(Ralph Brillhart’s cover for the 1962 edition)
Mark Clifton’s readable and thought-provoking Eight Keys to Eden (1960) has been unfortunately overshadowed by his dismal failure, They’d Rather Be Right (1955) (co-written with Frank Riley), which is generally considered the worst novel ever to win the Hugo Award. Although I wouldn’t classify Eight Keys to Eden as a masterpiece, the novel does contains an original premise, good plotting, and sufficiently thought out “pseudo-intellectual” content that is only overbearing at the work’s climax. The serious nature of the premise is weakened by a forced strain of unfunny “humor” that creeps in at the wrong moments. Also, a complete lack of character development makes us care little for the challenges faced and the plethora of world changing intellectual Eureka moments reached.
Plot Summary (limited spoilers)
The civilization of the future has spread across the stars without any contact with alien species. Numerous colonies are settled by professional settler couples (tough, intelligent, sterilized, quick thinking men and women) who prepare the planet for later colonization. Earth itself has granted great power to a group of Extrapolators, colloquially known as E’s, who operate with little government oversight. These E’s are super-scientists who are trained to question everything, even the most sacred, basic, and established scientific theories. Earth’s government seeks to reign them in anyway they can.
The colony planet Eden has been settled by a group of professional colonists. However unlike their experience on other planets, they’ve encountered no tough terrain, diseases, or other challenges. They’ve even grown indolent and fractious and a few even seek an immediate return to Earth and more difficult assignments.
The novel begins when Earth loses contact with Eden. An expedition under the command of a Junior E, Cal, is launched. Cal and his crew arrive at the planet and are astonished when they find no evidence of the colony. The colonists are spread out, naked, wandering dazed among the bushes. Cal lands and the unimaginable happens, their clothes disappear, the spaceship disappears, and even the most basic “technological” practices (lighting fires, writing in the dirt, etc) are impossible. Also, an unusual ambivalence to the situation permeates their minds.
Eventually, Cal makes contact with the colonists who tell a similar story — a sudden transformation of the colonized landscape into its original form. Questions fly from all directions: Is the planet a new naturalistic utopia? Or, the original Garden of Eden? An elaborate trap? Who is the hunter? Why are they hunted?
Final Thoughts (spoilers)
Although the ending doesn’t come as a surprise (the Ralph Brillhart cover for the 1962 edition almost gives it away!), Clifton takes his time describing the ramifications of the dilemma — mankind forced to confront and cope with a world without even the most basic technology (clothes, writing, fire, etc). Cal, with his superior E mind, eventually figures out the dilema and the point of the entire exercise (that, I won’t give away). And, prevents the government from disbanding the E’s altogether on charges of indecent exposure. Yes, that’s the unfunny “humor” I mentioned before.
Unlike many answers to bizarre situations–Robert Charles Wilson’s frustrating Darwinia (1998) comes to mind — Clifton manages to prevent the disappointing, “why did the author transfix me with a riddle only to bash me over the head with the most inane answer” feeling. Remember, this is from the early 60s, works like these proved profoundly influential despite their flaws.
Here’s a link to the text at Project Gutenberg (here).
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