Hardcore SF seems to be a bit of a thing these days. I’m not talking about “the New Space Opera” solely, although that is certainly an important part of the phenomenon. Nor am I including postmodernists like Egan, Stross and Rajaniemi. Instead, I have in mind books like those by M. C. Planck, “James S. A. Corey,” Paul Melko, Jack McDevitt, Joan Slonczewski and others. Books that use the old toolkit of science fiction tropes and signifiers and “power chords” in unabashedly straightforward, somewhat old-school ways. You know, just as if the mode were a living thing, rather than a museum artifact.
This reassuring, revivifying, life-sustaining trend—if trend it be—makes me happy, and should delight other readers as well, I think.
Add to this roster now the name of Jason Hough, and his Dire Earth Cycle —two parts released so far: The Darwin Elevator and The Exodus Towers, with The Plague Forge due soon. Hough stuffs his tale with a goodly number of classic SF elements that all work together in agreeable synergy.
The backstory of Hough’s universe is complex, but he delivers it clearly and concisely and in just the right doses at just the right times in the narrative. Readers old and new will find themselves climbing onboard quickly and easily.
The year is 2283. The last habitable place on Earth is Darwin, Australia. It’s not that the rest of the planet is ecologically untenable; rather, there is a global plague of unknown agency which renders every exposed human a crazed “subhuman.” (Except for a tiny number of naturally immune people.) The reason Darwin remains safe for immunes and non-immunes alike is the space elevator and its “Aura” anchored there. The massive artifact, 40,000 kilometers long, was built by unseen aliens some decades ago: the Builders. Some time after mankind had begun using the anonymous “gift,” the plague broke out. That disease seems part of the Builders’ legacy as well. Now the total commerce of the planet involves scavenging the ruins of civilization outside Darwin, and utilizing the safe farms and labs strung out along the length of the elevator in vacuum.
Our viewpoint characters are immune scavenger captain Skyler Luiken; the autocratic ruler of Darwin, Russell Blackfield; plutocratic do-gooder conspirator Neil Platz; and Platz’s savvy employee, Dr. Tania Sharma. These figures and those in their orbits are jockeying for power and knowledge in the light of the suspected return of the Builders, whose motivations and plans remain unknown.
With muscular, sturdy prose akin to the gold standard for smart SF action novels developed by writers like Keith Laumer, Gordon Dickson, James Schmitz and Christopher Anvil, Hough delivers a rousing set of adventures that make the most of his assorted venues. You’ve got post-collapse thrills amidst the ruins. You’ve got deadly killer zombie action with the subhumans. You’ve got stratified society frissons (Orbitals vs. Mudders) and The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress-variety rebellion. You’ve got platoon camaraderie with Skyler and his crew. And of course you’ve got Andre Norton-style, Charles Sheffield-style vanished Forerunner mysteries. Before you can possibly tire of one mode, Hough has whipped your head around to focus on a different aspect of his tale. It’s the definition of a roller-coaster novel.
Because Del Rey Books is taking the somewhat unconventional but not unprecedented tack of issuing all three parts of the trilogy almost simultaneously, at serial one-month intervals, allowing and encouraging the reading of the saga as a unit, it’s problematical to reveal too much from the first and second parts that are already published as of this review. Spoilers could abound. But I think it’s safe to reveal that in book two, The Exodus Towers, the Builders have returned and anchored one of their self-assembling elevators in the ruins of Belém, Brazil. There’s a twist this time. On the ground have been seeded multiple frictionless towers, mobile structures that radiate a small Aura circle. Now the second human colony can explore more widely.
But the old status quo back in Darwin and on the first elevator has been overturned. Blackfield is out to conquer, and the crucial elevator habitats are partially under the control of Dr. Sharma, working with Skyler in Brazil. But the appearance in Belém of an armed third-party gang of “militant immunes” obeying a mysterious figure named Gabriel threatens everyone else’s plans. Meanwhile, one of Skyler’s more deadly crewmembers, Samantha, has her hands full back in Darwin.
Besides the aforementioned riffs, Hough capably works in some classic Benford-Bear Enigmatic Alien Tech vibes with the towers, some semi-organic alien intrusions, and a phase-shifted dome. Additionally, there are Builder-inspired changes to the subhumans. He keeps the action of the first book rolling, with surprising twists and turns, leading to a Clarkean climax. Along the way, appealing new characters are introduced, such as Davi and Ana, brother and sister refugee immunes from Argentina, while Skyler matures into his action-hero (or is that disposable tool?) role.
It would be silly and pretentious to over examine such a straightforward adventure tale, or to make it bear the weight of the whole genre’s progress on its sturdy shoulders. But Hough’s Dire Earth Cycle can easily stand forth as a nicely crafted, ambitious, thrilling piece of entertainment of a kind that SF used to produce on a more regular basis, and whose success might fuel a renaissance of such books, which are always essential to the field’s health.