Friday, May 13, 2011

Review: The Fountains of Paradise by Arthur C. Clarke

The Fountains of Paradise by Arthur C. Clarke
Published: Gollancz/Harcout Brace Jovanovich (1979)
Awards Won: Nebula, Hugo
Nominations: British SF Association Award, Locus SF Award
The Book:
Vannemar Morgan's dream is to link Earth to the stars with the greatest engineering feat of all time;a 24,000-mile-high space elevator. But first he must solve a million technical, political, and economic problems while allaying the wrath of God. For the only possible site on the planet for Morgan's Orbital Tower is the monastery atop the Sacred Mountain of Sri Kanda. And for two thousand years, the monks have protected Sri Kanda from all mortal quests for glory. Kings and princes who have sought to conquer the Sacred Mountain have all died.Now Vannemar Morgan may be next.” ~from
I was intending to post this review soon after the announcement of this year’s Arthur C. Clarke Award, but I ended up being a little delayed.  Anyway, I decided to read his account of building a space elevator, The Fountains of Paradise, in honor of the 2011 Arthur C. Clarke Awards.
My Thoughts:
The Fountains of Paradise is very much a hard science fiction novel. The star of the novel seemed to be the space elevator (or Orbital Tower) itself.  The main technological advance that makes the Tower possible is an extremely thin, incredibly strong, carbon-based cable.  Clarke spends copious amounts of time describing the Tower, detailing its construction, and exploring the social and political impact of the project.  Most of the suspense of the story comes from the setbacks and disasters along the way.  For instance, the construction was opposed by an order of monks, who were furious at the idea of an Orbital Tower on their Sacred Mountain.  The project also has to deal with dubious popular scientists and the brutal, but rule-abiding, opponent that is the natural world.
This all might sound a little dry, but I feel that Clarke tells his story with a sense of beauty and wonder.  The site of the Orbital Tower, the fictional island of Taprobane, is a slightly altered version of Clarke’s adopted home of Sri Lanka.  I felt as though his reverence and affection for the island---its culture, natural beauty, and history—shined through in the narrative.  The elegance and precision of Clarke’s prose always kept my attention from flagging, even through his many technical explanations.
The main human character of the story is the head engineer, Vannevar Morgan.  The Orbital Tower is his dream, and we see how much of his personal life he is willing to sacrifice to achieve it.  There is a scattering of other characters, but none of them, possibly including Morgan, are ever very deeply developed.  Despite this, the characters seemed to be believable representations of human beings, just ones that the reader never ended up knowing very intimately.
There were also two side plots interspersed with the story of the Tower.  The strongest of these two, in my opinion, was the story of the historical ruler of Taprobane, King Kalidasa.  His story resonates with Morgan’s, as he builds amazing engineering feats for his time on the nearby mountain of Yakkagala.  While Kalidasa is dead in the present time, his construction on Yakkagala, including his ‘Fountains of Paradise’, lives on. Both Kalidasa and Morgan are deeply driven to see their projects to completion, and there is a sense of challenging God in both Kalidasa’s paradisiacal gardens and in Morgan’s Babel-like Tower. 
The weaker of the two side plots involves an alien robot, Starglider, making first contact with humanity and establishing communication. I think, from events at the very end, that I understand the thematic purpose of this side plot, but it felt very irrelevant for most of the book.  This first contact story only took up a very small portion of the book.
My Rating: 4/5
The Fountains of Paradise is a tale of people driven to accomplish great things.   Both the long-dead King Kalidasa and the current engineer Vannevar Morgan intend to do whatever it takes to complete their great work, leaving behind a legacy that will long outlast their own lives.  The story seems focused on the details the projects themselves, rather than the characters, but Clarke’s graceful style of writing evokes a sense of wonder even in the driest of explanations.  The side plot concerning humanity’s first contact with a robotic alien spaceship seemed a bit unnecessary, but it was only present in a small part of the overall novel.  Overall, Clarke’s depiction of the construction of a space elevator was compelling, beautiful, and well worth reading.
P.S.:  The Tacoma Narrows Bridge is mentioned in The Fountains of Paradise.  If you’ve never seen footage of it before, here’s a youtube video.  Nature really is a formidable opponent!

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