The Darwin Elevator by Jason M Hough
In the mid-23rd century, Darwin, Australia, stands as the last human city on Earth. The world has succumbed to an alien plague, with most of the population transformed into mindless, savage creatures. The planet’s refugees flock to Darwin, where a space elevator—created by the architects of this apocalypse, the Builders—emits a plague-suppressing aura.
Skyler Luiken has a rare immunity to the plague. Backed by an international crew of fellow “immunes,” he leads missions into the dangerous wasteland beyond the aura’s edge to find the resources Darwin needs to stave off collapse. But when the Elevator starts to malfunction, Skyler is tapped—along with the brilliant scientist, Dr. Tania Sharma—to solve the mystery of the failing alien technology and save the ragged remnants of humanity
The arrival of mysterious technology has managed, in a short period of time, to move humanity forward and then stop it almost dead in its tracks. Briefly, the Earth experienced a golden age and then suddenly a disease has put pay to all that. Society has effectively split, becoming two distinct groups – the haves and the have-nots. Those that live off planet in a series of space stations that connect via the elevator to Earth. Meanwhile, those that can’t attempt to survive in the only other place left, at the base of the machine in Darwin.
In Darwin, the cast of characters are an eclectic bunch. The lead, Skyler Luiken has a roguish charm that will no doubt be a hit, you can’t really go far wrong with an amalgam of Solo and Reynolds. His crew, particularly the enforcer Samantha, are also a highlight. Even the local smuggler’s fence/fixer, Prumble, has some moments to shine.
The economics of Darwin play an important part in proceedings. At the base of the elevator is a fortress know as Nightcliff. Here, an official called Russell Blackfield has created his own little fiefdom. He knows that those humans who now live off planet require a constant flow of traffic up and down the lift’s route. He uses this to his advantage, scheming and manipulating every situation he can in order to gain more and more control. Ultimately he dreams of being in charge of everything and you can sense it is only a matter of time before he is going to make his move.
The most intriguing of all the characters however is Neil Platz. His company were the first to exploit the alien technology when it first arrived and he is directly responsible for humanities move closer towards the stars. He has moved his scientific exploration into orbit and he has become obsessed with discovering as much as he can about the enigmatic Builders. The nature of his obsessions are key to events as the plot unfolds. He’s an interesting mix, imagine meeting someone who is all child-like wonder one moment and then ruthless business man the next.
While reading about the disparity between the lifestyles of those living in Darwin and those living in orbit, I was taking my visual cues from the trailer for Neil Blomkamp’s forthcoming movie Elysium. In his novel, Hough has captured that same sense of inequality. Those in Darwin don’t have any choice; the risk of being exposed to the contamination is too great. They have to live as close to the elevator as they can, the only safe zone, where the disease is held in check. Meanwhile, high above, the Orbitals live a more comfortable existence. At its core, the writing rather cleverly explores the divisions that have arisen in what’s left of the Earth’s dwindling population. Rather than banding together in order to survive, strong egos cause clashes between the various factions vying for power.
The story also excels when the author turns his descriptive powers towards action. For reasons that I’m not going to explain, spoilers and whatnot, our lead and his crew quickly find themselves in a race against time. These chapters whip by at breakneck speed and it’s easy to get caught up in the relentless pace. Doesn’t matter if it’s on the ground, in the air, or in outer space, Hough knows how to deliver first rate thrills and spills.
The chapters that feature the sub-humans have a suitably creepy vibe. The “subs” come across as almost a kind of primal zombie. I rather like that there are moments where The Darwin Elevator moves from science fiction and nearly becomes post-apocalyptic horror. It’s a sure sign of Hough’s skill as a writer that he is able effortlessly traverse that fine line that exists between these two respective genres.
There were only a couple of things that I think didn’t work for me. There were some instances where I felt the plot seemed to fall into a bit of a holding pattern. More than once characters danced around a reveal that would move things forward, that came across a little unnecessary. My other minor quibble is what’s missing from The Darwin Elevator. They are eluded to throughout, but there wasn’t an appearance by the mysterious alien Builders. In fairness, I do suspect that it won’t be too long before they do finally show themselves.
Overall though, this is a rock-solid debut that showcases some fine writing and, more importantly perhaps, bucket loads of potential. As far as the story goes I can only hope that book two features more of the same. More sub-human mayhem, more zero-gravity warfare and *fingers crossed* much more from those damn elusive Builders. Based on what I’ve read so far, I think I’d be keen to read more of this author’s work.
The Darwin Elevator is published by Titan Books and is available on 26th July. The sequel, The Exodus Towers, arrives at the end of August and the final book in the trilogy, The Plague Forge, at the end of September. If you like your science fiction intelligent but action packed, with a blistering pace, this could well be the series for you.