Eden by Tim Lebbon conjures up what you’d get if you crossed Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation with the lurid “creature feature” paperbacks of the 70s and 80s: a world in which eco-politics and the unchecked powers of nature have created a hostile environment for humans, stalked by blood-thirsty animal predators and the living forest itself.
The story opens with Jenn, her father Dylan, and their team of elite adventurers on a rickety plane making a clandestine landing near the border of Eden, a three-hundred mile expanse of forest wilderness. Eden is one of the Virgin Zones – thirteen vast areas around the world given back to nature – and entry risks a dangerous and perhaps fatal clash with the Zeds, strict paramilitary-style guards. Jenn and her companions must evade the guards to sneak into Eden and attempt to cross it on foot, carrying all their provisions, completely cut off from the outside world. Jenn hopes she’ll find her estranged mother – a fellow adventurer – inside the Zone.
Lebbon knows how to make the most of such an interesting set-up. His world-building is unintrusive, with the inclusion of short World War Z-style quotations at the start of each chapter allowing him to show us multiple perspectives on the Virgin Zones. These quotations ground Eden in a wider and sadly familiar world: there’s an acknowledgement of the horror and cruelty of native peoples being forcibly resettled; frequent (and failing) bureaucratic attempts to gather statistics on the numbers killed or disappeared by the Zeds; and an increasing “found footage” quality which allows us to appreciate what’s happening inside Eden (“There’re ghosts out there. Dead people walking on four legs. Plants that’ll eat you alive”) is far from unique to that particular Zone.
The pace of the book, too, is refreshingly pedal-to-the-metal throughout. We start with a risky mission to infiltrate the border, evading armed guards, and the plot continues at a running pace from there, echoing the free-running adventurers we’re following. While Lebbon’s characters are engaging (I initially worried about whether I’d muddle the team of seven, as there’s a lot of information to absorb in the opening chapters), the characterisation can be summarised using relatively broad strokes: we have the scientist, the idealist, the jock, and so on. Our attention is firmly focused on Eden itself, which is no bad thing; Lebbon has a real ability to get those pages turning, and I found the book extremely hard to put down. The writing is crisp and clean, with unflashy description, and nothing is ever at the expense of the narrative’s forward momentum. That’s not to say there aren’t some lovely, evocative moments – for example, when they first enter Eden: “The forest was silent, but not because there was nothing there to make a noise. It was the silence of a held breath, a beat between moments.” But the writing doesn’t intrude, and this makes the sequences of out-and-out horror – gore, animal attacks, corpses, existential chaos – all the more effective.
The first half of the book relies on hylophobia (fear of the forest) as its source of dread. There’s a sense of man’s primal fear of nature, the watchfulness of the quiet trees, and Lebbon’s set-up means the adventurers are completely on their own in the wilderness: when there are no other humans, no way to the border except on foot, and no air support, even the smallest accident could spell disaster and death. But it’s when the team encounter a corpse partly absorbed into a living tree that the horror really comes into play, and from then on they are stalked by eyes in the night, rustles in the undergrowth, and the sense of surrounding predators, boiling over into spectacularly gruesome and gory animal attacks (a wolf, a lynx, a coyote…) as the team members are picked off one by one. Although the forest absorbs corpses and keeps them horrifically undecayed as sustenance for the living ecosystem, the assimilation isn’t the point (as it was for the Southern Reach in Annihilation). Eden’s purpose is to prevent humans from entering and making it out alive. The intelligent animals – motivated by a parasitic force which one human character, partially absorbed and used as a meat puppet, calls “Lilith” – are protecting the mysterious Ghost Orchid, which only grows in the Zones. The idea that nature has become angry at humanity’s plundering incursions is a familiar yet evergreen one, and Lebbon’s story reminded me of the “creature feature” and “evil vines” paperbacks of the 70s and 80s – I found myself wanting to re-read every book featured in chapter 3 (“When Animals Attack!”) of Grady Hendrix’s Paperbacks from Hell.
With such a rich source for the forces of antagonism and a setting in which all the characters could have been wiped out very early on, it sometimes felt like Eden was holding back in its attacks. While I appreciate this may have been a pacing decision, later encounters with Eden’s deadly fauna showcased (for example) highly venomous snakes, a bear, and the arrival of an air patrol in the form of a giant eagle. Given that Eden is capable of coordinating its attacks (through “Lilith”), I had to surmise the attacks were significantly stepped up as the Ghost Orchid became more and more significant in the story as a whole, or the forest was becoming stronger as it absorbed more bodies. And when it came to that orchid, I would have appreciated it being established a little earlier – perhaps an earlier reference in those chapter-heading quotations – before it took such a prominent place late in the day as a source of conflict and desire. But these are really quite minor observations – overall the plotting and story swept me effortlessly from horrible encounter to horrible encounter while injecting just the right level of wider world-building, and that’s quite a feat.
Lebbon has created a modern eco-thriller which zips along, offering plenty of rustles in the undergrowth interspersed with terrified characters running for their lives. There’s a rich tradition to the “nature wants to kill us” novel, and Eden is its smart, pacey, political and deeply blood-soaked heir.
Eden by Tim Lebbon is published by Titan Books. Buy the book.