Book Review: Eight Keys to Eden, Mark Clifton (1960)

(Ralph Brillhart’s cover for the 1962 edition)

3.25/5 (Average)

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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21 Replies to “Book Review: Eight Keys to Eden, Mark Clifton (1960)”

  1. Great review, and I love the colour palette they have used on the cover (forgive me if that’s an odd comment – I am slightly obsessed by colours).
    The books sounds like a bit of a clunker, I have to admit, but i guess they’re all stepping stones in the genre.
    Thanks!

    1. The book is fine. I didn’t point this out in my review but the portrayal of women is actually relatively progressive — after the colonists’ technology (even clothes, etc) disappear it’s the colonist women who bring everyone together and help everyone get over their initial panic. Sadly, there’s no female character who features centrally in the novel…

      1. That’s a shame – but a huge improvement on most of the books of the era when it comes to women’s roles.
        I liked your comments about the awkward descriptions of nakedness – maybe it’s worth checking out just for that!

  2. That rich line “their clothes disappear” sounds like it was made as a cheeky pre-teen sci-fi novel. And you’ve got to love the 50s-60s love affair with the technocratic “super-scientist” – where has that gone in the modern era? It’s all gun toting idiots with vamp/were/zomb/bleh.

    Haven’t read any Clifton yet, but it seems like it’s a minefield to cross.

    1. Haha, well, people were naked in The Garden of Eden… But, the way the 50s sci-fi awkwardly describe naked people is quite hilarious.

      I like the idea of super scientists who are encouraged by the government to challenge everything — I didn’t put this in the review but the Extrapolators are more than simply scientists, they go to all the newly discovered planets solving scientific obstacles, technological, theoretical, etc. They have their own research ships etc.

      This is worth reading (perhaps) but don’t place it that high on your list.

        1. Well, it’s a tad different. Professional colonists colonize — the Extrapolators are sent out whenever new potentially useful scientific things are discovered — and to solve large problems, like the disappearance of technology on Eden.

          Polymath could have been so much more….

  3. Funny that you mention Darwinia; I’ve read that book twice now because I forget its developments, and always end up disappointed when I remember what they were.

    Haha, yeah, the retro fascination with super-scientists vanished sometime in the late ’60s. I have to assume it was part of the New Wave, everyone getting fed up with Gernsback’s technocrats and van Vogtian supermen who can solve any problem with SCIENCE! and their heightened intelligence.

      1. Gernsback was pretty awful as a writer; his only major novel was Ralph 124C+ or something like that. A lot of the stories he bought for Amazing Stories fit the bill, though: super-smart scientists who get into some “dangerous”/”thrilling” situation, then spend a long chunk of narrative explaining relevant science in meticulous detail to any non-scientist hangers-on. In some cases the authors would shake up this trend and just have authorial science dumps.

        With speculative science left up to the author’s imagination and the ’20s understanding of science, I might add; I remember one story whose plot involved Earth having a plastic barrier. Who knows, maybe it was manmade or something.

        Amazing is the only SF magazine I can think of that has a long history of using footnotes.

      2. I guess he’s more important as an editor. I’ve heard of Ralph 124C+ (or whatever it’s called). I kind of like super-smart scientists/human computers (although, when they take on some more disturbing qualities) — like the twisted Mentat in Dune.

      3. I’m not sure that I even finished Darwinia — I was so put off by the huge shift that happens (I liked the first half when they’re out exploring) somewhere around two thirds of the way through — then I eventually read a review which discussed the end and I was happy that I didn’t get there!

  4. Super-smart scientists are awesome, when done right. That was one of the things I really liked about Dune (twisted mentat, and the Guild steersmen fit the twisted human-computer bill now that I think about it). Having your super-scientists surreal or disturbing makes them a lot more interesting.

    I thought the first half of Darwinia was awesome, but then it jumped the shark, and whatever happened after that terrible mid-book sequence was forgettable. Stopping was a good choice.

  5. Just found an old UK Pan books copy of this but sorta wish that I had read your review first. Intrigued by some of his short stories and the boosting that authors like Malzberg give to Clifton.

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