[GUEST POST] Jason M. Hough on Space Elevators in Science Fiction
Jason M. Hough (pronounced ‘Huff’) is a former 3D Artist and Game Designer (Metal Fatigue, Aliens vs. Predator: Extinction, and many others). Writing fiction became a hobby for him in 2007 and quickly turned into an obsession. He started writing THE DARWIN ELEVATOR in 2008 as a Nanowrimo project, and kept refining the manuscript until 2011 when it sold to Del Rey along with a contract for two sequels. The trilogy, collectively called THE DIRE EARTH CYCLE, will be released in the summer of 2013.
By Jason M. Hough
Arthur C. Clarke’s brilliant novel The Fountains of Paradise introduced me to the concept of a space elevator way back when I was in high school. The possibility of such a device captivated me just as it has many others in both the science and literary communities. Such a structure has been referenced in numerous science fiction novels, movies, and television shows since. A noteworthy example is Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson, where a space elevator on Mars is severed at the anchor point in space. The result is one of the most memorable scenes I’ve read in the genre (and I won’t spoil it here – Go! Read!).
To my surprise the theoretical technology grew into something of a pariah, though. The butt of jokes, especially when reported on in the mainstream media. Indeed Clarke himself acknowledged this, making a now-famous quip at a conference in the early 90’s:
Conference attendee: “When will the Space Elevator become a reality?”
Arthur C. Clarke: “Probably about 50 years after everybody quits laughing.”
So why, then, did I choose to make one the central set piece in my novel The Darwin Elevator?
One reason comes from my natural instinct to be a contrarian. I kept hearing that space elevators were impossible because there’s no known material strong enough and light enough to construct it with. Even if there was (and there may well be in something called scrolled graphene), the logistics involved are a nightmare. Weather would be a constant headache, for example. The cord would need to be hard enough to defend against people who meant it ill will as well as all the debris floating around in space. So, a space elevator is almost impossible to build and fraught with ancillary problems. My reaction: who says we’re the ones to build it?
This got me thinking about an alien-built Elevator, one not necessarily meant to last, and why they would do such a thing. The obvious answer was to invade and exploit, but I didn’t want to go there. Around the time I was pondering this, NASA landed twin rovers on Mars. Little automated research robots. It occurred to me that if there were actual Martians, they’d probably at first wonder what these strange and wondrous things were, but eventually when the novelty wore off they might try and do something with them. So, if a ship arrived at Earth and built a space elevator, without explanation or indeed any aliens to do the explaining, we might react similarly.
Right there I felt I had the impetus for a story. And the more I thought about it, the more I realized what a great plot-device this single, mysterious elevator could be. Perhaps this was my video-game-designer past coming into play, but I immediately saw potential in the fact that the entry and exit points for this thing are perfect, natural chokepoints. I layered in an apocalyptic event that left the survivors in the ground reliant on orbital farms for much of their food, and those living in orbit along the cord reliant on the ground for fresh air and water. A trade route, in other words, whose proper function was critical to keeping mankind limping along until they could claw their way back from the brink.
This arrangement was ripe for political intrigue, simmering hostility, and of course a vibrant black market. So began the worldbuilding for The Darwin Elevator.
When pitching this blog topic to SF Signal’s John DeNardo, he pointed me to an article he wrote a few years back. He talked about how Space Elevators are sci-fi’s workhorse, yet rarely featured as integral elements to the story. Well, John, have I got a yarn for you…
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