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The Fountains of Paradise
Arthur C. Clarke
Orion Millennium, 258 pages


Chris Moore
The Fountains of Paradise
Arthur C. Clarke
Born in 1917 in Minehead, Somerset, England, and living in Sri Lanka since 1956, Arthur C. Clarke is best known for his 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), based on his short story "Sentinel of Eternity." His Against the Fall of Night (1948) and Childhood's End (1953) are also among his best titles. Clarke was voted Grand Master at the 1986 Nebula Awards. His short story "The Star" (1955) won him a Hugo award, as did the movie adaptation of 2001. A writer of hard SF, though not without some elements of mysticism, Clarke has also written a large volume of science-popularizing non-fiction for which he has won UNESCO's Kalinga Prize (1962) and a non-fiction International Fantasy Award in 1972 (for The Exploration of Space). Clarke has also received many honours from the scientific community, in particular for his work in the development of today's geosynchronous communication satellites.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: The Light Of Other Days
SF Site Review: The Light Of Other Days
SF Site Review: Profiles of the Future
SF Site Review: Arthur C. Clarke & Lord Dunsany: A Correspondence
Arthur C. Clarke Tribute Site

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Rich Horton

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The Millennium SF Masterworks series continues with Arthur C. Clarke's 1979 Hugo and Nebula Award winning novel, The Fountains of Paradise. Here perhaps a confession is in order. I consider myself rather well-read in the SF field: I have read all but about 5 of the Hugo-winning novels, and I have read most of Arthur C. Clarke's (solo) output. But for some difficult to understand reason, or perhaps no good reason at all, I had never read The Fountains of Paradise. I can only say: I am very glad to have had this opportunity to rectify that omission at this late date. The Fountains of Paradise may well be Clarke's best novel. When it was published, Clarke suggested it might be his last novel. I have to say, perhaps a bit cynically, perhaps it would have been best if he had stuck to that resolution: his later works have been at best inconsequential, and at worst so bad as to damage his reputation.

None of the later work, however, alters the text of the earlier work. And Clarke in the centre of his career was establishing a well-justified place as one of the "big three" writers of mid-century SF, along with Isaac Asimov and Robert A. Heinlein. Still, worthwhile as are such novels as The City and the Stars, Childhood's End, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Rendezvous with Rama, they are each a bit unsatisfying. A bit slight, at times over-mystical; all in all fine works but not wholly successful. The whole body of work remains impressive: any number of wonderful short stories, as well as novels that, even if they are not perfect, are well worth reading. In this context, The Fountains of Paradise is deeply satisfying, for I feel that here Clarke achieved what he was aiming for, and this novel is in the end successful on emotional, mystical, and intellectual grounds.

The book tells of Vannevar Morgan, the greatest civil engineer of his time, which is the mid-22nd century. Having built a bridge across the Straits of Gibraltar, he dreams of an even greater accomplishment: sort of a bridge to space: a "skyhook," or "space elevator." This will be a cable stretching from the Earth's equator to an anchoring satellite at geosynchronous orbit. (Famously, Charles Sheffield published a novel, The Web Between the Worlds, using the same idea, just about the same time Clarke published this book. Since then the idea has become part of the commonplace furniture of SF, showing up in such places as Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy, in that case placed on Mars, an idea Clarke suggests in The Fountains of Paradise.) In a long series of short chapters, Clarke tells of Morgan's efforts to get the elevator built. First he must deal with the monks who own the ideal real estate, a mountaintop on the fictional island of Taprobane (a version of Clarke's adopted home of Sri Lanka, moved south so that it lays on the equator). He also has to work on the financing, solve various political problems, deal with skeptics, and finally solve some critical engineering issues and deal with the inevitable crises accompanying the actual building of the elevator.

Presented thus, the story seems simple and uninspired. But Clarke interleaves fascinating stories about the history of Taprobane, especially a mad patricidal King who built a fabulous palace on a mountain, neighbour to the monks' mountain; and about the visit of an alien probe to the solar system; as well as back story about the lives of the various characters central to the book; and supporting details about his quietly utopian future. The result is engaging throughout, and also a complete SF book, a portrait of the future world, not just a portrait of a single engineering idea. Clarke manages to make the book not just the story of the idea of the skyhook, but also the story of Vannevar Morgan's life, and the story of the future of the human race, and of the human race's eventual interaction with other races. The ending is very moving, and it's followed by a beautiful and effective far future coda of sorts, which ties together the themes of the rest of the book.

I can only retroactively endorse the awards The Fountains of Paradise won, and urge anyone who hasn't read this book to read it: a noble capstone to one of the greatest careers in SF.

Copyright © 2001 Rich Horton

Rich Horton is an eclectic reader in and out of the SF and fantasy genres. He's been reading SF since before the Golden Age (that is, since before he was 13). Born in Naperville, IL, he lives and works (as a Software Engineer for the proverbial Major Aerospace Company) in St. Louis area and is a regular contributor to Tangent. Stop by his website at http://www.sff.net/people/richard.horton.


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