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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The trouble began on the waking I left Mikey with his dad on the Sand for the first time, and went out gathering bark with my uncle Dixon, my brother Johnny, and my sister Starlight. Johnny had just come back over from Nob Head, and as we paddled through the trees, he told us the news he’d heard there.
“I’ll tell you a really interesting thing,” he said.
Hmmmph hmmmph hmmmph went the tall trees in the water all round us. Everything was the same as it had always been. The sky was black above us. The treelanterns shone. The wavyweed glowed beneath the water.
“Yeah, a really strange thing,” Johnny said. “I didn’t know what to make of it. I was speaking to that guy Harry over there--you know, old clawfoot Harry with the missing fingers?--and he said that blokes have been coming over to Mainground lately from right across far side of Worldpool. Not to Nob Head itself, mind you, but further down alpway to places like Veeklehouse and Brown River. And, if you can believe this, he said they bring metal with them. Not bits of metal from Earth, but metal they’ve found for themselves in the ground here in Eden.”
“Oh, Gela’s heart,” I whispered, suddenly full of dread.
Johnny’s news felt to me like the breeze that came in from Deep Darkness before a storm: It was nothing in itself--all it did was make the lanternflowers sway a little on their branches--but you knew it was just the start. Metal meant change. Metal was something to fight over, like the followers of John and David used to fight and fight over that metal ring from Earth. I thought of my little Mikey back on the Sand, and I imagined a storm of blood breaking over him.
But Dixon just laughed.
“You don’t want to believe everything Harry says. He’d tell you a starship had come from Earth if he thought you’d swallow it.”
Splash splash splash went our paddles. And behind the rhythm of our paddles, which was a sound that stopped and started, came and went, was that older rhythm, which never never changed. Hmmmmph hmmmmph hmmmmph went the trees, as they pumped their sap down to the heat of Underworld, far far below.
“It could be true, Uncle,” Starlight said.
She looked at our uncle with those beautiful, sharp gray eyes of hers that always seemed to see right through you. People told me mine were the same, but of course I’d never seen them.
“We know John Redlantern set out to cross Worldpool, don’t we?” she pointed out. “Him and some other Johnfolk. When they got tired of all the fighting on Mainground after Breakup.”
“Yeah. They set out in little log-boats to cross Deep Darkness. But you know what it’s like out there, Starlight. You know how big the waves are. No way could they have made it. No way. Their bones are somewhere out there on the bottom, no doubt about it, along with John’s precious ring.”
“We’ve always thought that,” Starlight said, “because no one has heard from them since. But perhaps they made it after all?”
A little jewel-bat came darting by us just above the water, trailing its tiny fingertips in the smooth surface.
“Yeah, that’s what I thought,” said Johnny. “And it wasn’t just Harry who told me. Another guy said the same thing: John and the others did make it across Worldpool, and they figured out how to get metal from the ground.”
“And who was this other bloke, exactly?” Dixon asked with a knowing smile. “Not Harry’s batfaced friend Dave, by any chance?”
Johnny’s face went a bit red.
“Well, yeah, it was Dave, actually. But still. It could be true.”
Again Uncle Dixon snorted.
“It could be. Anything could be, but I’m sure it’s not. Even if John’s lot did make it to the other side, which I’m sure they didn’t, why would they come back? Whole point of going there was to make a new start without the Davidfolk to fight against.”
Splash splash splash. We paddled on. All around us the tall knee trees rose up, straight at first, then bending over toward Mainground and letting down their greeny-yellow lanternflowers over the shallow water. They made me think of mothers bending down over their children. But that waking, when I’d left Mikey behind for the first time, everything made me think of mums and kids.
Johnny had had me worried for a moment, but Dixon made me feel better. It was just a silly story, I decided, and I started to enjoy myself again, out on the water with the lanternflowers and their reflections all around me.
When we were kids, Mum used to tell us to half close our eyes and pretend we were in a starship with the lanternflowers as stars. And in few wombtimes, I would play that same game with Mikey. I imagined him screwing up his little eyes, just like Starlight used to do when she was little. It felt good good, thinking about those childhood pleasures coming round again, specially when I knew I’d give Mikey many many more of them than our mum had been able to give to us.
Uncle Dixon stopped paddling.
“That’s the first one,” he said. “That ought to be good and ready.”
There was a tree ahead of us that had a long oval cut into its bark right at the place where the trunk bent over: the knee, as we called it. We took the boat up to it and Uncle Dixon heaved himself over the side while the three of us leaned the other way to keep the balance.
“Come on then, you lot,” he said. “Let’s get on with it.”
There were pegs driven into the trunk. He put his foot on the lowest one, his hand on the highest one he could reach, and, big guy though he was, hauled himself nimbly straight up, carefully avoiding touching the hot trunk itself. Straight away, while we climbed out of the boat, he began tap-tap-tapping at the oval of bark, his white belly hanging out over the rough buckskin tied around his middle, and his face beginning to sweat and redden with the heat.
Harummmph sighed the tree and, from an airhole high above us in its eighty-foot trunk, it released a puff of steam.
Hmmmph hmmmph went the trees all around, merging together into that deep, steady hmmmmmm that you could hear when you drew near to the Grounds from the open water beyond.
I imagined Mikey learning how to make boats when he grew older. I imagined him coming out here one waking with his kids and telling them to half close their eyes and pretend they were floating through the stars.
My sister was different different from me. Soon as she heard Johnny tell that story about the metal and the people from across the Pool, you could see the dread in her face. Soon as Uncle Dixon said it wasn’t true, you could see her relax. Me, I was the other way round. When Johnny told the story it was like a way out opening up. I felt excited, and my head filled up at once with thoughts about new possibilities. And when Dixon laughed it all off, it was like that way out had been closed off and I was trapped once more in boring boring Knee Tree Grounds.
Uncle Dixon knocked carefully with his round stone, pausing after every few taps to wipe his hands on his buckskin waistwrap. Cut off from the hot sap that flows through the bark, the oval had shrunk away from the harder wood beneath and from the live bark around it. If we’d left it long enough, it should just come away.
“Shifting yet?” I called up to him.
“Nearly there, I reckon.” The sweat on his face glistened in the treeshine. “Let’s give it a go. Ready to catch?”
I cupped my hands to receive the heavy stone and placed it carefully in the boat. Stones were valuable things on sandy Knee Tree Grounds.
Dixon put his fingers into the crack in the bark and began to pull gently.
“Easy,” he muttered to himself under his breath. “Easy. Ah, here we go! You lot ready? It’s coming down.”
With a slow rasping sound, the long oval pulled away from the trunk: a whole new boat, or at least it would be once it had been scraped and rubbed smooth, and layers of sap and fatbuck oil spread over it to fill up the tiny holes.
“There we go,” Uncle Dixon said.
He had the same satisfied tone he used every single time a bark came cleanly away from a tree. However many times he did it, the pleasure was just the same.
“Okay, get ready for it.”
Panting with the effort and heat, he lowered the bark, carefully carefully, until the three of us could reach the bottom edge and hold it up out of the water. Then he clambered quickly down the tree.
“Jeff’s sharp eyes,” he sighed gratefully as he slipped back into the coolness, “that feels good good.”
He splashed his face and his pudgy body while we placed the hot piece of bark carefully into the spare boat. He must have said the same thing a thousand times.
“Came away nice and clean, that one. And there’s not one blemish on it. It’ll be a good good runner. Take it to Nob Head and it should get us five six glass knives at least.”
“I reckon we’ve been getting more trade lately than anyone else on Grounds,” Johnny said.
Uncle Dixon nodded comfortably as we all got back into the boat.
“Yeah. Well, that’s down to experience, isn’t it? I’ve been doing this since I was a little kid. I know a good knee, and I know when bark’s ready. These youngsters try to pull bark too early, thinking it’ll save them time, but of course it never does. What time have you saved if you rip a hole in your boat and have to start again? I’ve seen good trees ruined that way, too. Bark never grows back as cleanly, and . . .”
This was our whole life, I suddenly thought. This was what we did, these were our pleasures: bark that came away cleanly, a boat that was good runner, a trip once in a while to just one other little place, only a few miles across the water.
“Why don’t we go down to Veeklehouse?” I said as we finally paddled back toward the Sand. Behind us, in the spare boat, we were pulling four bark ovals. “We could trade boats there just like we do at Nob Head. And we could find out if Johnny’s story is true or not.”
Of course Glitterfish was completely against it.
“That’s a stupid idea, Starlight. It’s ten wakings of paddling each way, and it’s dangerous. And what would be the point? We can get all the things we need in Nob Head.”
Around us, and above and below, the greeny-yellow lanterns shone.
“Well, you don’t have to go, Glits,” I told her. “I mean, I know you’re way too sensible and grown-up, but why can’t the rest of us?”
She shook her head. “You need to get a kid of your own, Starlight: something to think about other than just having fun. Then you’d settle down and realize what’s really important.”
“You’ve always been settled down, Glits. You were an oldmum before you even had tits, and now all you ever think about is Mikey Mikey Mikey.”
“Tom’s dick, Star, that’s a bit harsh!” protested Johnny.
Glits pulled a face. “Don’t worry, Johnny, I’m used to it.”
We dug and dug and dug into the water. Hmmmph hmmmph hmmmph hmmmph went the trees.
“What’s the point of life,” I asked, “if as soon as we stop being kids all we think about is having kids? That’s like going round and round in a circle, and never getting anywhere at all.”
“Why do we need to get anywhere, Star?” Uncle Dixon asked. “Like Jeff Redlantern always used to say: We’re here. People always want to be there, but wherever you go, however far you travel, you can only ever be here. We might as well get used to it.”
“Jeff may have said that, but I notice he didn’t stay there in Circle Valley. And then he crossed over here from Mainground as well, didn’t he?”
That, after all, was the reason we were all here. Jeff brought a bunch of people over to Knee Tree Grounds to get away from the fighting over the ring that happened after Breakup, and they were our own great-great grandparents.
Johnny laughed. “Star’s got a point, actually. Whatever Jeff said, he wasn’t really one for staying in the same place.”
“He was once he got here,” said Glits.
Four five yards away, a little claw-bat swooped down to snatch up a fish from the surface of the water.
“I suppose if John and his people didn’t drown, then they’d probably still have Gela’s ring,” Dixon said after a while. “Odd to think, isn’t it? That ring from the old story, still out there somewhere in the world.”
“I’d love to see it!” I said. “Imagine seeing a ring that came from Earth itself, right there in front of you, as real as these trees or this water.”
Uncle Dixon gave a grown-up laugh. “I don’t think there’s much chance of that.”
“I’d hate to see it,” my big sister said quietly. “Think of all the grief it caused! Think of all the killing! I hope it’s down there on the bottom under Deep Darkness, out of the way for good.”
We paddled on for a bit without talking. I hadn’t forgotten about Veeklehouse, and I wasn’t planning on letting it go--I never let go of anything once I made up my mind--but I knew it was best to give Uncle Dixon a little time. He was the kindest of men, but no one would claim he was the quickest.
Sure enough, in due time, a new thought came to him.
“There is the Veekle, though!” he said in a surprised-sounding voice. “If we went down to Veeklehouse, we’d see that. That comes from Earth, and it’s made of metal, and it’s a bloody great big thing as well. Not just some little ring.”
“Yes, and it’s a bloody long way away, too,” Glitterfish said. “Old Candy went there once, and she nearly drowned.”
Here it was again: the difference between her and me.
“Come on, let’s go there!” I cried. “Please. Just once. Even if it is a long way. Please, Uncle, please!”
Dixon thought about it for a few seconds.
“We could get there in nine ten wakings, from what I’ve heard,” he said slowly, “if we went the straight way, right across the Tongue.”
Reading Group Guide
Book club discussin guide for Chris Beckett's fiction novel MOTHER OF EDEN.
1. Eden has no day or night, no annual cycle of seasons; instead, the people of Eden have their own way of measuring time—three different ways, in fact. What might have led to the evolution of different time-telling methods?
2. After two centuries, there are still hostile feelings between followers of David and the followers of John. How is such hostility sustained among people who weren’t even born—and indeed whose grandparents weren’t even born—when the original conflict took place?
3. How does a society like New Earth evolve? Why do the “small people” let it stay like that?
4. What function is played by the cutbats in the society of New Earth?
5. Starlight believes that men control women in New Earth, not because women are powerless, but because women seem to them very powerful indeed. Do you agree?
6. Starlight is viewed, in the course of this book, through the eyes of several other women, including her sister Glitterfish, Julie, Quietstream, Lucy Johnson, and the metaldiggers Clare and Mary. What does each see in her? How much do they see what is really there?
7. Is Greenstone weak? What would he be like if he was strong? Do we apply different criteria for “weak” and “strong” when talking about men and about women?
8. What has this book to say about the nature of power?
9. According to a tradition on Knee Tree Grounds, Jeff Redlantern observed that the past is always changing, and that the important and unchanging thing is the present. This is not the view taken by the Johnfolk or the Davidfolk. Do you agree more with Jeff Redlantern or the Johnfolk and Davidfolk?
10. What is the significance of the Secret Story?
11. Can one generation pass on an important truth or insight to future generations in a way that will keep it intact?
12. As in Tolkien’s famous trilogy, a ring is very powerful in this story. What are the similarities and differences between this ring and the ring in The Lord of the Rings?
13. Among other things, this book could be described as dealing with the classic science-fiction theme of alien encounter. What is this book’s particular take on it, and how does it differ from other examples you have seen?