Review of West of Eden
“If my brother is wounded, I will bleed.”
Before the appearance of individualism, one of the greatest binding forces in our species was the individual’s part of a greater whole. Perhaps the best example of this is the tribal identity given such weight in much of former Mesopotamia, especially the Middle East. Harry Harrison explores this deep-felt connection between individuals and their tribe, or “sammad” as he puts it, throughout West of Eden. This innate bond is crucial in two ways: theme and conflict.
The framework of West of Eden is simple enough; Harrison speculates how species might have evolved had a meteor not struck the Earth 65 million years ago. But within this framework, he sets humans (the so-called Tanu) against the sentient bipedal reptiles called the Yilanè in a fight for survival. The clan identity grows throughout the plot from that of a sammad (or city, as the case is for the Yilanè) to that of a species as the Tanu and Yilanè struggle to survive in changing climates.
But this clan/species identity is used to raise armies and wreak havoc. While the story begins with simple desires to avenge a single atrocity, the reactions of individuals and clans spirals quickly out of control. Revenge and hatred control both species, and the two eventually go to war, spurred onwards by the very bonds that had helped them succeed in the past.
There are far more socio-political explorations, however, as Harrison depicts the inner workings of the Tanu and Yilanè . Religious intolerance in the court of the highly scientific Yilanè leads to shunning an entire group of pacifists that pose no threat to the working order. Embracing differences leads to a sharing of beliefs between the nomadic sammads and the agrarian Sasku people, resulting in a sharing of technology and mutual support. Harrison delves into the environmental debate, arguing that people must work together to best deal with dwindling resources and climate change, in the case of the alliance of the sammads, or face to onset of war and starvation as with the Tanu and Yilanè and even between the sammads. He also tends to have a somewhat negative view of scientific development, suggesting that most research is either militarized or useless as this is the sole Yilanè approach to science.
Perhaps the strongest point that Harrison makes is through the main character: a young man named Kerrick. Kerrick spends a good deal of time living as a captive among the Yilanè and learns a majority of their culture. He later encounters various sammads “from across the mountains” and the agrarian Sasku. His experiences with the Yilanè enable him to understand and appreciate differences, using them to mutual advantage. Not only that, but Kerrick finds beauty in a disfigured woman whom others shun for being “ugly”, drawing on the almost cliche notion of the beauty beneath the skin.
Harrison explores the evolution of religion in separate people groups: nomads have celestial and movement-based beliefs while farmers have a faith rooted in the cycle of the seasons, birth and rebirth. He also jumps into linguistics, examining the manner in which we learn, perceive, and understand language as Kerrick is forced to interact with the Yilanè and new people groups. Certainly, these and many of his socio-political assertions are somewhat academic, supported by the fact that Harrison worked with two professors to create the piece. Nonetheless, the plot is still compelling, as is Harrison’s principal message that we would do better to appreciate our differences.
One point of criticism, though, is that his language, while descriptive and filled with compelling content, lacks a degree of sophistication and eloquence. This might be Harrison’s attempt to convey Kerrick’s perception of the events in the novel. However, this is unlikely for two reasons: 1) Kerrick grows up, but the language does not change and 2) as Kerrick is gifted in language and, later, the art of circumlocution, making his developed elocution far better than what Harrison gives us. Despite Harrison’s somewhat lacking command of diction, he does tell a good story, which makes for an entertaining read.