The Fountains of Paradise
by Arthur C. Clarke
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Another award winner from Arthur C. Clarke, but not as many as Rama received, just the Hugo and Nebula, with fewer other nominations as well. It is longer than Rama, but still short by modern standards, yet it could have been even shorter. The basic story of the construction of a space elevator is told in what would have been a novella at most, but Clarke devoted a lot of time to the setting and characters, but with the exception of one of them he still fell short of adequate and meaningful characterizations. The setting was in honor of his adopted homeland Sri Lanka, yet he had to fictionalize and chronologically alter some of its history, and move it geographically to make it work. Taprobane lies on the equator, several hundred miles south of the real Sri Lanka. Its tallest mountain is exaggerated to make it appropriate as the base of the space elevator, which its designer prefers to call an orbital tower. Unfortunately, the mountain is the site of a Buddhist monastery. The monks initially stymie engineer Vannevar Morgan, until a serendipitous fulfillment of a local legend convinces them to abandon the mountain. How convenient.
Another subplot involves an incident which occured about eighty years prior to the main action, when a mysterious alien craft flew through the solar system. Clarke had already dealt with such a phenomenon in Rama, and the Starglider was similar in that it was just traversing our space with no intention of staying, but the difference was that radio communication with the craft is established. And what do you know? The computer system aboard knows English. How convenient. This element could have been removed without changing any of the plot, including the epilogue, which occurs a thousand years or more following the first elevator's operation. Earth learned little from Starglider beyond where it originated, and where it was heading next, certainly nothing in the scientific realm that influenced the elevator's design. That was all Dr. Morgan's work, along with his chief of staff, Warren Kingsley. On several occasions, Morgan mentions that Kingsley is actually the more accomplished engineer, yet his assistant lacked the drive and initiative to get projects started and the ability to spark interest from potential investors. Kingsley also suffered from acrophobia, thus was often unable to fully inspect any of their creations.
I'd like to have been Clarke's editor. Cut this, condense that, just concentrate on Morgan and the pitfalls and successes of the elevator's construction. The best sequence comes at least three-fourths of the way through the book, when a group of scientists and students are descending the elevator from Midway Station, prior to the completion of when the Tower would be connected to the ground station. When an explosion strands them 600 kilometers above the Earth, Morgan makes an heroic journey in the only operational "Spider," a one-man maintenance vehicle, to bring them extra oxygen and supplies to hold them until another crew can descend from Midway Station for full rescue. Several others insisted someone else should make the trip, mainly because Morgan was sixty-six and too valuable to the project to risk, yet he insisted he knew more about the Spider than anyone, plus he weighed much less. It proved that Morgan was brave and resourceful, and it wasn't the first time he was also humble enough to accept suggestions and criticisms from others, even non-scientists like his friend Maxine Duval, a news media star. Thus he is one of the few characters from Clarke's fiction that is as memorable as the science and technology. The only other I can think of right now is Howard Falcon, the astronaut from the award-winning novella "A Meeting With Medusa." Nearly every other story had the characters blending into the background, overshadowed by the technology.
The Fountains of Paradise is currently out-of-print in the US, but you can use that link to amazon to find a used copy, or try Ebay or bookfinder.com. It is available for Kindle and other e-readers. Not that I recommend it. Well, partially recommended, mainly for Morgan and his push to see his ideas manifested in the real world. Taprobanean history and religious traditions bring nothing to the story other than atmosphere, and Starglider deserved its own story, or no mention at all. I'm pretty sure this was just my second time reading it, and now that I've included it in my review project for award-winning novels, I doubt I'll ever read it again.
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