Fountains of Paradise, The by Clarke, Arthur C., 1979

Fountains of Paradise, The by Clarke, Arthur C. - Book cover from

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In the world of fabulous technologies that dot the SF landscape, one stands out as truly inspiring, and maybe even attainable: The Space Elevator. Not only does the concept of the space elevator lend itself to dreams of glory similar to those achieved with the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs, but the degree to which our civilization would be transformed by its completion is just staggering to comprehend. Complete that thought with the notion that we have almost achieved a level of technology suitable to build the thing, and the mind goes wild with possibilities. This week's selected book, The Fountains of Paradise, by Arthur C. Clarke is a realistic and passable yet unfortunately melodramatic hard-SF exploration of what it may take to design and construct the Earth's first space elevator. This book is one of Clarke's later novels, and in the minds of many it was his last good one. I think that it has some pretty big problems, though most arose out of the author's attitude and intent, not his prose and ideas. This is a tough call. I love Clarke, and this was, in his own words, his favorite among the novels he wrote. Technically it was superb, but it was so full of wide-eyed-wonder and so obviously a wish-fulfillment vehicle that it left me annoyed, wishing for better.

Although The Fountains of Paradise is about a long-term project to erect a bridge to the stars, Clarke threw all kinds of subplots into his story. The book was broken into three subparts: First was the story about how the ground site was selected. Clarke got a little creative with geography, but that was nothing to be concerned about. For other reasons this section of the story was one of the hardest to get through, mainly because the author relied heavily on his usual bag of tricks to tell this part of the story. Issues such as his disbelief in the existence of God, an unprecedented and unheralded interruption from the cosmos, the presence of an aged and resolute man who winds up getting past his own inflexibility at the last minute and other familiar elements inhabited this part of the story. Here it is: Due to inconsistencies in the Earth's gravity field elsewhere along the equator, the ideal anchor spot for the elevator's terminus was atop a mountain in Sri Lanka that happened to be the location of the main temple of the Earth's sole remaining religion. As the story went religion died on Earth in the new millennia when an alien probe, affectionately named the "Starglider" (probably by some hippie that Clarke knew), travelled through our system and dispelled all pretense of the Big Sky Buddy. Apparently the robotic probe knew exactly what Clarke has been preaching all these years. Anyway, the ancient Fountains at Kalasada, near the base of the Mountain, were rediscovered by archaeologists a while after Starglider passed through on its way to the next system. Apparently a few who were starved for faith and lamented the death of religion in the years before latched onto the rediscovered religion, and reoccupied the temple at the top of the mountain. The engineers who sought to build the elevator, led by the main character, a structural engineer named Morgan, started an easement action in the UN court in Europe, but were not allowed to take possession of the mountain top because the monks were first in time and had greater claims. Fortunately for the engineers the monks adhered to a legend that said that when a bunch of butterflies were capable of getting to the top of the very high mountain that they were on, that would be taken as a message from God that they should leave. One day a hurricane came by as the butterflies were on their yearly migration, they were blown to the top, the monks vacated, and humanity was given the chance to reach for the stars. Like I said, it was hard to swallow.

The second sub part was about the structure itself, and it was incredibly well done. Clarke only got a bit misty-eyed in describing the elegant way that the carbon ribbons rose to a point outside of Earth's gravity well, the diamond and iron asteroid that was turned into the central hub of the elevator, and all the other technical marvels required to complete the project. Actually, Clarke was adamant to point out that with the exception of improvement to the carbon nanotubes that could be used for the ribbon all the technology needed to build this structure exists today. There is a 2006 book out by Meisha Merlin Publishing called Liftport, which I should get to review in the next week or so. Its a propaganda piece by a company called Liftport that wishes to be the first to complete a space elevator. Clarke was very enthusiastic about this project and lent his name and some of the text of this story to that book, which in non-fiction form rehashed and expanded upon many of the technical and historical points Clarke relied on in the writing of this book. Personally I think it is a stretch for Clarke and the editors of Liftport to say that all of the needed technology exists today; I think much of what we have needs to be adapted to the particular rigors of the project and certainly improved, but we seem to be most of the way there. But as this book is set in the near-future, Clarke was bothered by none of that. I would be mighty surprised if Clarke's descriptions, even the minute and focused ones, differ in any significant way from what we are likely to have one day. Unfortunately this section of the story was dwarfed by the previous one. Clarke seemed to be more interested in describing the perfect situation in which a space elevator could be built, and sacrificed some of the technical detail for which he is most famous.

The third section of the book detailed an accident on the tower part of the elevator, which is the car that traverses the ribbon from Earth to the satellite terminus of the ribbon. Morgan had to travel up several thousand kilometeres to get oxygen to the slowly suffocating crew of the tower. He used an electrical man-basket to get up there, and almost didn't make it when his carrier malfunctioned. It was a dramatic rescue, made all the more hairy by Morgan's slowly failing heart. This part was not tedious at all, though it probably would have been in the hands of a lesser author.

Clarke did have a few problems. The book jumps around quite a bit in time, and the segues are few. The story has the feel of a fix-up, even though it wasn't serially published before. Clarke also abandoned, I think, one of his most effective story devices before he got all that he could out of it. The site for the elevator was a temple, but surrounding the mountain it sat on was the capital of an ancient civilization. The rulers of that civilization spent great time and expense improving the region with one massive engineering project after another. They were kings in the truest sense: They set their slaves to building glorious edifices to serve their own egos, and to show to the world the sophistication and power of their kingdom. Thousands of years later Morgan came along and essentially did the same thing. The space elevator in Sri Lanka was driven by a cult of personality that centered around Morgan, but Morganís psychological motive was to build something massive - to one-up everyone on the planet. Clarke did a fine job of establishing the parallels, but as soon as Morgan stepped onto the scene in the middle part of book I, the stories about the ancient regimes stopped, in my opinion well before it had completely played out.

The other big problem with this book is the wish-fulfillment factor. Morgan was clearly analogous to Clarke. They were about the same age, both had brief marriages, followed by long and painful divorces. Both lived alone, away from their countries of birth, etc., etc. More, Clarke has obviously dreamed of a space elevator for decades, and his sense-of-wonder is on full display in this book. Its so obvious that to me it felt like a uncomfortable combination of navel- and star-gazing, if that is even possible. More, there is an epilogue here too, about one way in which the space elevator may not only serve, but save mankind. But its in a factual context that is so far out there that it feels as if it was an afterthought that doesn't really belong. Finally, there is an absolute mess of Hindu and Indian terms, names, places and historical figures, every one of them changed enough (the real ones, at least) that even a person with a firm grounding in history would need some explanation, which Clarke was unusually stingy with.

Like I said, this book could have been so much more... So much better. Unfortunately good in part is not enough to be vaulted to the top of the list. I give this one a C+ on a good day.

Copyright © 2009, Gregory Tidwell

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 3 star(s)


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