The Big Idea: Jason M. Hough
We steadily march into the future — but is the march actually as steady as it looks, or even as steady as we wish it were? It’s a thought Jason M. Hough has considered, particularly in relation to his “Dire Earth” series, of which The Darwin Elevator is the first installment. He’s here to give some perspective on the parade of progress.
JASON M. HOUGH:
My Big Idea grew out of a friend’s offhand remark: “Sci-fi often gets the technology right and the date wrong.”
Examples are legion: Blade Runner (and the novel it’s based on) takes place in 2019, just a few years from now. Skynet becomes self-aware in 1997, already sixteen years behind us. 2001 takes place in… well, you get the idea. The point is science fiction often dreams big and dates optimistically. This nagged at me like a persistent fly for years after my friend’s original comment.
As I started worldbuilding for the Dire Earth series, my first thought was to simply move the dates out. Add a little breathing room. With one keystroke I changed 2083 to 2283 and it felt… right. And yet, also wrong. Certainly by then we’d have some amazing stuff, wouldn’t we? I immediately wanted to rework all my plans and ramp up the tech accordingly. But that would just put me back in the trap my friend had warned of, and besides, I started to see a different angle to the wisdom of his observation. I began to wonder what would happen if our current breakneck pace of technological advancement slowed to a crawl, or even backtracked in some areas. A low-tech vision of the future, if you will.
This might be a tough sell to some sci-fi readers, but it’s not so hard to believe. We’re already seeing the erosion of Moore’s Law (the “law” that transistor density in microchips will double every two years). Breakthroughs in energy and medicine never seem to make it to market. Today roughly half of this country holds a rather pessimistic view of science and technology, and they elect public officials that share this perspective. I started to explore what would happen if that mentality continued to grow. In other words, what if politics and culture advanced but science and technology stagnated for a while? Maybe even a long while?
Ultimately my Big Idea was to imagine our technological advancement into the future not as an ever-increasing curve, but more like a pendulum with the weight initially held back by these factors. In the novel’s hinted-at backstory there are references to the unfulfilled promises of technology, and the societal backlash that came with that. Despite taking place over 200 years from now, tech has only made modest advancements beyond where we are now.
Then comes the spark that finally lets the pendulum swing toward major progress. An extraterrestrial ship, entirely automated, constructs a space elevator that makes landfall in Darwin, Australia. This event triggers an almost overnight resurgence in interest for technology, space exploration, and of course the deeper implications of alien life. We start to exploit the device once our initial shock wears off, building space stations along its length and the infrastructure needed to support such efforts on the ground around it. I’d always had this moment in the backstory, but foisting it upon a world so jaded actually served to amplify the change it unleashes upon the book’s main setting. The sleepy beach town of Darwin is suddenly the equivalent of Cape Canaveral, Houston, and Silicon Valley all rolled into one. Things are, quite literally, looking up.
Back swings the pendulum. Now that I’d given the world a wake-up call, I wanted to knock them back the other direction (I’m mean like that). Just twelve years later a pandemic disease, designed by the same aliens that gave us the Elevator, renders most of the planet uninhabitable. In fact, the aliens only left us with this tiny patch of land around the Darwin Elevator upon which to survive. The bulk of our already-meager brain trust dies out, and most of the world’s critical infrastructure and manufacturing capability languishes unattended outside the safe zone. In our culture of throwaway devices and planned obsolescence, things get dire pretty damn quick. For me it was both challenging and exhilarating to write this world. It’s one thing to tackle an apocalyptic event, but to thrust something like that upon a populace that had just tasted hope and wonder… such a psyche was difficult to put myself into, and yet I loved the characters this pendulum scenario produced.
The main character Skyler, for example, embodies a certain amount of “fool me twice” apathy. Born into a world of technological malaise, he becomes an adult around the same time the alien space elevator arrives. Everything changes at a dizzying pace while he himself is earning his wings to fly in the Dutch Air Force.
Then the disease hits, sending humanity to the mat like a haymaker, down for the count. Only Darwin is safe, but Skyler… Skyler is an ultra-rare immune. Once he reaches Darwin he realizes he’s one of the few people who can leave.
And so the Elevator becomes a metaphor for society’s reliance on technology, seen through the eyes of someone who doesn’t need it at all. Skyler can’t bring himself to just walk away, though. I loved writing his chapters, and this was a big reason why. The conflict within him, masked by his apathy and—let’s be honest—poor leadership skills, made him a great lens through which to filter the story. Deep down he knows that humanity cannot survive simply by maintaining the status quo. His generation is the first in a long time that has tasted an explosion of progress, and that lies at the heart of what drives him. The year is 2283, and he wants our species to live up to that no matter what our mysterious visitors have in store.