the less than entirely heroic figure of John are largely successful. Less successful are Beckett’s attempts to retell human prehistory on an alien planet. In this respect, Dark Eden falls prey to some glaring problems with its premise and worldbuilding, and, far more damagingly, to the gender essentialism that underpins Beckett’s world.
To begin with, in order to make his far-flung, inbred castaways the equivalent of cavemen, Beckett has to posit that not only things like science or literacy would have been lost in the two hundred years since Tommy and Angela’s crash, but also concepts as ancient and fundamental as clothes or carts. What Family has developed instead of these concepts often doesn’t pass the sniff test—characters in the novel measure their age in “wombtimes,” which would only make sense if, throughout their lives, a series of women were getting sequentially pregnant, each one becoming inseminated as soon as the previous one had given birth, so that everyone could measure time by this cycle. While none of these flaws are in themselves dealbreakers, they feed our sense of Eden as a construct, and throw into sharper relief the problems with some of Beckett’s other worldbuilding choices.
It would be easy to guess that in a community like Family, ancestral figures like Tommy and Angela would be idealized, their story shorn of any unpleasant aspects. But in fact, the story that Family repeats to itself is surprisingly unsentimental. Tommy and two of his companions steal a spaceship; Angela, a policewoman, pursues them with her partner. Both ships crash, and three of the castaways attempt a risky launch while Tommy and Angela stay behind. There’s even a popular play, “Angela’s Ring,” which describes how, years later, Angela loses a ring given to her by her mother, and in the grief of losing that last bit of home rages against Tommy, their children, and the life that he’s forced her into. As Tina realizes when she and John play the main parts, “the weird weird thing about this story of Angela’s Ring was that it didn’t even have a point to it, no happy ending, no lesson to be learnt. It was like one person’s cry of pain, echoing out on and on and on through the generations, even after that person was long long dead.”
And yet, for all the surprising psychological complexity granted Angela in the folk figure that the Family constructs around her, one crucial point is missing: why did Angela choose to have children with Tommy? Why did she choose to found a society based on incest and inbreeding? It’s a point that the novel never acknowledges, not even to confirm that Angela did in fact make this choice, as opposed to being forced into it by Tommy. One can’t help but compare Dark Eden to Joanna Russ’s We Who Are About To . . ., whose protagonist, when encouraged to propagate the species in order to preserve civilization, announces that “Civilization is doing fine . . . We just don’t happen to be where it is,” and wonder why Angela would have made a choice that makes so much less sense. The reason that this story is missing from Dark Eden is, presumably, that Beckett has already told it in a novella with the same title, from his collection The Turing Test (2008). The novel, however, should stand on its own, and in the absence of any acknowledgment that Angela’s choice was by no means the obvious (or right) one, it seems to be arguing the opposite.
It’s a point that feels crucial to our understanding of the novel because Angela, and the values she instilled in her children, loom over John, and his supporters and opponents. Angela teaches her children “to wait for her and care for each other, until Earth comes back,” and these values reverberate through the generations. They result in a society that is female-dominated, and whose running is achieved through cooperation, discussion, and compromise. It is also, however, one that is stagnant, past-worshiping, and afraid of change. It takes someone like John, explicitly likened to Tommy, the explorer, to shake the community up and expose it to new methods that might allow it to survive. He also, however, exposes it to his flaws and those of other men, who bring violence and the force of arms into Family. “The time of men was coming, I could see,” says Tina. “Women had run things so far, when there was just one Family, but that was over now, and in this new broken-up world it would be the men that would get ahead.” (It certainly doesn’t help that this shift from matriarchal to patriarchal society is where Beckett hits his Biblical references most heavily, particularly in the repeated refrain that John has brought bad things, such as killing, into Family. It’s in the service of this theme that Beckett has Tina nearly raped by some Family men, a scene whose utter gratuitousness is only made more obvious by the blatant religious metaphor it is trying to evoke.)
This is the essentialist division that Dark Eden draws between men and women: women form cooperative, caring communities, but they also stifle progress and are resistant to change (even the president who tries to stop Tommy and his companions from stealing the spaceship in the Family’s annual reenactment of the story is a woman). Men form communities that are warlike and violent, driven by the desire to dominate and control—in Family, for example, there is no pair-bonding, and women mate with whoever they think will give them a healthy child, but when John takes his group away, he immediately suggests that they should shift to a monogamous system, where “One man slips with one woman, so he knows which kids he was the dad of.” They also, however, are the source of necessary, life-saving innovation. Tina, for example, is as intelligent as John, as capable as he is of seeing that Family’s situation is untenable, but she herself admits that she could never have accomplished what John did, never have thought of ways to find a new oasis, nor put them into motion.
It’s clear that Beckett is trying to critique patriarchy in the same way that he critiqued the great man myth through John, but his choice of terms means that he has to posit women who are not only stereotypically feminine, but almost inhumanly passive and incurious. There are some attempts to complicate this essentialist view, perhaps most interestingly in Tina’s observation that John’s need to be in control is masking a deep fear.
In that respect, not just some people but most people were braver than John was. I mean, I liked to get my own way too, of course. Everybody knew that about me. I liked to get what I wanted. But the thing was, if I didn’t get it, well, I just tried something else. It didn’t scare me. I didn’t have that fear that he had, which he didn’t even know was there, that fear which made him hold everyone at a distance, that fear of not controlling things.
As we know, and as Tina doesn’t, for most of his life John was molested by the female ruler of his branch of Family, who later kills herself. Both traumas weigh heavily on him—he blames himself as much for the woman’s death as he does for his actual crimes and mistakes, and part of the reason for his desire for monogamy in his new family is the fear that older women might take advantage of young boys. It’s possible, then, to read the novel as saying that John’s oh-so masculine restlessness and curiosity are actually the result of abuse and trauma, of a deviant form of femininity. If this was Beckett’s intention, however, he leaves it largely unexplored, and for most of the novel hits much more strongly on the notion of a stark divide between male and female attitudes towards home and exploration.
Dark Eden is an exciting and in some respects very complex adventure story, and the world that it opens up is ripe for even more intriguing storytelling (Beckett is already working on a sequel, which might move away from the problems with his attempts to create cavemen in space). But its essentialist take on male and female nature is a flaw that can’t be ignored, and which mars what could otherwise have been a thought-provoking character exploration. There’s a lot here that the Clarke should be looking for, mainly the attempt to complicate familiar SFnal tropes, but Beckett’s handling of gender is something the award would be better off without, and ought not to be rewarded.
The second part of this review can be found here.