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.


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.


The Darwin Elevator: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s blog. Follow him on Twitter.

29 Comments on “The Big Idea: Jason M. Hough”

  1. a pandemic disease, designed by the same aliens that gave us the Elevator, renders most of the planet uninhabitable

    No, no, no. The earth disease infects and kills the aliens. That’s the way it always goes.

    Thirteen different races of aliens have landed on earth in the last two centuries, and they’ve always gotten a virus and died. Yes, it’s sad that the Erwohalivudians perished, they like finding backward worlds and introducing them to hyperspace, full AI, teleporters, and such, which would have been loads of fun. But on the other hand, the Xpthothekarians were looking for food and had plans to transform earth into the equivalent of a interstellar fast food joint, with humans as the main dish. So…

  2. I received an ARC book and really enjoyed it. I passed it around to a few of my high school students (who actually read for fun during the summer), and one told me that this was one of the best post-apocalypse books he’d ever read. Nice job, Jason Hough! I can’t wait for the next two books (which are coming very soon…).

  3. It sounds most intriguing. Tho I am uncertain how a pandemic leaves land uninhabitable – I shall have to get the book to find out, no doubt!

  4. Arrgh. Darwin is too far from the equator for a space elevator. Although I suppose the Unobtainium it’s built from could handle the stresses. But there’s a reason AC Clarke moved Ceylon to the equator for “The Fountains of Paradise”.

    As to the March of Technology(TM) slowing down, a lot of the comments on this Wonkblog piece point out the perceptual problem. The Technology that is Marching is new. And different.

  5. I’m seeing stuff on this book and on Jason pop up everywhere. I am extremely intrigued.

    The sociological aspects of technological change or lack thereof sound like an interesting underpinning to the plot and character.

  6. Arrgh. Darwin is too far from the equator for a space elevator.

    The Tetonic Reckoning of 2215 shifted Darwin considerably northward.

    The mississippi river valley collapsed and the biggest volcanic eruption on the planet occurred in Yellowstone, so, overall, not a good year.

  7. Yet another ebook purchased, and a dead tree copy for my mother. This site has become my favourite resource for finding great new (to me) books. When I started coming here, years back, it was because I loved *your* books, and knew I’d be buying them whenever they became available. But with the Big Idea posts, I’ve discovered many other terrific writers, and it’s always a pleasure to find another. Thanks!

  8. I read this book and the 2nd a week or so ago, and have the third, which I plan to read soon. They’re… intriguing. I wasn’t completely blown away, but I enjoyed them. I see lots of potential in Mr. Hough’s writing and I hope he’ll continue to have Big Ideas!

  9. I just got started on it and have enjoyed it so far. The fact that Kevin Hearne (who started out with a similar three books in three months launch) recommends it is a big plus. I think I need to see if Jason might want to join Kevin in Phoenix next June….

  10. > Arrgh. Darwin is too far from the equator for a space elevator.
    Indeed. When I say this in my look bookstore this was my first reaction. Unless the space side is tethered to a mobile anchor, such as that alien ship, the idea is rather silly.
    Singapore would be more plausible.

  11. Darwin is not a sleepy beach side town and I don’t think it could become one. Currently it would be better described as a vibrant state capital, albeit on the small side, it has booming mining and tourism sectors. But the weather, the box jelly fish and the crocodiles and the geography (It is a harbour/river based city, with some beachside suburbs) means it would never be a sleepy beach side town. – Australia has a lot of them, but Darwin isn’t one.

  12. I’m interested in this novel and don’t care where Darwin is, but with respect to when Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? takes place, there are two versions. Originally the date given in the first chapter was January 3, 1992; in later editions, this was changed to January 3, 2021, although I don’t know whether Dick made this change himself in late 1981 or early 1982, or whether someone else did so between his death and the release of the tie-in edition of the novel (which featured both the Androids and Blade Runner titles).

  13. I don’t know if I could get by the latitude issue: I couldn’t stand “Boneshaker” ‘cuz, had the author ever BEEN to Seattle? (She lives here.) What she described was ridiculous, given the terrain.

  14. Met Jason (and Kevin Hearn) the other night at a signing. Quite enjoyed it, and as the Space Elevator has always been a big interest of mine, this was an easy sale. I hope to enjoy it.

  15. Yes, it’s like I’ve been telling my polo club for years, steam-powered rockets will never reach orbit. The industrial age is slowing down and by the year of our lord 1919 the pace will be stagnant…

    Less snarkily, this actually sounds like a neat idea and I’m adding it to me to-read list, though it could be a few years before I get to it.


    Arrgh. Darwin is too far from the equator for a space elevator.

    Actually, this is incorrect. A space elevator composed of carbon nanotubes would have a smaller safety margin due to increased tension and overall cable-weight (the planetary anchor point must resist being dragged to the equator as well as being dragged upward by the orbiting counterweight). The elevator would have to be longer and therefore stronger than an equatorial elevator, but it would still be held up by the centrifugal pseudo-force.

    However, space elevators built from carbon nanotubes (the only currently known material with sufficient tensile strength) are subject to cascade failure. One fiber breaking would send a detensioning wave, a longitudinal decompression, at the the speed of sound along the cable, with the fibers snapping back at about Mach 3, which would break more fibers and cause a cascade failure. This is currently the single biggest hurdle to engineering a viable space elevator as most other problems are solvable in principle. It should be noted, however, that a space elevator fixed to a mobile sea platform that’s not right on the equator will be dragged to the equator, so such elevators must be land based. One definite advantage to a non-equatorial space elevator is that it would be out of the way of other satellites in non-synchronous equatorial orbits.

  16. Ooh, good. Got an ARC of Darwin Elevator at a library conference, and just heard Alan Cheuse reviewing it on NPR last night. This is vaulting off the TBR pile and into my bag for vacation.

  17. Woohoo, another SF novel about the future and technology (and, wait for it, BAD aliens) by someone who doesn’t understand the technology we have now. May the GFSM preserve us, and while she/it/he is at it, I’ll pass.

  18. Woot! Amazon dropped the Kindle price to $5.99!
    My last post was deleted due to the “no complaining about eBook prices” rule, but hopefully this one will be left if there’s no “being happy about ebook prices” rule.

    Clicking buy now.

  19. I started reading this paperback and enjoyed it until around page 214, when it started skipping pages (to 217). After that, the story was interrupted by skipped pages (220-225, 228-231, 237-241…) so often that I gave up. I realize this is not the author’s fault. Clearly, the publisher dropped a register or something, but it certainly spoiled my enjoyment of the book. I hope Mr. Hough gets a better publisher, and I plan to avoid anything published by DelRay Books in future. I went to the publisher’s website, but couldn’t find any way to complain about their sloppy publishing.

  20. Some posters here picked up on the issue of Darwin being not on the Equator, which is a problem, indeed. I can easily suspend disbelief on assumption that the alien technology is robust enough to cope with this.

    A bigger problem is with the terrestrial technology, namely all those spinning stations along the tether. Those giros will be screwed – the stresses of turning such giant spinwheels 360 degrees every day and the energy required will be huge, they will also precess – it will be a very uncomfortable ride. But I can disregard this as well.

    Much more distracting is the main physics fail of the book – the notion that anything connected to the tether will be in weightlessness. This is just not right. On an equatorial elevator only the centre of mass station at geostationary orbit level will be in zero-G. Anything below will have varying increasing degrees of gravity with “down” sense towards the Earth. Anything above will have increasing gravity with “down” being towards the space and “up” towards the Earth. The idea that people could free-float about the Shell counterweight is therefore totally wrong – they would have been flung out to a higher elliptical orbit if they’d not tie themselves firmly to something.

    Having said this and apart from the things above, the book is excellent and I wish the author would find a way how to “fix” the physics in sequels.

  21. Just won a copy of this through Goodreads, thought I saw it mentioned on here and did. Looking forward to rereading the Big Idea when I get the book.

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