The Darwin Elevator by Jason M. Hough (Book Review)

The original review can be found at The Founding Fields, here. This is the first novel in the Dire Earth Cycle series, published by Del Rey Spectra and Titan Books.

Shadowhawk reviews the first novel of the Dire Earth Cycle series from new author Jason M. Hough, published by Del Rey.

“A novel that reminds me of Resident Evil and Firefly both? I’ll be having seconds and thirds! Hough has taken some neat fantastical SF concepts and given them a new spin.” ~Shadowhawk, The Founding Fields

Much as with 2012, 2013 also looks set to be the year of the debuts. Seriously, there have been some really spectacular first novels released this year from various publishers, big and small. And if all the ARCs I have waiting to be read are any indication, then this trend is going to continue well on to the end of the year. Which is totally fine with me. The latest in this informal list of great debuts this year is Jason M. Hough’s upcoming novel The Darwin Elevator, which is the first in his post-apocalyptic The Dire Earth Cycle series.

What really struck me about this novel was that it paid a certain homage to Arthur C. Clarke with its very core concept of the space elevator. In his Hugo and Nebula-award winning novel The Fountains of Paradise, Clarke explored a narrative dealing with the construction of a space elevator in Sri Lanka. I read the novel back in high school, during the formative years of my SFF reading and I remember it quite fondly. The Darwin Elevator reminding me of it really took me back in time and got me to form an instant connection with the story and the characters.

And then he hit me for a second home run. Skyler Luiken, the ostensible captain of the scavenger/smuggling vessel Melville, and his crew reminded me very strongly of Joss Whedon’s (almost) spectacular live-action SF series Firefly and the crew of the starship Serenity. Since I loved Firefly and am one of the people who would line up at midnight for the premiere of another Firefly-based movie, this was another great element of The Darwin Elevator. And it wasn’t that Jason copied Whedon’s characters or aped them. Far from it. The entire crew of the Melville are great characters and all of them get a great outing throughout. The author got me to connect with the characters instantly and I cared about what happened to them.

And then Jason hit me for a third home run. In the setting that he has created, the arrival of the alien-built (and delivered) space elevator above Darwin, Australia resulted in an untreatable disease running rampant throughout the world, and it caused more and more people to flock towards Darwin for protection, since the elevator generates a certain force field that prevents the disease from running its course. Now, the interesting thing is that the people who are taken by the disease are turned into zombie-esque subhumans who have lost all sense of self and are little more than animals, if that. The way that Jason describes these subhumans reminded me very strongly of the Resident Evil franchise, particularly the movies, which I have more experience of than the games themselves. As a fan of Milla Jovovich and the Resident Evil films (despite their often inane plots and characterisations they are quite good action spectacles), this was another way in which I instantly connected with the characters and the setting.

So far so good right? Pretty much yeah.

Jason M. Hough’s characterisation of his protagonists, the antagonists and the other cast members is good. Better than good in fact. There is a strong element of mystery throughout the novel and through his characters he explores the mysteries in detail. The characters all come together in a really spectacular way, full of political intrigue, betrayals, and dark secrets. What’s not to love, really?

Skyler Luiken and Dr. Tania Sharma, the two main protagonists and as different from each other offer unique benefits to the narrative and they take nothing away from it. For instance, Skyler is Dutch and was a part of the Netherlands Air Force prior to the arrival of the Darwin Elevator. Tania is of Indian origin and is a scientist, lead scientist in fact, who works out of an orbital research station dedicated to studying the Darwin Elevator. The interactions between the two also highlight how different they are in terms of their “social” status post-Arrival, with Skyler fighting through a dog-eat-dog kind of world to become a scavenger group captain while Tania came to her own in a life of privilege where she has never wanted for anything and has had a supportive mentor in Neil Platz, the richest man in the world, post-Arrival.

Then there is Russell Blackfield, the ostensible leader of the Darwin surface community and the commander of all elevator surface security teams based in Nightcliff fortress, built around the base of the elevator going through the city surface. He was a character that I disliked from the get go, and over time, he morphed into a character that I hated because of his deplorable actions. But then, he is a villain so that’s excusable. In him was a villain that I loved to hate and often, those are the best kinds of villains. So let’s have a (half-hearted, grumbly, mumbling) cheer for the Tyrant of Nightcliff!

On the surface, these details might seem cliched and what not, but nothing could be further from the truth. All of Jason’s characters are written well and they are intriguing and engaging and often full of the good kind of contradictions. They do things that you wouldn’t expect them to, and in such a position, they are fully capable of exploiting the twists in the narrative to throw the reader off and make him/her wonder just where the story is going. Because the fact of the matter is that The Darwin Elevator is not a straightforward story. It is a complex narrative with lots of characters taking prominence throughout and it deals with a lot of different and complex concepts.

For instance, just the entire Darwin community itself. Given the elevator’s protective aura, Darwin really is the last sane place on Earth and one would expect that people have learned to co-exist in these times. But that is not so. On the surface of Darwin, life is cut-throat and brutally simple. In orbit, all around the elevator, life is much different. The orbitals depend on resources from the surface and the reverse is also true. You could say that there is an uneasy… truce between the two communities and Jason doesn’t shy away from some of the darker implications of this arrangement. What happens when the power starts flowing in direction rather than being balanced between the two? What happens when ambitious men stand at either end and neither wants to budge an inch?

There are so many twists and turns in the novel and I loved each and every one of them. They all served to enhance my enjoyment of the novel, and presented me with a really wonderful action-adventure-horror-survival-space-opera reading experience. I wonder how it could have gotten better.

Looking at all of it in perspective, if there is something(s) that I thought could have been improved upon, largely because the execution wasn’t all that satisfactory, then I would say it is the psychological consequences of being a part of the Darwin community, whether on the surface or in orbit. The world is a ravaged, abandoned place with casualties from the arrival of the elevator and the resultant disease exceeding 99%. How does that affect the mental well-being of the characters? The utter horror of a situation like that?

Then there is the fact that some of the orbital politics felt a bit too standard to me. It was a somewhat classic case of information being hoarded and not shared, despite the many advantages of a situation otherwise, and I felt that it was the cheap way out for the author. This is something that I see too often in SFF fiction (whether prose or reel life), and it rarely gets me to like a situation like that. It just seems too… contrived.

That’s really all the criticism I have for the novel. The Darwin Elevator is an otherwise excellent debut and I look forward to reading The Exodus Towers, the sequel, quite soon. The book has great characters, great concepts, great setting, and a great pace, and I definitely recommend it to everyone.

Rating: 8.5/10

More Jason M. Hough:

  • Dire Earth Cycle #2: The Exodus Towers (Review)
  • Dire Earth Cycle #3: The Plague Forge (Review)
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