The scientist J.B.S. Haldane described Arthur C Clarke as one of the few people who
had said anything new about theology in the last 400 years. Perhaps we can add Chris Beckett to the list; a single name isn’t really a list.
His novel, ‘Mother of Eden’, sequel to ‘Dark Eden’, takes place a sunless
world, an alien ecology interrupted when humans crash land without hope of rescue. Centuries have passed, generations of survivors wrestle against inbreeding, hostile wildlife and their own differences. Characters from the first novel are revered as messianic figures; distinct and violently incompatible ways of thinking have evolved over centuries.
‘Mother of Eden’ shows societies relying on stories to make sense, literacy is uncommon, words are held on scraps of bark and only shown when useful. Ancestors words are used to create stories which are twisted to suit those in power. The novel builds tension by showing clashing societies; the rigorously hierarchical Johnfolk society is disrupted by the ideas of the egalitarian Starlight Brooking.
No one challenges the growing perception of divinity; no one seeks to roll back the tide of spawning gods. Shamans call on Gela, survivor of the original crash, her ring is treated as a holy relic. People justify their actions by wheeling out their ancestor’s words; murder, censorship and pillage become lubricant for the state. A few learn when to denounce heretics, when to recite the words of their ancestors; learning about religion gives these people control.
There are shades of Orwell, warnings of state control, what happens when power is sought for its own sake, but Beckett takes things further. He looks at how people’s natural tendency to search for a spiritual foundation in their lives has been corrupted into a way for a powerful elite to cement power. We see the world of Eden as an outsider would, this gradual imposition of theocratic control is clear to us. ‘Mother of Eden’ is a prime example of how science fiction can handle issues which might pose problems for other genres.
Beckett avoids easy resolutions and cliched climaxes in this tightly plotted novel, yet this remains an entertaining read. Motivations could be clearer, more ambiguity in the minor characters would have built a richer picture, but these are nitpicks. ‘Mother of Earth’ is a rare commodity, an excellent sequel which handles philosophy as easily as action.