|The Fountains of Paradise|
|Arthur C. Clarke|
|Orion Millennium, 258 pages|
|A review by Rich Horton
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.
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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