We're 300 years in the future, and a tiny patch of Northern Australia has become the world's hottest real estate market. Or to be more precise, a tiny patch of Northern Australia – Darwin – has become the entire world in Jason Hough's pacy and pleasantly complex science fiction thriller.
First, The Good - an alien space elevator spins mysteriously down from the heavens, linking Darwin with orbit and creating a technological renaissance. Then, The Bad - a plague is thrown down from space - Billions die - the lucky ones you might say – as perhaps one on 10 is left "alive" – primal, animalistic "SUBS". Now, The Ugly - humanity reduced to a few square kilometres around the base of the elevator and mysteriously protected from the alien disease by The Aura - a brutal, cruel post-apocalyptic atoll – Darwin run by Darwinian logic if you like.
So, that's the history. But history, famously, is written by the victors and such an account might not be the WHOLE story. It's this missing narrative which Hough uses with great skill throughout, pushing this novel above the pulp. He doesn't toy, and he doesn't tease – instead, The Darwin Elevator plays out along a clever plot device with an (almost) half-life of unfolding significance. There are those characters who know about this decaying interval and its consequences, and there are those who do not…
Neil Platz knows. If you're lucky enough to own water and power facilities next to where an alien superhighway lands, you're going to get very powerful, very quickly, and Neil's company and family now dominate the space-side of the elevator.
Skyler Luiken doesn't know. That said, he and his ship's crew have their own headstart - they're "immunes" - the fraction of a fraction of humanity immune to SUBS and thus able to venture outside The Aura, scavenging the abandoned planet, filling the shopping lists of the rich and powerful back in Darwin.
Tania Sharma, the daughter of an astronaut colleague of Platz's, nearly knows and her research at the distant "anchor" end of the elevator cord steadily worms its way to centre stage.
The Darwin Elevator is a plot-driven entity, but the characters in play here are, with one notable exception, well-drawn - Neil Platz in particular has more shades of gray than a battleship paint shop - utterly consumed by a desire to help humanity through what could so easily be an extinction event, but perhaps a little eager to take the darker fork in the road.
This is no cozy catastrophe people - Hough tends towards a George RR Martin-esque carelessness with his characters' lives – an approach which creates some powerful impact points but also makes for a bruising reading experience.
The opening third of The Darwin Elevator is exciting stuff, with Luiken's ship The Melville (am I missing a literary reference here?) voyaging out in the wasteland for some Serenity-like adventures, whilst the world above Darwin and along the elevator is revealed and explained with its space stations, habitats, research facilities and orbital farms.
But change is in the air from the outset - the elevator stops, then restarts and the assumed predictability of humanity's lifeline starts to look very precarious. The terrestrial powerbase, headed by the brutal Russell Blackfield, decides now is the time to expand, just as those in orbit bring other plans to fruition. And we're away...
Excited as I was with how much of how The Darwin Elevator "works" as a piece of popular science fiction, this success perversely seems to accentuate the odd niggle this reviewer stumbled over. So, as much as I liked Platz's complexity, and Luiken's self-doubt in his leadership skills, it was a real frustration to have to deal with an antagonist of as little subtlety as Russell Blackfield - he is VERY bad people - your mother would not like Mr Blackfield. He is pantomime bad - I kept imagining him with a Nazi-chic full-length leather trenchcoat.
And, some of the neat SCIENCE fiction within Hough's debut is somewhat undermined when we're led to believe that, three centuries into the future, on an immense space station in orbit tens of thousands of miles above Earth, that they still use clipboards. Yes - clipboards. Really?
Finally, there's the cover. Granted, it's a great piece of jacket art - man in clear "future paramilitary" garb holding a badass gun, space elevator in background. But, it's arguably the WRONG cover for the book and I think it arguably undersells a novel which pushes quickly beyond its pulpy military sci-fi roots into something far more substantial.
The Darwin Elevator is the first of a trilogy, and I left it both satiated and hungry for more - the final act sets up part two nicely, without a cheap cliff-hanger to annnoy readers.
I'm excited that Jason Hough is going to publish all three parts of this trilogy in quick succession, and really hope that such a schedule doesn't dilute his work's quality. If he manages to convert the pace and promise of this opener into sustained depth and complexity, then I for one will be glad I hitched a ride on this particular alien space lift.
Copy supplied by Netgalley, all opinions are my own.