Author: Jason M. Hough
Genre: post apocalyptic, sci fi
Series: The Dire Earth Cycle #1
Published: July 30 2013
Source: TLC Book Tours for review
Jason M. Hough’s pulse-pounding debut combines the drama, swagger, and vivid characters of Joss Whedon’s Firefly with the talent of sci-fi author John Scalzi.
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.
An alien-induced apocalypse? A plague that has ravaged humanity? The Darwin Elevator sounds promising from the start, and delivers on the action implied in its synopsis. It's a fast-paced (think: breakneck) foray into a world full of alien technology, subhumans, and danger. Jason M. Hough has created a foreign world where all life is centered around Darwin, Australia and the Darwin Elevator located there. It's not quite an easy read - there's worldbuilding, a lot of techie terms, etc- to wrestle with, but without a doubt, this is one of the more original and fun alien/apocalypse novels I've read. The first in a series, there's a lot to take in for a first novel, but Hough's talent makes the nearly five hundred pages fly by in a whirl of action, deception, and pure entertainment.
The problem with The Darwin Elevator is that it is long on plot, and short on characters. As with many plot-driven novels, the characters are rather thin and flat for the entire story. They are almost uniformly defined by one characteristic, instead of a complex personality- be it brainy, evil, deceptive, doubtful, angry, etc. There's not a lot of subtlety to be found in the cast. They can be cast into stereotypes rather easily: the brilliant, absolutely gorgeous scientist, the smart but insecure scavenger, the power-hungry despot, etc. It's a shame that the characters don't merit more time and attention, because the bare bones shown have potential to become a much more complex and dynamic set of people. The two with the most characterization are the scientist Tania Sharma and the plague-immune scavenger captain Skyler Luiken. Their interactions ring with the most authenticity, but don't happen often enough. The one-note villain is moderately interesting but lacks real flair.
The strength of the novel lies in the massive amounts of worldbuilding worked into the narrative. The details are woven neatly into the story, so there is little infodumping to slow down the story. A future world with one human city left on the planet, Hough creates an easily-envisioned slum and hell version of Darwin, Australia. First benefited by the alien Elevator situated within its premises, then alone saved by the plague that brought down the rest of the world, Hough's postmodern megalopolis is home to a complex, hardscrabble existence. The author has a talent for fashioning a new version of what comes after an apocalypse - his vision extends from the well-to-do "orbitals" who live on the Elevator, to the hand-to-mouth life of those left behind, dirtside. His complex system of necessary bartering between the two (water and air for those in space, food for those on Earth) also serves to set up a side plot rather neatly.
The aliens (called "The Builders") are a bit of a MacGuffin. They're pivotal to all that has happened to Darwin and for the current plot, but they're entirely off-screen. Their actions and "visits" happen before the events of the novel, and are referenced often. Despite that, they never interact directly with the characters, or even the world. They can't even be labelled as an antagonist; they are unknowable, unpredictable, and unseen for the duration. The real threat to life in Darwin is the SUBS plague, and the "subhumans" it makes of the unlucky few who aren't killed by the disease. The subs and the plague are both an omnipresent threat once someone leaves Darwin and the protection the Elevator offers - new strains of the disease, smarter subs evolve and lead Skyler and company a close race on more than one occasion. The subs are less than human and though dangerous, don't really offer much in the way of tension. They're too mindless, too scattered to be much more than a surface threat. The other villain does more, but he's lacking in presence.
Though book one wraps up pretty neatly, there is obviously room for sequels and further exploration of the world Hough has created. The final events of The Darwin Elevator are an obvious lead-in for book two, The Exodus Towers. There were some scenes that read like pure male gaze/fan service (the two "shower" scenes, notably) and took away from some of my enjoyment, but on the whole, The Darwin Elevator is a solid, action-packed thrill ride. I would read the sequels since the world that Hough has created is vibrant, compelling, and unique.