The Short Version: Over 160 years ago, Tommy, Angela, and the Three Companions stole a spaceship and traveled through a wormhole to the planet now called Eden. The descendants of Tommy & Angela now number over 500 and wait for the return of the Three Companions, to rescue them and return them to Earth. But one young man wonders if they might not be better off exploring the planet – and his impulsive decisions will fracture Family forever.
The Review: So, let’s deal with the elephant in the room. Incest.
In a sort of literal application of Biblical theory, Tommy and Angela (the two spacetravelers who stayed behind on Eden) spawn their own subset of humanity – over 500 of them. Not surprisingly, this means that there are some birth defects like the “batfaces” (hare lips) and “clawfeet” and those whose brains are a bit slow. Mostly, though, it just means that you’re going to feel vaguely creeped out for pretty much the entirety of this novel. Because it is a pretty creepy concept, if you think about it – especially when you consider all of the free-love sex that happens in this novel. But the thing is, it also adds for a sort of unique twist on the lost colony story.
Regardless of their… provenance, these people, over the course of 160-some years, have created a new society. It’s one that is (both genetically and socially) moving away from Earth – but they still face similar problems and need the same things, like food and water and shelter. The power struggles, the community struggles, the individual struggles are all pretty much the same as what we deal with on a daily basis (we being ‘humanity at large’). There’s just this slight difference that pushes the story a bit further out of our orbit.
It’s not a bad thing, no matter how weird it is, because it allows us (somehow, through some sort of subconscious trick) to focus a little more fully on the truly alien thing in the story: the planet they call Eden. It is apparently a rogue planet or at least it exists so far away from its star that the light it receives is negligible – the explanations of how the original visitors discovered it are unclear (and how three people stole a massive spaceship and then managed, somehow, to mess it up badly enough that they couldn’t go home is perhaps the biggest unexplained piece of the backstory and the one that bothers me most) and 160 years of inbreeding and reductive, cultish brainwashing have left most with only the barest of understandings. Still, the planet is a fantastic example of life evolving completely differently from how we might understand it. The creatures have names that approximate ones from Earth – but they are distinctly different: the woolybucks seem like reindeer but with light-producing fixtures on their heads, while the things they call leopards have an ability to produce a keening siren’s song, one that lulls their prey into passivity. The flora and fauna are wholly different as well, the trees producing a hot sap that comes presumably from below the surface and that feeds the entire planet. The natural bioluminescence of this planet is fascinating – and rarely does the reader stop to remember that there is no sun here. Beckett does a pretty marvelous job at making that a cold, hard fact and engraining it in the reader’s mind. It was only near the end that I started to forget and only because a new setting was introduced that has far stronger ties to sunlight than cold mountains or dense forests.
Despite Beckett’s impressively imagined and deftly explained new world, the language and the plot seem a bit reductive at times. He applies his own twists to the English spoken by the Family – repetition of words to show emphasis (e.g. “cold cold” or “tired tired”, perhaps the two most frequently used) and invented terms that replace traditional ones (“sex” becomes “slip”, again to provide the most oft-used example) – but it doesn’t feel terribly organic. Even if Tommy wasn’t the brightest bulb in the pack (and that feels like a safe assumption), he and Angela had to have some smarts between them in order to be surviving and to’ve been working in space at all. There’s just something about the speed with which the language devolves that bothers me. I know all languages shift and change – American English shows marked differences from what it sounded like when Abraham Lincoln was President – but the language the Family speaks feels childish and forced. Similarly, their overwhelming passivity strikes me as impossibly naive. I suppose it does make sense, seeing as Tommy and Angela (being the prime movers of this whole clan) had the unique opportunity to impress whatever it was they wanted to impress upon their children and the successive generations… but 160 years feels long a long damn time to’ve had everyone pretty much just sitting around and destroying this one tiny spot on the planet. Yes, the mountains seem intensely big and the voyage across them terrifying (although perhaps my favorite part of the book was the actual exploration) – but John being the first one to’ve had these thoughts just feels somewhat overdue.
Rating: 3 out of 5. I’m impressed with the world-building and find Eden to be one of the more remarkably imaginative planets I’ve ever visited in fiction – but the skeeve-factor of the background to the Family is not to be underestimated. I struggled to invest in these characters the way that I would a more traditional “lost colony” (although I don’t know what my problem is as I love the British royal family – ZING!) and found that the squabbling between them was a little too forced. The conflict didn’t ever seem entirely real to me or that it would blow up so quickly and be so all-encompassing. I longed for the chapters with John striking out across the Dark and anytime pretty much anyone else (Jeff and Tina were alright) got the conch, I found the narrative dragging a bit.