Interview: Chris Beckett, author of Mother of Eden

Please welcome Chris Beckett to the blog! Mother of Eden, the followup to Dark Eden, just came out this month, and Chris kindly answered a few questions about it, and more!
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Will you tell us a little about Mother of Eden, and how it continues the story begun in Dark Eden?

It’s set more than two centuries on from Dark Eden. I felt Dark Eden was a complete and self-contained book on its own, and I didn’t want to spoil that by going back to the same characters. Instead what I’ve done is jump forward to a time where the story of Dark Eden –which dealt with an act of rebellion by John Redlantern and its consequences– is central to the culture of the entire (now much larger) human population of Eden.

However there are two entirely different takes on the story. One camp, the Johnfolk, see John’s rebellion as having been a courageous and necessary act, which has made it possible to begin to emulate the progress of human societies on Earth. The other camp, the Davidfolk, see it as a kind of wicked vandalism that divided the human community and brought killing into the world. Both sides see themselves as being faithful to Gela, the mother of everyone.

Starlight Brooking, the book’s main protagonist, grows up in a small island community that has deliberately set itself outside of this dispute. She travels to the Johnfolk society that calls itself New Earth, and finds herself playing the role of Ringwearer, which involves wearing Gela’s ring (the ring found by John in Dark Eden) and acting as a kind of living embodiment of Gela. As an outsider, though, she can clearly see that New Earth is a brutal and oppressive society, where men dominate women and a small elite exploits a downtrodden majority. She decides to challenge this, drawing on the charismatic power that comes from being Ringwearer as well as her own considerable pluck and resourcefulness, but it proves more difficult than she imagined.

If I was to summarise the main themes of this novel I’d include, among others, patriarchy, the nature of power and (a theme carried over from Dark Eden) how we invent and invent the past to suit our present purposes and understandings.

What kind of research did you do for these books?

The short answer is not a lot. However I do read and think a lot about history, about current affairs, about religion (about all kinds of things, actually) and that informs the societies I have constructed.

Why SF? What do you enjoy most about reading, and writing, in the genre?

I don’t read as much SF as you might think. There are large swathes of the genre that I just can’t get on with, and my reading ranges pretty widely. However, there is a certain something that I enjoy in good SF which you don’t really find elsewhere, a certain kind of imaginative leap which is simultaneously reckless and disciplined. I’d have a hard job to define it any better than that!

The reasons I usually give for writing SF are firstly that it allows you to engage in thought experiments (what if?). This is particularly the case with Dark Eden and Mother of Eden. Secondly it allows you to set the demons out of the characters’ heads and set them right down there beside them in the fictional world. What I mean by this is most apparent in some of my short stories. In ‘The Gates of Troy’, for instance, where the Sack of Troy serves a metaphorical purpose –it represents something about how the protagonist feels– but, due to a time machine, is something that the protagonist also actually witnesses for himself. I could have written the story as a non-genre story, and had the character (say) reading and being obsessed with Homer’s Iliad (a classic trick of ‘literary’ fiction), but that would have been no less artificial, and in my view, less vivid and fun.

Recently, I’ve been thinking about another reason, which is this. A fiction is a made-up world, and I feel easier about that if the form itself makes that clear. This is just a personal foible of mine, but I know I’d feel inhibited, for instance, about writing a novel from the viewpoint of a real existing person, because I would feel I was making a false claim to know what it was really like to look out of that person’s eyes. And I’d feel a little bit the same about setting a novel in some real time or place that I don’t myself inhabit.

That’s not to say I don’t appreciate writers who do both those things, though. I loved Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell books for instance. I loved Francis Spufford’s amazing Red Plenty, about the USSR in the early 60s. I have to admit in both cases I am utterly in awe, not just of the amount of research that that has been done, but of the ability of the authors to integrate all that information. Maybe that’s another reason for writing about imagined worlds!

You have a background in social work, but have you always wanted to write? Will you tell us a little more about that progression?

Well, I wanted to be a writer long before I thought of being a social worker. Since my teens, in fact. I guess it’s a very teen thing to want to be. At that age you want to be free of grownups but you don’t really want to be a grownup. You want freedom, but not the freedom to work in a boring office and have boring, difficult (and scary) responsibilities. You want freedom to play as often and as much as you like. And things like writing fiction (or being a rock star, a footballer etc) seem, from a teen perspective, to be like being allowed to go on playing. Of course you learn later that to get anywhere with writing (or rock music or football) actually involves a lot of boring slog. I still have a day job two days a week (a social work lecturer) and going into work and dealing with the defined and specific tasks that I have to do there, can feel like a nice break after a few difficult days of writing.

I went into social work in my 20s. I had a strong sense that I wanted to do good, and in particular to do something about society’s injustices. I worked as a social worker and a manager of social workers for 18 years, and have worked as a social work researcher and educator for 15 years since. As a result I’ve had much more contact with the most marginalised and put-upon people of the world than most people with my kind of middle class background. (You could spend your whole life in the city I live in, and still have very little sense of these other lives going on just down the road.)

But I’ve also learnt that it’s much much harder to do good, than I imagined in my 20s, and frighteningly easy to do harm. And I’ve learnt too that social institutions are much more ambiguous than I realised then. Social work skilfully done at the right moment really can transform a life for the better, but social work can also be very much part of the injustice which I wanted to fight against. I couldn’t have written Mother of Eden without having had that kind of experience. That’s to say, I couldn’t have written it without being forced to grow up!

What’s one of the first things you remember writing?

I still have some of the first things I wrote (and illustrated) when I was 6. There are a lot of futuristic jets with swept back wings, bristling with guns, lots of crashes and burning buildings. The plots are a little random but quite violent! You could say I got exploding spaceships out of my system quite early.

Worldbuilding is important in books like these. What are a few of your favorite literary “worlds”?

I’ve already mentioned Francis Spufford’s Red Plenty. This book re-creates a world, rather than creates it, but in many ways it works a bit like a piece of class SF world-building, as the author himself has observed. It is the USSR in the early 60s when the Soviets are ahead in the space race, and when, for a very brief period, the Soviet system really does look as if it might overtake the west. The book vividly evokes a strange society, in which all productive enterprise is under state control, and every single thing that is produced has to be planned for centrally in advance. So original, and utterly riveting.

Going back a lot further, an imagined worlds that made a huge impression on me as a teenager was Pohl & Kornbluth’s wonderful capitalist dystopia, The Space Merchants. I reread it recently and, unlike many things, it stood the test of time completely and indeed was much more funny than I had remembered. Not bad for an SF novel written in the early fifties.

A piece of world-building which I’m sure was an influence on Eden, was Brian Aldiss’s rambling Helliconia trilogy: not a trilogy in the sense of a single plot line unfolding across three books, but rather an evocation of human life on a planet that has two suns, one a sol-type star round which the planet orbits and the other a much bigger star round which the first sun itself orbits on an eccentric path. This results in winters and summers that are centuries long, and Aldiss lovingly unfolds the implications of this, both for human life and for other more exotic life forms.

Have you read any good books lately? Anything you’d recommend?

My dad always used to say that! “Have you read any good books lately?” It was his jokey way of changing the
subject.

A book I read recently and really enjoyed was Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things. It’s about a dedicated young Christian minister with a very rough past, who is sent out to a distant planet to preach the gospel to a community of aliens. The world-building is not the most convincing I’ve come across (this is often true, I find, of SF-type worlds constructed by authors who are not primarily SF authors), but what is utterly riveting is the central relationship between the minister, Peter and his wife back on Earth. They communicate by a kind of ansible-type interstellar e-mail and tensions rapidly begin to grow between them as a result of their separation and the fact that they suddenly find themselves in entirely different circumstances to one another.

The book’s great on the religious point of view too. I half-envied Peter his faith, which imbues his life with so much meaning and gives him so much enthusiasm and energy: Everything is so much more exciting and purposeful when you aren’t just bumbling along like the rest of us, but implementing God’s plan! But his rather grandiose view of his role in life blinds him to things that he might otherwise see.

It’s a very unusual book, and I will look for more of Faber’s work.

If you could experience one book again for the very first time, which one would it be?

Finn Family Moomintroll, by Tove Jansson (published in the US as The Happy Moomins). Pure magic: both the words and the author’s own wonderful illustrations. Or, as a back up, The Box of Delights by John Masefield, which I read so many times as a kid that it fell apart. I even forgive it the unforgivable sin of turning out at the end to be a dream. (But still. How could he? How could he?) In either case, it would be ideal if I could be 8 years old again as well, please.

What’s next for you?

I’m currently working on a third (and final) Eden novel, but won’t say any more about that at the moment. Notwithstanding what I said earlier about why I write SF, I’ve also been writing some non-SF short stories (my well of SF short stories having dried up completely for the moment). Some of them are kind of fantastical (if you think of Borges or Kafka it would give an idea of the sort of thing I mean), but most of them are more or less completely naturalistic (in spite of the inhibitions which I mentioned above!), with just the odd little fantastical twist here and there. I’d like to publish a collection of them at some point.

Keep up with Chris: Website | Twitter


About Mother of Eden:
“We speak of a mother’s love, but we forget her power.”
Civilization has come to the alien, sunless planet its inhabitants call Eden.

Just a few generations ago, the planet’s five hundred inhabitants huddled together in the light and warmth of the Forest’s lantern trees, afraid to venture out into the cold darkness around them.

Now, humanity has spread across Eden, and two kingdoms have emerged. Both are sustained by violence and dominated by men – and both claim to be the favored children of Gela, the woman who came to Eden long ago on a boat that could cross the stars, and became the mother of them all.

When young Starlight Brooking meets a handsome and powerful man from across Worldpool, she believes he will offer an outlet for her ambition and energy. But she has no inkling that she will become a stand-in for Gela herself, and wear Gela’s fabled ring on her own finger—or that in this role, powerful and powerless all at once, she will try to change the course of Eden’s history.

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