Mother of Eden by Chris Beckett

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Mother of Eden by Chris Beckett

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Category: Science Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Rebecca Foster
Reviewed by Rebecca Foster
Summary: This sequel to 2012's Arthur C. Clarke Award-winning Dark Eden sees Gela's descendents splitting into factions and experimenting with different political systems. Starlight Brooking emerges as a Messiah figure, spreading a secret message of equality.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 472 Date: June 2015
Publisher: Corvus
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1782392354

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Chris Beckett writes page-turning science fiction with deep theological implications. I almost never read sci-fi, but in 2012 I devoured Dark Eden, admiring it so much that I chose it as Greenbelt Festival's Big Read that year. Anyone approaching this sequel without knowledge of the first book will inevitably be a mite confused, so a synopsis of the first book may come in handy. Six generations ago a pair of astronauts, Angela (Gela) and Tommy, landed on the planet Eden and became matriarch and patriarch of a new race of primitive humans. A young leader, John Redlantern, rose up within the group, determined to free his people from their limited worldview by demythologizing their foundational story. Through events that mirror those in Genesis and Exodus, Beckett presents an intriguing counterpoint to the ways Jews and Christians relate to the biblical narrative.

Mother of Eden picks up another three or four generations after the first book left off, in Knee Tree Grounds. Infighting among the main characters of Dark Eden has led to the establishment of separate races. The 'Kneefolk' are descended from John Redlantern's cousin, Jeff, but there are also 'Johnfolk', 'Davidfolk', and so on. In this new story, the protagonist is Starlight Brooking, an adventurous young woman soon to outgrow her small boatbuilding community. She begs her uncle to take her to see Veekle, Gela and Tommy's landing craft (the name gives a hint of the simplified dialect the people of Eden use; it is also characterised by missing articles and doubled adjectives or adverbs). Through the Kneefolk's experiences trading with other tribes, we learn that languages and accents are starting to diverge, and diverse customs are starting to emerge in terms of marriage, leadership and sacred stories.

On this trip Starlight falls in love with Greenstone Johnson, son of the Headman of New Earth. Although she is uneasy about the hierarchical, patriarchal society he describes to her, she agrees to become his housewoman. When his ailing father dies and he becomes Headman, she will wear Gela's ring and stand in for the Mother of them all. (It's all a bit Lord of the Rings in New Earth.) Meanwhile, Starlight is like Princess Diana – eye candy on Greenstone's arm; a puppet for spreading generically nice messages. But Starlight isn't content to stay in this passive role. She's outraged by New Earth policies: forcing politically powerless 'small people' down mines, taking babies with harelips or clubfeet (common deformities in Eden due to incest) away, enslavement of intelligent bats, and the murder of political rivals – there's a dark Richard III-like story in the Headman's past that resurges.

When she becomes the Ringwearer, Starlight decides it's time to speak out. She and Greenstone grant more power to the small people by involving them in councils. Essentially, they are building a democracy from the ground up; Starlight's popularity makes it easier for her to spread a message of equality. As they go from place to place, she revives Gela's 'Secret Story', a set of rules that women ever since have passed down to their daughters. Like a game of Chinese whispers, it has spawned many different versions, but the core message is: 'Never forget that women are as good as men. Don't ever treat people differently because of the colour of their skin. Don't trust men who think the story's all about them.' Little does Starlight know that in New Earth women are put to death for whispering such things. As rivals spread sedition, she and Greenstone start to lose their grip on power, and before long Starlight has to flee New Earth if she wants to stay alive.

Like in Dark Eden, the narrative alternates first-person accounts from all the characters. Earlier sections get bogged down in anthropological descriptions of societies and political systems, but it is now – when Starlight sets out on a fraught journey back across the water – that the novel really comes alive. Here we reclaim the magic of this dark, mysterious planet where trees thrum with life and peculiar flowers and creatures abound. Mother of Eden feels closer to our own world and thus is not quite as inventive as Dark Eden, but it once again plays with notions of human evolution and the stories we hold dear.

As the book ends, we can see a glimmer of Starlight becoming myth herself: people have attributed miraculous healings to her, and in preaching that secret message of equality she resembles Jesus; 'Her thoughts didn't go back and forth along the same old paths like everyone else's. And because of that, she'd found a whole new kind of power for us.' Knowing that a female deity will never be acceptable to some, and that a rival Headman and Ringwearer lie in wait, provides plenty of tension to fuel another sequel.

Further reading suggestion: The Holy Machine by Chris Beckett also examines science and religion in a science fiction universe.

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