Karin Kross just posted an excellent piece on Tor.com about “dumb” action movies, nominally a review of Pacific Rim (which I haven’t seen) but with broader application to anything we tend to label as “dumb”:
Respectfully, I would like to disagree. Or at least, insist that we stop using the word dumb. Simple? Sure. Uncomplicated? Absolutely. Spectacular, in the truest sense of the word? Hell yes. But none of these things are dumb.
The rest of the article is worth reading for SFF readers, even if you haven’t seen Pacific Rim, because I believe many of us have the same tendency to label action-packed novels with the term “dumb” or a variant thereof. It’s as nonsensical to me as the term “guilty pleasure”, because really folks, it’s entertainment. If you enjoy it, enjoy it without guilt.
My less charitable side thinks that people who react this way after consuming some form of entertainment do it as a way of absolving themselves of responsibility: yeah, I liked it, but I know it’s dumb. Yeah, I liked it, but look, I even feel guilty about it. It’s a self-imposed, inwardly directed form of snobbery (I’m making myself feel bad for liking this) or, possibly, preemptive snobbery: I know people will make fun of me for liking this, so I’ll do it myself to disarm them.
All of this is a very roundabout way of approaching The Darwin Elevator by (my fellow San Diegan) Jason M. Hough. I’ve been thinking about this novel for a few days now, and variations on the word “dumb” passed through my mind at some point, but now, having just read that Karin Kross piece on Tor.com before sitting down to write this review, I feel like using that word would be unfair. The Darwin Elevator is an uncomplicated, spectacular, action-packed novel. I’m not saying it’s perfect, by a long shot, but one thing it’s not is dumb.
The elevator pitch (get it get it?) for this novel could probably be boiled down to just four words: space elevators and zombies. See, in the recent past, some mysterious aliens approached Earth and built a space elevator. No one knows why, but there it is. A while later, they came back and dropped a plague on us, an incurable disease that turns everyone it touches into mindless “subhumans”, reduced to their most primal urges. They’re not undead and they don’t eat brains, but otherwise they mostly behave like zombies. There’s a small zone of immunity surrounding the area where the space elevator connects to Earth (in the Australian town of Darwin, hence the title), so what little is left of humanity is clustered there, living in shantytowns and struggling to survive.
Our main character is Skyler Luiken, the leader of a small crew of scavengers who conduct missions into the outside world to hunt down valuable equipment and victuals. Skyler and his crew are all “immunes”, meaning they have a very rare mutation that allows them to leave the elevator’s protective “Aura” without a hazmat suit and still not catch the disease. Everyone else is stuck in the tiny zone around the space elevator, or lives in orbital space stations.
The novel’s viewpoint switches around from chapter to chapter. There’s Luiken, the scavenger captain action hero. There’s Neil Platz, the business tycoon who made his fortune building the space stations that grow food for humanity (most arable land being outside the Aura and thus inaccessible) and house the richer segment of the population in relatively safety. There’s Russell Blackfield, the villainous bully who runs Nightcliff, a fortress-like structure at the base of the elevator. And there’s Tania Sharma, a brilliant young scientist who is working on a theory about the aliens who caused the entire mess in the first place.
All of this means that the power structure of the novel is somewhat simple: Platz controls the food supply from orbit, Blackfield controls the air and water supply from the ground, and the scavengers, like Luiken, are the only ones who can venture outside of the Aura and find goods (and information) that may be left behind there. They each control a choke point of sorts.
The entire novel basically consists of these main characters struggling against each other and trying to get past the choke points the others control. Blackfield, the most evil character of the bunch, is power-hungry and holds a grudge against the rich, well-fed orbitals. Platz, as gradually becomes clear, has his own long-running agenda. And Luiken, well – he’s the good guy, the action hero who looks out for his crew and just wants to create a better life for everyone.
So, a simple setup. A recognizably dystopian setting. SF concepts we’ve seen before. Tons of action scenes. Occasionally, some cringe-worthy lines like “What we’re going to do… is kick some Orbital ass!” Lots of somewhat predictable posturing by the hero and the villain. Some very iffy plot twists that stretch the limits of believability. (Wow, this person is really suddenly in charge of the roster of soldiers who get to go up the space elevator when our hero needs to get to orbit? Amazing! And you’re telling me two people can hide in the access tunnels and air ducts of a heavily monitored space station for months without capture? Sure!)
However, to get back to my original point: The Darwin Elevator is not a dumb novel. It’s spectacularly entertaining. It’s perfectly paced. It has characters you can root for, and a villain who’s easy to hate. It has a thrill-a-minute action plot that keeps you turning pages. It doesn’t answer all the questions it poses about the aliens who caused all the chaos. Even better, it sets the hook for the next volume in the series perfectly.
Don’t take The Darwin Elevator too seriously. Approach it like an action movie. Don’t expect deep characterization or gorgeous prose. Look forward to the crazy set pieces and improbable twists. Just don’t call it dumb, and for goodness’ sake, don’t feel guilty about reading it. Grab some popcorn, have fun, and when you’re done, be grateful that Del Rey in its infinite wisdom has decided to release the next two novels in the Dire Earth series (The Exodus Towers and The Plague Forge) in August and September respectively.