Jason M. Hough, The Darwin Elevator
The Space Elevator rises 40,000 kilometers above Darwin, Australia, humanity’s last city. Its strange alien technology lets humans farm the reaches of space, though nobody understands how it arrived, or why. And nobody understands why its coming corresponded with SUBS, a plague that turns infected humans into ravenous zombies. The Elevator’s Aura protects the city, while Earth beyond has fallen. But something worse may be coming.
Purists may grouse that Jason Hough’s debut novel doesn’t break new ground. The fetish for originality, beloved by writing textbooks, colors many readers’ awareness. But Hough shines new light on science fiction fundamentals, and uses them to bolster a complex, braided narrative. The result resembles the paperbacks I grew up reading thirty years ago, brought laughing and exulting into the Twenty-First Century, where we need such straightforward excitement.
Skyler Luiken lives on the surface and commands a crew of rare “immunes,” people who can breathe beyond the Aura without becoming plague carriers. He commands a salvage crew who haven’t turned a profit in months. A mysterious benefactor contracts Skyler to retrieve stored data that may unlock humanity’s redemption. To find it, he merely needs to venture through the dragon’s teeth, risking his entire crew’s life in the process.
Neil Platz got rich when the aliens planted the Darwin Space Elevator on his property. Only he knows that it wasn’t coincidence. Now in deep orbit, Platz and his chief researcher, Tania Sharma, have a drop-dead deadline. The Builders are returning, their purposes seem less than benign, and humanity’s twilight may be imminent. Here’s hoping human technology has the power to fend off this strange alien twilight.
Russell Blackfield controls the strait between Earth and orbit. The Elevator needs him to replenish their air and water; Darwin needs him to disburse orbital agriculture and manufactures. He’s parlayed this power into a feudal domain. If humanity dies, Blackfield will die last, a godling guarding the road to heaven. But when he discovers Neil Platz’s deal with Skyler Luiken, his ambition shifts, and Earth goes to war with orbit.
As the title implies, this novel posits humanity at evolution’s bottleneck. Anonymous aliens, yclept “Builders” by survivors, force humanity to weed its line. The human race may be as low as one million. But reading, we wonder whether we’ve made defensible evolutionary choices. The learned, pretty, and most important, rich live on the Darwin Elevator. Poor and unconnected, but crafty, groundlings eke out livings, but die in random subhuman attacks.
Arthur C. Clarke’s influence animates this book, which Hough obliquely acknowledges. It even has monoliths, folks! This novel brims with sidelong nods to prior science fiction, because Hough borrows liberally from the genre’s high points. But don’t assume he justs recycles formulae; Hough approaches classic narrative components with brio, telling a story that feels familiar to old genre hands, yet repeatedly hits us with brisk, unexpected slants.
Hough’s characters dare us to trust somebody, but laugh when we dare pick a side. His world brims with antiheroes, concealing vendettas behind bureaucratic handshakes. Seemingly noble pioneers have deeply buried secrets, and not everybody earns the comeuppance they receive. Skyler Luiken seems downright heroic because he doesn’t conceal his motivations: on a dying Earth, he just wants to make a living. Very Mal Reynolds.
Every time we think surely, now, Hough cannot push events any higher, he finds new ways to escalate. Skyler has a particular knack for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Each chapter we think, surely Hough cannot punish our heroes any more, or reward Blackfield’s ignominy. But rest assured, at nearly 500 pages, Hough has generous opportunities to push characters to new depths and make his readers cringe.
I grew up reading books like this, paperbacks populated by oversized personalities, shifting loyalties, and surprise revelations. Heroes prove themselves by decisive actions, salted with judicious violence; villains marinate in their own venality until they prove their own undoing. Say what you like about John W. Campbell and Alfred Bester, but my Golden Age of Science Fiction was the 1980s, when SF was popular, but still boldly countercultural.
Hough writes in that beloved sci-fi format, the trilogy, and while this novel has a satisfying conclusion, it asks tantalizing questions for future volumes. Del Rey so loves this series that it’s launching the whole trilogy this summer: three novels in three months. Who can blame them? In a crowded, noisy genre, Hough claims territory that deserves our attention. It’s enough to revive my flagging faith in science fiction.