Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Fountains of Paradise - Arthur C. Clarke

After his hugely succesful novel Rendezvous with Rama (1973), The Fountains of Paradise (1979) is the second novel of Arthur C. Clarke to win the Hugo and Nebula double. It is also something of a dividing line in Clarke's oeuvre. Most of his output after The Fountains of Paradise are considered lesser novels and a lot of them were co-written by other authors. The majority of novels by Clarke I have read were written after this one and I must admit, in terms of characterization they are poor. The plot of his final novel The Last Theorem, co-written by Frederik Pohl, also left something to be desired. I don't think he ever lost his touch when it comes to describing technical details of space travel or impressive feats of engineering. The Fountains of Paradise may not be the strongest novel ever to win a Hugo or Nebula, but it certainly contains those elements in abundance.

With the invention of new super strong materials, new possibilities in architecture and engineering arise. After completing a bridge across the strait of Gibraltar. Dr. Vannevar Morgan is looking for a new challenge. One that will ensure his place in the history books: the construction of a space elevator. It is basically a long cable tethered to a counterweight beyond the geostationary orbit, that could be used to transport people and material out of the Earth's gravity well without the use of inefficient and polluting rocket propelled launch vehicles. The tensile strength of the material must be enormous and on top of the engineering challenges, the ideal location for the Earth end of the cable is already occupied by a group unlikely to move.

I'm not sure if this is the earliest example of a space elevator in literature but I very much doubt it. The first scientific papers on the concept date from the 1960s, I'd be surprised if some science fiction writer hadn't picked such a dramatic proposal up sooner than 1979. Clarke is definitely the man who brought it to a large audience though. He uses it in several books although usually not in as much detail as in this novel. What did strike me was the influence this novel had on Kim Stanley Robinson's Red Mars. The scenario for a space elevator on Mars, with its moon Deimos on one end and the volcano Pavonis Mons on the other, is pretty much exactly as Clarke describes it here, including the problem of Mars' second moon. Robinson does explore what would happen if such a structure were to crash down in detail, a scenario Clarke prefers to leave to the reader's imagination.

As usual with Clarke's novels the consequences of the conditions in space, or in this case the very edge of space are very prominently present in the book. Clarke describes the conditions and challenges of such an environment for engineering and safety of the passengers and people working there. Note the emphasis on human error in some of the scenes. Clarke makes some very astute observations about the potential of the smallest (human) error to cause disasters. In the hostile environment of space, or the upper atmosphere, such problems are very likely to end in the loss of human life. The final pages of the novel are dedicated to such an event and Clarke manages to make it a nerve wracking experience.

Another key element in the novel is the setting. Space elevators need to be located at the equator. For the occasion Clarke chose to move the island of Sri Lanka about 800 kilometres south and make a few other changes to the geography of the place. The historical sites he describes mostly exist as he describes them however and I very much enjoyed these. Clarke's love for this island is no secret but it doesn't always show up in his writing. In The Fountains of Paradise, he certainly made an effort to do some of its cultural heritage justice. Clarke seems to see certain future developments as inevitable.

I don't think there was any doubt in his mind that a space elevator would one day be reality and that colonizing other planets is possible.On social developments he is less outspoken in this novel. Religion is clearly on its way out in this future though. It contains some rather provocative statements on the subject. One that made me smile was attributed to an alien probe passing earth in the twenty-first century:
The hypothesis you refer to as God, though not disprovable by logic alone, is unnecessary for the following reason.
If you assume that the universe can be quote explained unquote as the creation of an entity known as God, he must be of an higher degree of organisation than his product. Thus you have
more than doubled the size of the original problem, and have taken the first step on a diverging infinite regress. William of Ockham pointed out as early as your fourteenth century that entities should not be multiplied unnecessary. I cannot therefore understand why this debate continues.
Chapter 16 - Conversations with the Stargilider
I wonder what the monk William of Ockham would have made of that.  

The Fountains of Paradise is an intellectually stimulating novel. I enjoyed reading it very much, in particular for the detail of the construction process on the space elevator. That being said, I'm not sure it is worthy of the awards is won. It contains a lot of stuff that Clarke had done before. Stylistically, Clarke is not a brilliant author and his characters are mostly fairly flat. By 1979 rigid scientific accuracy and a sense of wonder were no longer enough, or sometimes not even necessary, to make a science fiction novel stand out, which makes the choice for a novel that is supported completely by those who things a bit odd. Still, Clarke does what he does very well. For fans of his novels this is definitely not one you'll want to miss.  

Book Details
Title: The Fountains of Paradise
Author: Arthur C. Clarke
Publisher: Gollancz
Pages: 257
Year: 2001
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 978-1-85798-721-8
First published: 1979


  1. I read Rama and found the idea and the mystery Clarke was able to craft to be enough to carry the book through it's stale characters, but it sounds like you kind of have to rely on that here as well. Despite that it sounds like a decent read as you describe it. Thanks!

  2. Characterwise I have never found Clarke's novels very appealing and I have read a stack by now. I think the mystery bit in Rama is what makes that book a classic and this one merely a decent read.

    1. In regards to the awards: In the late '70s, readers (and writers) who had started out in the Golden Age or soon thereafter were still pretty dominant in the field. Clarke and Asimov would receive awards for later works that were probably not their strongest, in retrospect. By the mid-80s the generational shift would reduce this influence a lot.

  3. That is true I guess. I'm still on the fence about whether to read some of Asimov's novels from this period. I can't say I was too impressed by the original Foundation trilogy and they are some of his best regarded books.

  4. As a teenager (in the '70s) Asimov was a favorite of mine, but even then I thought that the older stuff was better. My favorite novels (End of Eternity, Caves of Steel) are from the '50s, and there's a lot of good short fiction from that period as well (I, Robot, etc.). If you're not impressed by what he was writing then, reading the later work probably shouldn't be a high priority!