An Interview with Chris Beckett about Science Fiction, Outsiderhood, and His New Novel 'Daughter of Eden'
Today I have the pleasure of ‘sitting down’ with author Chris Beckett. I absolutely love his literary science fiction novels Dark Eden (LitReactor Review) and Mother of Eden. (Dark Eden won the 2013 Arthur C. Clarke Award and was shortlisted for the 2012 BSFA Award for Best Novel.) His third and final book in the series, Daughter of Eden, just came out on October 6th.
You have degrees in social work, psychology, and English, which all make perfect sense to me given the world you’ve built in your Dark Eden trilogy. How do you feel your studies influence your writing?
There’s a connection certainly. But it’s difficult to say whether my studies have influenced my writing, or whether it’s simply the case that my studies and my writing both reflect my own preoccupations.
I am interested in human psychology though I am not sure how much my degree in experimental psychology has helped me with that. I am particularly interested in how people imbue their lives with meaning and the stories and beliefs they use to do that, which is perhaps as much a sociological/anthropological question as a psychological one.
I do feel some connection with people on the margins of society. I come from a relatively privileged background, but for whatever reason my self-image has always been of someone on the outside, and I’m sure that’s how I’ve often come over to others as well. (In my Clarke award acceptance speech, I gloated that my childhood years of solitary daydreaming had finally paid off.) I’ve no doubt this feeling of outsiderhood influenced my choice of social work as a career as a young man. And it is certainly reflected in many of my characters (for instance: George and his mother Ruth in The Holy Machine, each in their own way a social isolate, cut off from and afraid of the world; or Jeff in Dark Eden with his twisted ‘clawfeet’; or Angie, the narrator and main protagonist of Daughter of Eden who has the harelip and cleft palate known in her part of Eden as a ‘batface’.)
Social work has also exposed me to aspects of life that I wouldn’t otherwise have encountered, and this experience has certainly found its way into my writing, most obviously in my second novel Marcher, and the various short stories, such as ‘The Welfare Man’ from which it was built.
In the ‘about’ section of your author website, you mention that you never set out to write science fiction, but that it provides you with the necessary distance you need as a writer. I thought that was really interesting. Can you get into that a little more?
What I do is take the things that preoccupy me, and turn those preoccupations, as best I can, into aesthetically satisfying objects: stories, novels. I’d go as far as to say that this feels like my vocation, my calling, though, just to be clear, I’m not saying that the call comes from anywhere other than somewhere inside myself.
So when I said that I didn’t set out to write SF what I meant was that this calling doesn’t feel like it came with a genre label. In different circumstances and/or with a different set of skills, I could maybe have answered that same call by writing in some other genre or even by composing music, or painting, or… I don’t know… writing sonnets.
The point is that all those things, in their various ways, involve establishing some necessary distance. They involve taking the inchoate bundle of your experience and giving it some form, making it something separate to oneself. (Mmm, I’ve never tried using the word inchoate before! How does it sound?) No one, including me, would be interested in a literal unedited recording of my passing thoughts and feelings as they happened, even if that were possible. What would be the point?
No, the material has to be shaped, captured, mastered in some way. (This is essentially the same need, I assume, that led prehistoric humans to crawl into caves and paint animals by torchlight that that they could perfectly well see for real outside under the sky.) And this necessarily involves submitting to certain rules and limitations, like the fourteen lines of a sonnet, or the flat surface of a painting. The rules and limitations I’ve imposed on myself are those (a) of story-telling, and (b) of the science fiction genre, which basically entails, at its minimum, introducing something into the world of the story which makes it different to the world we currently inhabit: in the case of the Eden books, the sunless planet itself.
It so happens that the SF form turns out to be ideal for exploring many of the things that interest me.
You also say: “Science fiction, I think, is a modern kind of fantasy: fantasy for an age in which we don’t believe in magic. Or rather for an age in which we actually can do magic (fly through the air, talk to machines, send pictures to the far side of the world, sew the living heart of one person into the body of another…)” I just love that. In that regard, do you imagine fantasy falling away, separating itself even more as a genre, or sort of folding into science fiction?
In a sense fantasy has been there for thousands of years: stories about imaginary beings, magic, the supernatural. But in pre-modern times those stories would have been heard in a very different way to how they’re heard now. There really were witches, there really were ghosts. You could still make up stories about them, you could have fun playing around with them as ideas, but the things themselves had some basis in reality. The modern genre known as fantasy is a rather different and perhaps rather safer thing. It draws on this tradition –witches, vampires, demons, elves– but it doesn’t suggest these things exist in the real world. Although I loved fantasy as a child, I’m not so drawn to it as an adult, and I’m thinking now that perhaps it is that artificiality that puts me off: the fact that no one really believes in its premises. Stories about werewolves would have been a whole lot more exciting back when we believed that werewolves might actually exist.
That said, a lot of people are put off SF for exactly the same reason. It’s unreal. And most SF is also impossible (I don’t think anyone seriously believes, for instance, that there will one day be galaxy-wide empires). But for me SF, or the SF I enjoy, engages with the possible a little bit more than the fantasy genre does, connecting with science and technology and social change in much the same kind of way that those old folk tales used to connect with supernatural understandings of the world, back when people still believed in them. Somewhere out there, almost certainly, there are other planets inhabited by strange life forms with a separate evolutionary history to life on Earth. If we can’t visit them in fact, surely to God, we must visit them with our imaginations!
I can’t see the fantasy genre merging with SF because I think it satisfies a slightly different itch: a nostalgic, retro kind of itch. But who knows? One thing I’m sure of is that that as long as human beings continue, we will want to imagine things that don’t actually exist in the world we live in. Analytical intelligence is often seen as our quintessential asset, the thing that differentiates us from other creatures, but I’d say imagination was right up there too.
Do you have a favorite book and/or author?
I don’t have a single favorite book or author, but there are a number of books and authors who made a big impact on me when I read them: for instance, in my twenties, Doris Lessing and Kurt Vonnegut. (If I had to pick a single book by each of them, I’d go for Briefing for a Descent into Hell by Lessing, and Mother Night by Vonnegut, though I haven’t read either of them for many years.) A book which I’ve sometimes named as my favorite is The Unconsoled, by Kazuo Ishiguro, an extraordinary novel which uses some of the narrative techniques of dreams (characters morphing into other characters, for instance). I’m a big admirer of Philip K. Dick (again it’s difficult to pick a single book, but if forced I’d probably go for Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep: so much better and richer than the famous movie derived from it). In fact I like Philip Dick so much that I wrote a whole MA dissertation on a single amazing short story of his called ‘I Hope I Shall Arrive Soon’. While on short stories, I should mention J.G. Ballard, who wrote several stories that, in my opinion, are as near to perfect as fiction can get, and also James Tiptree Jr (aka Alice Sheldon), and her bleak terrifying vision. (Check out ‘Your Faces, Oh my Sisters! Your Faces Filled of Light!’ It’s devastating.) And… well, I could list many other books and stories that were, at least for a while, my favourites…
Let’s get deeper, specifically, into the Dark Eden trilogy. How did that first book come about, and how long did it take you to write it?
The original prototype of the novel was a short story published in Interzone in 1992 called ‘The Circle of Stones’. Fourteen years later I published another short story in Asimov’s in 2006 called ‘Dark Eden’ which provided the back story for the novel, the story of the original discovery of Eden. As the novel itself didn’t come out until 2012, you could say it was twenty years in the making, although when I sat down to write the book it all flowed pretty quickly, at least by my standards, and only took a few months to complete. I suppose it had been brewing away for so long that it was good and ready to come out.
I’ve told the story elsewhere about how I think staring at the screen of my old Amstrad PCW computer had something to do with the genesis of the sunless planet (shining green letters on a black field, like a bioluminescent forest). But this whole idea of humans exiled on a dark sunless planet touched something pretty deep in me, and the story grew from there.
And then the idea of exile from home, permanent exile from an achingly longed-for place, connected very much with the Biblical story of the expulsion from Eden. I am not a religious person, but that old old story seems to me to speak to something very deep indeed in the human psyche. It’s an attempt, dating back thousands of years, to explain why happiness and peace are so elusive, and why there’s so much sadness and worry in our lives.
And then (this was in ‘The Circle of Stones’) came the idea of a stifling little group of inbred people (‘Family’ as they call themselves in Dark Eden), longing for a home they had no means of reaching, and a young man rebelling against all of that. It all flowed from there.
One of my favorite things about the world you’ve created are the linguistic ticks. (For example, the characters use a modifier twice – “dark dark” – instead of with an adverb – “very dark.”) They struck me as so authentic and logical. Did that just come to you, or did you do some studying to invent how your world’s characters would speak?
I’m glad you like that. Some do, and some don’t! Some absolutely hate it!
I just sat down to write and it came out that way is the truth. All I really knew at first was that I wanted the language of Eden people to be noticeably different to the English we speak on Earth. Well, it would be, I reckoned, after 160 years with no contact with Earth and no written language to speak of to act as a stabilizer.
But somewhere in the back of my mind (though I didn’t spell it out to myself at the time) was the idea that the language of Eden would be more childish than our English in some respects, because there’d been a time at the beginning when the entire human population of Eden consisted of a mother, a father and their children. Parents with little children tend to babify their language (if that’s a word), even when talking to one another, and I figured that, in the absence of other adults to drag their language back to adult norms, that babification would become embedded in the language itself. Doubled up adjectives have a childish sound because little children tend to double up adjectives as a simple way of intensifying them when they haven’t yet got to the subtler aspects of English syntax. (Actually quite a few languages on Earth do it too, such as Turkish and Malay, but that’s by the by). Little children also drop articles, which is a thing that Eden people sometimes do too (they say ‘in forest’ rather than ‘in the forest’ for instance).
Funny thing was that, while writing the Eden books, I had to keep reminding myself not to use the word ‘very’ and after following that rule for more than a third of a million words, I found myself avoiding the word even when I was writing other things, such as academic articles, which had nothing whatever to do with Eden.
Another part of your world-building that captivated me was the planet itself, and the biology of it. The way you created life on a sunless planet is both utterly believable and truly remarkable. How did you come up with that?
Well, it began, as I say, with the mental image of a shining forest in perpetual darkness. But then I got to thinking about it. I was aware that there is life on Earth which derives its energy entirely from the Earth’s own heat, so why couldn’t there be life on a sunless planet? Eden has a hot core, and that means that, even when its surface was covered in ice, there would be warm places below the surface, with liquid water where life could evolve.
I decided that some of those life forms might have root-like structures that would push through the rock to find minerals and more spaces to inhabit. If some of those root-like structures could break through to the surface, then they’ve have a means of spreading much more widely, because they could pump heat up from below to melt the ice, and that would be much easier than pushing through rock and would provide them with water. And this in turn would open up a way of reproducing themselves over an even wider area, much like fungi on Earth, which live underground but push up the fruiting bodies we call toadstools and mushrooms in order to spread their spores.
I decided that if enough of them heated up the surface, you would get entire areas of Eden where there’d be no ice: hence the forests with their pulsing trees. And, once those forests existed, there’d be a habitat into which other life forms could move, including animals.
Since there was no sunlight, the surface of Eden would be completely dark. Animals would need senses other than sight to find their way around. Probably they’d have heat-sensitive sense organs so they could detect other living things. As the community of animals and geothermal ‘trees’ spread and became more complex, there’d be an increasing need for communication of various kinds. I visualized those heat-detecting organs, already sensitive to infra-red, becoming sensitive to what we would call visible light, and this happening in parallel with the development of bioluminescence similar to what we find on Earth in the sunless depths of the sea, and… well, you get the idea!
I’m not saying every stage in that argument is scientifically viable, but I’m convinced that at least some of it is! (When I wrote the book, I didn’t know that sunless planets were even a recognized thing, but it turns out they are, known to science as ‘rogue’ planets.) In any case, there’s a kind of logic linking it all together, which I like to think contributes to the sense that this is a real coherent world, and makes it more vivid and believable, even if I don’t write it all down in the books themselves.
If you could tell potential readers one thing, what would it be?
The Eden books are about immersion in a dark world, very alien, very claustrophobic for humans who are geared to sunlight, and yet very beautiful too. They are populated by human beings who’ve been marooned there for generations, and who have reverted to stone-age technology and a pre-scientific culture, with a vivid but very incomplete memory of their ancestral origins on a sunlit Earth. But although they are set in this extremely unfamiliar environment, the books are also about needs and concerns which every human being is familiar with. Unlike some SF, they’re not focused on technological problem-solving. They’re about how people find meaning in their lives in a very difficult situation, and how their society evolves as they do so.
Daughter of Eden is the final Eden novel. What was it like coming to the end?
Daughter of Eden feels special to me in several different ways, one of which is that it brings my Eden story to what feels to me like a satisfying conclusion.
This is an unusual trilogy in some ways in that the first book (i.e. Dark Eden) was originally conceived as a standalone book, and still is in the sense that all the characters in it have been dead for two centuries at the time when the other two books are set: both in the divided world that was created by the events in Dark Eden.
Daughter of Eden is close in time to Mother of Eden, but there are several things that give it a different feel to the other two books. For one thing it is told by a single narrator, Angie Redlantern, rather than the multiple narrators of the other novels. And Angie, as the main protagonist, is a very different sort of person from John Redlantern in the first book, and Starlight Brooking in the second. Those two were both charismatic figures, natural leaders, confident of their ability to get people to follow them. Angie, by contrast, is a quiet and put-upon figure at the beginning of the book, very aware of her facial deformity and with self-esteem so low that she allows others to abuse and take advantage of her. She lives in a very humble little community, and her life is about scratching a living for herself and her three children.
Everything changes, though, when a war breaks out between the two patriarchal societies that dominate Eden. The war itself remains largely in the background of the book. In the foreground, at least as I see it, are five women –Angie, Mary, Trueheart, Starlight and Gaia– none of whom is a combatant, and three of whom are fleeing from the fighting. All, apart from Angie, are rather strong-willed, assertive women from the off, women who know what they think and are willing to stand up for it, even if this means taking some stick for it (literally taking stick for it, in the case of Trueheart.) But events place Angie in the thick of things – and in particular one event, that throws the whole of Eden into confusion and calls everything people believe into question.
What Angie learns from that, and where she’s reached at the end of the novel, to me brings the whole series to a conclusion that, as I say, feels very satisfying to me –satisfying satisfying even– though I suspect it isn’t quite the conclusion that many readers might anticipate.
And finally, now that this series is wrapped up, what’s to come?
Well my next book will be a short story collection: Spring Tide. It’s my third collection actually, but the first to consist of original stories rather than stories previously published in magazines. It’s also my first published foray, whether long-form or short-form, outside the boundaries of SF. This is just plain F without the S. I’m rather excited about it.
And after that, well, I have a new novel on the way which is now at the revision stage. It’s also set in a world that’s pretty alien to me, but isn’t so alien to you: namely America. It’s about the rise of a US President at a time in the future when climate change is resulting in mass internal migrations that are threatening to tear the country apart.
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