Science Book a Day Interviews Chris Beckett


Special thanks to Chris Beckett for answering 5 questions about his recently featured book – Dark Eden

Although I always wanted to be a writer, I did not deliberately set out to be a science fiction writer in particular.  My stories are usually about my own life, things I see happening around me and things I struggle to make sense of.  But, for some reason, they always end up being science fiction.  I like the freedom it gives me to invent things and play with ideas. – From Chris’ Homepage

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#1 – What was the impetus for Dark Eden?

Books and stories grow organically, so it’s hard to pin down a starting point. I wrote a short story called “The Circle of Stones” way back in the early nineties which described a version of the big divisive and transgressive act which John commits in Dark Eden. At the time I was interested in the way that certain acts could be both wrong and necessary. This story also introduced the sunless world with the luminous trees. (I believe this may have been prompted by the Amstrad computer I owned at the time, which inverted the normal black-on-white format of the written page by having glowing green letters on a black field.)

Some time later I wrote a short story called “Dark Eden” which is actually the back story to the novel (it can be found in my collection The Turing Test). My daughter Nancy saw the title of this story and said it would be a good title for a book, and that proved to be the catalyst for the novel itself. “Yes it would,” I thought, and pretty much straight away began to write it. (Such a good title, Dark Eden is, in fact, that there are at least two other books and a computer game with the same name.)

Oh, and of course, the other impetus was the original Eden, the Garden of Eden in the Book of Genesis. This story can be read in many different ways, and when I went back recently to have a look at it, it was surprisingly different from how I had remembered it. But for me at the time of writing the book, the Genesis story of the exile from the Garden of Eden is a powerful metaphor for a sense of loss, of something that we long for but can never be recovered, which is surely a universal part of human experience. Of course in my version, people are exiled to Eden, not from it.

#2 – What was the inspiration for The Family? Notions of genetics and inbreeding stand out in the narrative. Was it important to get the science right?

Inspiration for the Family? Well, there’s a plot hole in the book of Genesis. There’s no explanation as to how the third generation came into being, no one for Adam and Eve’s daughters to get pregnant by but their brothers (or their dad). So I decided to confront that, by depicting a family which owed its existence to incest.

Possibly another inspiration was my own somewhat dysfunctional birth family, and some of the dysfunctional families I encountered in my work as a social worker. Unhappy families often cling together, and Family in Eden does that, still thinking of itself as one family, with one father and mother, when it is a multi-generational community of more than 500 people.

I think most, if not all, geneticists would say I haven’t got the science right, and that you couldn’t get a viable population from just two people: the genetic problems would be just too great. This doesn’t bother me unduly. I nod to the science. I acknowledge that there would be a lot of genetic problems. But my approach is to go with what seems plausible to me, as a reasonably well-informer layperson, rather than worrying about getting the science accurate. The same is true of the geothermal life forms. I knew such things existed on Earth (for instance round volcanic vents on the ocean floor) and I extrapolated from that. Even the sunless planet was, as far as I was concerned when I first came up with it, my own invention, and I was gratified to learn later that the science backed me up on that one at least! I believe that occasionally SF authors get it right, even when the scientists say it wouldn’t work, but I make no such claim for myself.

#3 – You write the book from different people’s perspectives. What were the pros and cons of this strategy in terms of telling a story?

The advantages were that I could dispense with an authorial voice. Readers could see for themselves how John explained his own motives and actions, and how others interpreted them, and form their own judgements. I didn’t need to arbitrate. Also I thought it made for greater immersion in the fictional world: the fact that all the narrators were people who knew no other world but this.

The latter was a challenge too, though, because it meant that I couldn’t explain things to the readers in terms they would understand but which wouldn’t make sense to Eden people. I couldn’t use familiar things from Earth as metaphors for instance. Nor could I spend a long time explaining things that to Eden people would be too commonplace and everyday to be worth mentioning. (That would be like writing a novel set on contemporary Earth where characters kept explaining what cars and phones were!) Yet I do think that the discipline of these restrictions was good for the book. It’s often said that restrictions are good for the creative process, and I think that’s so.

#4 – Your book won the Arthur C Clarke award in 2013. What was it like to win this prestigious award? What has it meant to your career?

Amazing! I’m still pinching myself! When you start out writing, you don’t know if you’re going to get anywhere with it at all, and there are times when you wonder if the whole thing is a bit delusional (“Perhaps I’m really no good at all and I’m just kidding myself” etc), so to win the UK’s number one SF prize was incredibly validating. It wasn’t my first prize though. I also won the Edge Hill Prize (a non-genre prize for short story collections) for my collection The Turing Test in 2009, beating collections by several UK literary heavyweights. And that was pretty validating too. Plus I felt I’d struck a bit of a blow for SF as a form.

#5 – Are you working on any new books/projects you can tell us about?

Well, the sequel for Dark Eden came out earlier this year (Mother of Eden), and I’ve just finished the initial version of a third and final Eden book. I have one or two other ideas for future novels simmering away at the back of the stove, and in the meanwhile I’m putting together a new collection of never-previously-published stories. This won’t be an SF collection this time, so it will be my first foray outside of the SF genre.

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