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Literature / West of Eden

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West of Eden is a 1984 science fiction novel by Harry Harrison, followed by two sequels: Winter in Eden and Return to Eden.

Set in an Alternate History where dinosaurs never went extinct (outside of North America, where modern mammals and eventually humans evolved), the story centers around the conflict between humans and the Yilanè, a race of intelligent amphibious reptiles. The main character, Kerrick, is a human who was raised by Yilanè from childhood after his tribe was wiped out by them. He eventually flees and returns to his people, where he must reacquaint himself with a life he no longer remembers and deal with the suspicions and fears his strange ways cause, while the fallout from his escape reverberates throughout the Yilanè city and influences the fate of its leader.

In Winter in Eden, Kerrick and his lover Armun travel into the frigid northlands and meet the playful, promiscuous Paramutan people, while the cultural and military shifts resulting from the previous book's events continue amongst the Yilanè, threatening to completely destabilize their ways of life.

Return to Eden revolves around the tensions between the humans and Yilanè reaching a boiling point, as Kerrick and his people confront his former captor, now dangerously deranged and bent on the destruction of him and all his kind.

Not related to the book (or film of it) East of Eden

This book series contains examples of:

  • Actual Pacifist: The Daughters of Life are fundamentally opposed to harming any life form that might be intelligent enough to understand life and death. When Vaintè manipulates some of them into becoming foot soldiers in her hunt for Kerrick, they seize up and die after killing humans in the same way that a regular Yilanè would when exiled from the city.
  • Alternate Prehistory: The K-T extinction event never occurred; the dinosaurs are still around, and intelligent mosasaurs rule most of the world, with mammals abundant only in North America.
  • Alternative Number System: Played with. Yilanè numbers are in base 10, but since they only have 8 fingers in total (two fingers and two opposable thumbs per hand) their counting skips from 7 directly to 10.
  • Badass Boast: The scientist Ambalasei thinks rather highly of herself:
    Fat gilded-beetle to be crushed! Decayed worm from the lowest dungpit! Before you stands Ambalasei highest of the high, eistaaTranslation  of science, intelligence of the world, possessor of infinite powers. I should sentence you to death for your ill-speaking. I consider that now.
  • Beautiful All Along: Once she discovers that Kerrick isn't going to mock her for her disfigurement, Armun quickly takes him for a lover and husband, gaining confidence and prestige as a result.
  • Bittersweet Ending: To Return to Eden, and to the trilogy as a whole. Vaintè is finally killed, and thus the Yilanè's active efforts to wipe out Kerrick's people are at an end. However, she took the male Nadaske with her in death; Enge and Kerrick part as friends but know that they will likely never see each other again; and Kerrick's epilogue, when he is a middle-aged if not elderly man, has him worrying that the ever-increasing Tanu population will inevitably lead to conflict between the two species again and wondering if it's too late to warn the Yilanè.
  • Bizarre Alien Biology: The Yilanè are intelligent mosasaur descendants that change the colors of their palms as part of their language, can independently move their eyes, and reproduce like seahorses. Their bio-engineered tools are even more bizarre, including living dart guns; microscopes that are actually highly modified frogs; squid and icthyosaur vehicles...
  • Blue-and-Orange Morality: The Yilanè's Bizarre Alien Biology leads to them having a strange moral compass. For example, lying is impossible (and the concept never even occurs to them until Vaintè learns about it from Kerrick), and they are absolutely loyal to their communities to the point of dying upon exile; exiles who don't seize up and die are completely insane by Yilanè standards.
  • Call a Rabbit a "Smeerp": Nearly all the dinosaurs depicted are referred to by their Yilanè names ("epetruk" for T. rex, "nenitesk" for Triceratops and so on.)
  • Cannot Tell a Lie: Yilanè are incapable of lying due to the way they communicate. When Vaintè realises that her human slave Kerrick can say things that are not true, she uses this to murder a rival using an ustuzou arrow, while Kerrick tells everyone that he saw an ustuzou fire it.
  • Category Traitor: The general Yilanè take on the Daughters of Life. Their beliefs allow them to not die when commanded so by an eistaa, and this complete rejection of the eistaa's power is seen as a betrayal of the very nature of Yilanè society.
  • Cavemen: Co-existing with dinosaurs, but there's an in-story reason for this.
  • Chained Heat: After Kerrick's first escape attempt, he is leashed to a fargi with an unbreakable binder to prevent him from running away again.
    Vaintè: Joined together, forever inseparable. I am told our ustuzou runs very fast. Tell me, ustuzou, how fast can you run pulling this little fargi?
  • Cool People Rebel Against Authority: Subverted. The Daughters of Life, because of their beliefs, have a deep-seated anti-authoritarian leaning that makes them resistant to anyone who might even be seen as attempting to establish rule over them. This even extends to Ambalasei, who (much to her aggravation) has to cajole, argue, and bargain with the Daughters she rescues to get them to do anything to help with her scietific studies. However, the rest of the Yilanè think they're lunatics and freaks, and they're generally portrayed as lazy do-nothings who would rather sit around and talk philosophy than anything else, even if that something else would be to their benefit.
  • Death by Childbirth: Male Yilanè have a hard time coming out of the torpid state they enter when carrying eggs, and a third trip to the birthing beaches is pretty much a death sentence. Imehei dies after his first birth.
    Nadaske: Once you may live, twice you may die, thrice you are dead.
  • Distinguishing Mark: Armun has a harelip and cleft palate, and has been a target for derision all of her life because of this and how it affects her speech. When Kerrick first meets her (not long after escaping from Alpèasak) he finds it interesting because it makes her sort of look and sound like a Yilanè, and later comes to find it just a part of her that he loves as much as everything else.
  • Encyclopedia Exposita: Some editions of the book carry a brief index of Yilanè bio-technology and history, as well as brief sections on Tanu and Paramutan culture.
  • The Exile: Vaintè becomes one at the end of Winter in Eden, cast out by Lanefenuu for challenging her orders to stop the war on the ustuzou and for not dying when ordered to do so and marooned somewhere on the coast of Entoban*note , far south of Ikhalmanetsnote  or any other nearby Yilanè city.
  • Fantastic Caste System: A Yilanè's status is largely determined by how well the language is mastered. Farginote  are second-class citizens and used as servants by those with a better grasp of the language.
  • Fictionary: Yilanè, Tanu, Sasku and Paramutan glossaries are included alongside the aforementioned Encyclopedia Exposita.
  • Glad I Thought of It: Ambalasei pulls this on Enge after learning about the primitive Yilanè and deciding to advance efforts to talk with them, to Enge’s barely-concealed irritation.
  • Guilt-Free Extermination War: Explored. The majority of Yilanè just see massacring ustuzou (humans) as pest control, and most humans return the favor. Vaintè at first considers useful ustuzou like Kerrick to be worth keeping around as tools (and later becomes psychotically obsessed with their destruction), but the Daughters of Life recognize ustuzou as sapient beings worthy of life and respect. Kerrick (after rejoining the humans) rejects the position that Yilanè are Always Chaotic Evil, and draws a demarcation between Yilanè who are killing humans and Yilanè who humanity can coexist with, a sentiment few of his cohorts agree with.
  • Human Pet: After Kerrick helps Vaintè assassinate a rival, she starts to treat him like this (as well as using him as a Sex Slave). Thanks to the heirarchial nature of Yilanè society, Kerrick's close association with one of their leaders adds to his own status. This is why Vaintè takes his 'betrayal' so personally, driving her to Kill All Humans.
  • Kill It with Fire: This is an important plot point in the climaxes of the first two books. In West of Eden, Kerrick and some of the other hunters burn Alpèasak, killing the vast majority of the Yilanè on their continent. In Winter In Eden, Kerrick uses the threat of torching Ikhalmanets as leverage to force Lanefenuu to call off Vaintè and her war on the ustuzou.
  • Koan: Sherlock Holmes' saying about the truth being what's left when the impossible is eliminated is invoked almost word for word in Vaintè's thoughts as she tries to process the lie Kerrick told which led to his first escape attempt, or rather, the very concept of being able to say something and it not be the truth.
  • Lady Land: Yilanè culture is ruled by the females; they control politics, science, and the military, and have free access to the entire city. Males are artisans, poets and ultimately brood mares, kept isolated in a particular part of the city and rarely interacting with females beyond breeding or on the birthing beaches.
  • Language of Truth: The nature of Yilanè language and thought processes makes them incapable of lying...until Vaintè discovers the concept after seeing Kerrick do it.
  • Live Mink Coat: Since the Yilanè are ectothermic, to keep warm in cooler parts of the day they use cloaks which are another one of their bioengineered animals.
  • Living Ship: Yilanè sail the seas using genetically modified icthyosaurs with a compartment in their dorsal fin, as well as modified squid as smaller boats.
  • Living Weapon: Alpèasak is guarded by all kinds of living traps, but the one that gets the most mention is the hèsotsan, a genetically modified monitor lizard that shoots poisoned darts and is the Yilanè's main personal weapon. The concept is taken further in Winter in Eden, as rather than marching an army against the ustuzou, ever-encroaching and fireproof poisonous plants are used to slowly push them into a trap.
  • Lizard Folk: The Yilanè, human-sized bipedal mosasaurs directly descended from Tylosaurus.
  • Look Behind You: Vaintè has Kerrick use this as a distraction to murder another eistaa's agent and make it look like the work of Kerrick's people.
  • Male-to-Female Universal Adaptor: Yilanè have reptilian genitalia, including hemipenes on the males. However, the female genitals are compatible enough with human equipment that Vaintè uses Kerrick for sex repeatedly. Since Kerrick was raised by Yilanè from before puberty, he has no concept of normal sexual relations and enjoys these copulations, but once he returns to the Tanu, he starts looking back on his time with Vaintè in disgust and horror.
  • Malicious Misnaming: Ambalasei's exasperation with the Daughters of Life leads her to address them with unflattering spins on their name, such as Daughters of Lassitude and Daughters of Talk.
  • Mister Seahorse: Yilanè reproduce in a similar manner to, you guessed it, seahorses.
  • Mutual Kill: At the climax of Return to Eden, Nadaske stabs Vaintè in the neck with Arnwheet's skymetal knife, but she shoots him with her hèsotsan as she dies.
  • My Country, Right or Wrong: Hardwired into Yilanè biology. If a Yilanè is exiled from its city, the mental shock triggers an out-of-control variant of a hibernative state that quickly kills the exile. Some Yilanè, however, are loyal to something other than their city, and their shutdown reflex will occur in response to different stimuli. This is how the first Daughter of Life was able to survive and spread her teachings. The Yilanè are not quite sure how to cope with this.
  • My Species Doth Protest Too Much: Enge and the other Daughters Of Life believe that anything that has enough intelligence to understand the concepts of life and death is deserving of the chance to grow and thrive. This philosophy runs extremely counter to the normal, utilitarian-minded Yilanè mindset, and as a result the Daughters are seen as subversive lunatics, shunned at best and outright persecuted at worst. Vaintè uses them as basically slave labor and, later, as cannon fodder in her hunt for Kerrick; Enge only survives similar treatment because she and Vaintè were broodmates and she has certain skills that Vaintè finds useful.
  • Organic Technology: Everything used in Yilanè society is a product of genetic engineering. Even the ancient Yilanè began by hunting and defending their males using living crabs instead of stone tools, though one scientist suggests that early on, the Yilanè did indeed use "artefacts." In Winter in Eden, Ambalasei and Enge discover a tribe of primitive Yilanè that still use tools, but are making the first strides toward some of the biological manipulations commonplace to normal Yilanè.
  • Outside-Context Problem: Some more scholarly Yilanè know what fire is, but Yilanè society as a whole is completely ignorant of it, as they have engineered living things to account for everything that fire could do for them. Kerrick, after realizing this, leads a group of Tanu and Sasku men to Alpèasak and burns the city.
  • The Philosopher: The Daughters of Life like to spend a long time ruminating on Ugenenapsa's teachings, how to fit things in their everyday lives into those teachings, and how to spread them to others. Unfortunately, this leads to very little actually getting done, which aggravates Ambalasei to no end.
  • The Power of Hate: Vaintè is eventually exiled herself but fails to die, thanks to her obsession with destroying humanity.
  • Prehensile Tail: The Paramutan have short but flexible tails which have some uses, including (for the males) covering their privates when they run around naked.
  • The Proud Elite: Many Yilanè that have achieved high status are arrogant and love to lord their knowledge and rank over those below them.
  • Punctuation Shaker: Translated Yilanè speech uses four particular symbols to noted specific sounds: ' (a glottal stop), < (tock), and ! which is both (click) and a lip smack.
  • Razor Floss: The stringknife is a single-molecule fiber used as a cutting tool by the Yilanè.
  • Really Gets Around: The Paramutan are as frisky as bonobos, and Armun has to fend off Kalaleq frequently, although he always stops when she resists as to him it’s all in good fun rather than any serious attempt to assault her.
  • Rejection Ritual: The banishment of a Yilanè from her city is a low-key version; it can be something fairly formal sounding or something equivalent to a "Get out."
  • Reptiles Are Abhorrent: The Yilanè inspire hatred and disgust from any of the humans that encounter them aside from Kerrick, although they are equally abhorrent to the Yilanè.
  • Sexy Flaw: Kerrick likes his lover Armun's cleft lip and cleft palate because it makes her similar to the Yilanè, a race of intelligent reptiles that raised him as a kid.
  • Slave Liberation: In Winter in Eden, Ambalasei does a variant, rescuing Enge and the Daughters of Life imprisoned in her city's orchard groves and fleeing with them to an as-yet-undiscovered land.
  • Sliding Scale of Alternate History Plausibility: "Soft" to "completely implausible," depending whether you see the "the meteor missed Earth" premise as an Alien Space Bats element or not.
  • Starfish Aliens: The Yilanè are somewhat humanoid in shape, but quite different in physiology and psychology. The main conflict of the trilogy stems from them and humans being mutually repulsed by their differences.
  • Starfish Language: The Yilanè speak in concepts rather than actual words, and the language itself is a complicated combination of spoken sounds, postures, gestures with the hands, jaw, and tail, and color signals, described in West of Eden as having thousands of separate pieces and 125 billion combinations. Many Yilané never even get the hang of it and are basically ignored by the rest of the community. Ysel, the girl that was captured with Kerrick, doesn't pay attention to the language lessons they're given and is killed when she completely botches her attempt to talk and unwittingly insults Vaintè. Kerrick, lacking a tail, can't accurately make certain movements, but he can fake it well enough to get by, and Enge teaches him a version of the language used for low-light communication which helps even more.
  • Stars Are Souls: The Tanu believe that the stars are the tharms of dead hunters.
  • Starting a New Life: After their escape, Ambalasei, Enge, and the Daughters of Life from Ikhalmanets eventually do this somewhere on the northern coast of what would be Brazil, where they discover a primitive tribe of Yilanè and begin studying them.
  • Thunderbolt Iron: The knives Kerrick and his father wear are made of "skymetal."
  • Took a Level in Jerkass: Herilak goes from respecting Kerrick and his knowledge of the hated murgu in West of Eden to treating him like a traitor and angrily leaving with the other Tanu in Winter of Eden after Kerrick refuses to abandon the ruins of Alpèasak or kill the two males who survived the fire. He even hits Ortnar over the head when Ortnar objects to this, knocking him out for two days and causing a brain injury that later leads to him having a stroke. By Return to Eden, though, Herilak has realized what an ass he's been and made his peace with both men.
  • Translation Convention: A given, as the English language doesn't actually exist in the setting. The Yilanè have no written records because of how their language works, and any such translation of their speech is a particular challenge, which is acknowledged in the appendices in West of Eden. "Fish of great size abound. Desire to catch/eat. Will small/soft go with us?", for example.
  • What If the Baby Is Like Me: Armun fears that any children she bears will also have her facial deformity. They don't.
  • Would Hurt a Child:
    • This goes both ways in West of Eden. Humans killing a Yilanè male and newborns is what incenses the Yilanè into their extermination efforts. When Kerrick's tribe is slaughtered, Vaintè's examination of a still-living infant human ends with her throwing it against a boulder in revulsion after it screams and pisses down her arm.
    • At the climax of Return to Eden, Vaintè uses the threat of killing Kerrick's son Arnwheet to draw Kerrick into a position where she can shoot him.