Arthur C. Clarke: The Fountains of Paradise

E fiction that makes the conuest of space seem like it ought to be a trivial matter I m increasingly of the conviction that science fiction which had been and ought to still be at the forefront of encouraging us to set our sights on the heavens grow up and leave the nest is instead becoming a hindrance to us We are increasingly becoming content with shoddy poorly realized visions of the stars that serve to make the real painful and difficult work of space exploration seem ust that much less attractive In the stories it is always so easy We flit across the unimaginable gulfs between stars not with the comparative ease with which we crossed the oceans much less a real sense of the difficulty involved but with the ease that we drive down to the corner convenience store If it seems hard to get from here to there we find alien artifacts that do the hard work for us If we despair at our ability to cope well then we are uplifted from our ignorance by passing benevolent alien patrons We break the laws of physics with the power of plot and we settle into the easy fantasies of human hubris rather than face up to the immensity of Old Man Space with some sort of maturityPart of the problem is that only the last one third of the book actually concerns the construction of the space elevator By the time the construction of the space elevator is really Everwar (Cal Leandros, joined its completion is a foregone conclusion and the great problems are dispensed with off stage in favor of smaller scale and personnel tragedies and triumphs It is as if the project the artist has conceived is too grand of scale for his imagination and so he deals with something that isn t The result ends up seeming less grand than even for example the story of the laying of the first transatlantic telegraph cableFor exampleBut the biggest disappointment is that the first two thirds of the book don t deal directly with the construction of the tower at all but instead deal with the protagonist s struggle to obtain permission to build the space elevator on land currently occupied by an unwilling Buddhist monastery This part of the story is engaging than the last third but ultimately Clarke forces it to resolve down toust another story about the supposed conflict between reason and faith Despite the fact that these first 200 pages have the structure of a good 20 page short story they would make for pretty good reading in Clarke s capable hands except that in the midst of this he finds himself unable to avoid picking up the trite hammer to nail his point homeGiven how I ve already confessed that I hoped this would be the story of the titanic struggle to conuer near space you can perhaps imagine my dismay when Clarke trots out that most tired of easy sci fi escapes the Alien Messiah Interspersed with this conflict between reason and faith in the form of the passively truculent monks standing in the way of human progress Clarke adds an utterly unnecessary plot element of an alien visitor who is made to represent the last word in this metaconflict Exactly why Clarke thought the story was well served by such a ham handed device I m not sure because without it I think the story and the conflict is thought provoking and its precise meaning difficult to tease out I will grant that as Alien Messiah s go this one is pretty original and well disguised Instead of an actual alien it s the AI of survey probe of alien manufacture And it does not in fact beueath the usual super science on the otherwise helpless mankind and thereby usher in an age of peace abundance and ustice However other than that it s a pretty typical Alien Messiah that saves mankind from itself and I was hoping at the outset that we could perhaps for once have a story without the intervention of a super alien at allIn this case the salvation takes the form of eliminating all religions from the Earth Instead of bestowing on mankind the usual technological wisdom it dispences philosophyI kid you not Arthur C Clarke avowed atheist imagines an alien from on high come to Earth and pronounce in its irrefutable superhuman wisdom that Arthur C Clarke has been right all along and all religions are hooey Now who could have guessed that twist It s such a arringly humorous and incongruous episode in the middle of the rest of the story that I really didn t know what to make of it Is Clarke trying to be nasty here Or is he trying to make a oke Is he convincing himself or does he have some motive for deliberately advancing an extremely weak argument involving among other things the misuse of Ockham s razor a failure to really consider the different role of infinite and finite numbers a red herring and a failure to consider the cosmological and theological import of the big bangWhatever Clarke s larger intent within the setting Clarke s technological prophet is taken with such seriousnes First published in 1979 Fountains of Paradise is one of Grandmaster Sir Arthur C Clarke s later books but in its themes and style is reminiscent of some of his best workTelling the story of an elevator into space this also describes a flashback related story thousands of years earlier as a Sri Lankan king builds a palace high on the mountain top Both celestial projects stretch the limits of human achievement and engineering ability and Clarke s uniue talent ties the two stories togetherMuch of the narrative is devoted to explanations of the problems and obstacles to overcome for such a marvel of technology and engineering Clarke also sets this in the near future and describes other preeminent projects like a bridge across Gibraltar Essentially this is a filament tether connecting the mountain top to an orbiting satellite and we can easily transport people and supplies hundreds of kilometers into low space Clarke s scientific imagination and vision are again on exhibition This one also features better characterization than what we usually expect from himRecalling his other works Rendezvous with Rama and Childhood s End this also made me think of Poul Anderson s 1983 publication Orion Shall RiseGood SF this won both the Hugo and Nebula. A Space Elevator 36000 kilometres high anchored to an euatorial island in the Indian Ocean.

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Where I ve recently read one or two Hugo winning novels recently that I may or may not have exactly wished were winners I have no ualms in announcing that this 1980 winner is a real winnerIt s a true pleasure to read on several levels While the official story sometimes feels a bit tacked on and ethereal the themes and the characters and the science is all top shelf goodnessThe themes and feels are well known for fans of A C Clarke He has a serious devotion to space elevators the reduction in superstition and religion a truly hopeful outlook on life and a serious dev A truly breathtaking work of speculative fiction the scenes set 400km above the Earth s surface actually triggered my vertigo at one point Clarke s imagination is nothing less than visionary all the so as it is based in real hard science Astonishing and highly recommended to fans of hard SF the climax might even appeal to the Space Opera crowd Space Elevators Elevators that take people from the surface of Earth all the way across thousands of kilometers to orbitSounds fun yeahNot to meTo me it sounds like spending twenty hours packed into a crowded and fart infused metal room trying to avoid eye contact while enduring an unending audio loop of Top Twenty Chart Hits Pan Pipe InterpretationsYet while the term Space Elevator doesn t exactly drip with excitement Clarke in his skilled way spins an engaging and entertaining if at times a little dry story The Fountains of Paradise neatly uxtaposes the attempts to build humanity s first space elevator with the Sri Lankan Empire of the cruel king Kalidasa a usurper of the Sri Lankan throne who during his rule built a pleasure palace whose beauty challenged that of heavenly paradise the fountains in the title refer to the water gardens in the palaceSet in a semi fictional Sri Lanka here known as Taprobane the story mainly concerns Vannemar Morgan a world renowned engineer and his attempts to get support for an audacious project the linking of Earth s surface to orbit via a near monomolecular diamond cable a cable that will allow for freight and people to be taken to orbit without the use of expensive rocketryClarke s fictional Sri Lanka being close to the euator is a natural spot for such an elevator and the mountain known as Sri Kanda is by virtue of its height and location the best place on earth to connect the cable There is however one problem At the summit of the mountain sits a Buddhist monastery a sacred site that has been occupied for millennia The buddhist monks and their abbot Venerable Bodhidharma Mahanayake Thero are not for budging and will not allow the elevator to be built on their mountain Morgan must fight both their intransigence and the monumental technical problems he faces in building a structure tens of thousands of kilometres longThe sections concerning the King Kalidasa and his palace are great Clarke spent many many years in Sri Lanka An older colleague of mine who lived there used to see him wandering the beaches near Colombo and he brings its history and environment to lifeAs King Kalidasa builds his palace the Buddhist monastery on the peak nearby is ever present The disapproval of the monks and the influence of their spiritually powerful leader perpetually hangs over Kalidasa nicely echoing their influence over Morgan and the space elevator in the future While the historical sections brim with life however the sections concerning Morgan are a little less exciting Towards the end I found myself skipping ahead to see if the ill fate that Clarke had telegraphed for his protagonist early in the book was as I suspected It was and I was disappointed that his character arc was so obviously inevitableOh and did I mention that first contact with aliens has already occurred in Clarke s universe An epoch defining event like discovering other intelligent life or in this case them discovering us would seem to deserve than a mention but it barely influences the narrative at all or the motives of the characters and seemed to me to have been included solely so that Clarke could include an interesting coda at the book s end from centuries after the central events in the novelThe far future coda did wrap things up nicely however even if it seemed a little tacked on Overall this was an engaging but not spectacular story that despite its flaws made spending tens of hours watching numbers slowly creep up on an space elevator floor counter seem exciting than I had initially expectedThree stars Vannevar Morgan the Chief Engineer of the Terran Construction Corporation dreams of building a bridge that links Earth to the stars The space elevator is preferable over rocket travel because it is less expensive and less damaging to the environment A mountain on the island of Taprobane is the only location capable of holding the elevator and that location is currently inhabited by Buddhist monks that have no desire to leave Morgan must convince or coerce the monks to leave in order to fulfill his dream and build a bridge to the sky The Fountains of Paradise is about the impermanence of religion achievement and life but also about perseverance and thriving against impermanence This book is deserving of the Hugo and Nebula Awards that it received Following the resounding success of my Locus uest I faced a dilemma which reading list to follow it up with Variety is the spice of life so I ve decided to diversify and pursue six different lists simultaneously This book falls into my HUGO WINNERS listThis is the reading list that follows the old adage if it ain t broke don t fix it I loved reading the Locus Sci Fi Award winners so I m going to crack on with the Hugo winners next but only the post 1980 winners I ll follow up with pre 1980 another timeuick write a review before the toddler gets homeSo The Fountains of Paradise wasn t what I was expecting I m not uite sure what exactly I was expecting because I d never read anything by Arthur C Clarke before but Space Elevators are a staple of space opera a sub genre I m particularly fond of so I guess I was expecting melodramaI said repeatedly in my In the 22nd century visionary scientist Vannevar Morgan conceives the most grandiose engine.

Omments while reading that this story is measured peaceful even Zen Now while I did enjoy those aspects I didn t find them terribly gripping Despite the wonderful engineering feat described I never felt riveted please excuse the terrible punFor anyone like me who doesn t know much about this bookThe story is about the greatest engineer of his generation Van His masterwork to date was the Gibraltar bridge so huge it s simply referred to as The Bridge Now he s got plans for an even bigger bridge a bridge to the stars in the form of a space elevator The only mountaintop site on Earth suitable for this incredible project is already occupied by an ancient Buddhist temple The story follows how Van comes to evict the tenants and then later his involvement in a rescue mission during the construction of the elevatorWe also get a flashback to some ancient history around the location of the elevator and a flashforward to mirror the distant future when the elevator is itself ancientSo what s to likeIt s accessible the language structure and characters are all easy to grab hold of It s a uick read it s not a big book The pure love of engineering and passion for the idea of a space elevator evident is interesting powerful and charming The tone throughout is mature thoughtful contemplative and peaceful It s kind of like a charismatic lecturer using an engineer s biography to try and get students to relate to the real world issues around major projects Not entirely successful but you appreciate the effortAnd what s not to likeThe story is interesting but not dramatic in the traditional sense Van has no close friends or family Nobody s life is at risk if his project doesn t get off the ground It s a fight for an idea a wonderful idea but there s no heart and soul at stake The plot is broadly bisected into getting the project started and the rescue mission The first challenge is overcome via a deus ex fluke The second has the potential for great heart string drama but ducks every bullet the victim being rescued is not someone we care about the method of rescue is mostly routine and sedate the moments of crisis en route are solved logically and methodically and the final climax is one of peaceful acceptance I applaud the mindset of Van throughout these trials but his careful competence does suck the risk factor out of the euation This is Van the man he gets the ob done now let s look at the sceneryAs a far future tale this feels dated Apart from the crystal nanowire the Elevator is built of there s very little development out into broader technologicalsocialpolitical progression This feels like the 80s with a space elevatorAnd the final scoreI was torn between 3 and 4 stars I definitely liked it but I didn t really like it At no point was I not enjoying The Fountains of Paradise but the overall experience lacked ooomph In the end I settled on 3 stars because I DK Adventures just didn t have the conviction for 4Not a bad introduction I think to Arthur C Clarke In no way has it put me off reading when the opportunity arises What would you compare it tooHmm tough for me because I don t read much from that era Asimov is the only peer I ve read and they certainly have some stylistic elements common Some similarities to Larry Niven too A modern writer in the same headspace may be Greg Egan PS why is there no proper cover for this book only a photo of a book at a weird angle Huzzah Librarian David has now fixed this thanksAfter this I read Pootle 5 Arthur C Clarke once wrote a rather dull short story whichust happened to suggest the idea of geostationary satellites over 20 years before there were any This is a rather dull novel which presents a detailed plan for building a space elevatorWell I hope history repeats itself When I was a kid Arthur C Clarke s The Fountains of Paradise was one of my favorite books I must ve read it than half a dozen times checking it out from the library The book has to do with the creation of a space elevator and though I haven t read it now in over 30 years I remember it dealing beautifully and sensitively with the conflicts between traditionalism and social and technological progress It follows one scientist s impossible dream to fulfillment and although the ending is bittersweet it is full of optimism of the belief that innovation will truly make our world and our lives better and that one brilliant person can at the end make a difference 45 to 50 stars Definitely one of Clarke s best novels which is saying something given his tremendous body of work The novel as most of Clarke s work was respectful of the scientific basis reuired for the story but never let itself get bogged down in overly long technical explanations A superb story that once again reaffirms that man can do ust about anythign if he sets his mind to it HIGHLY RECOMMENDEDWinner Hugo Award for Best Science Fiction Novel 1980Winner Nebula Award for Best Science Fiction Novel 1980Nominee Locus Award for Best Science Fiction Novel 1980Nominee British Science Fiction Award for Best Novel 1980 I was disappointed in this book though I confess that part of it is my fault Clarke didn t tell the story that I wanted him to tell and this is always an unfair expectation on the part of the reader If you want a particular story you should write it yourself is the rightful reply of the writer But I m only human and when I get figs when I was expecting chocolate I m disappointed even if I like figs which I do The Fountains of Paradise is about mankind s first attempt to construct a space elevator It would perhaps be precise to say that it is about one man s attempt to construct a space elevator as Clarke suffers from his usual failing of trying to tell grand world transforming stories from the viewpoint of a single individual who has limited social interaction The result is that the largest enterprise ever undertaken by man is made to feel like it s a small business with perhaps five employeesBut that would not have particularly disappointed me had not the whole matter been made to seem so easy One of my particular and growing pet peeves is scienc. Ering project of all time and one which will revolutionize the future of humankind of space.

Arthur Charles Clarke was one of the most important and influential figures in 20th century science fiction He spent the first half of his life in England where he served in World War Two as a radar operator before emigrating to Ceylon in 1956 He is best known for the novel and movie 2001 A Space Odyssey which he co created with the assistance of Stanley KubrickClarke was a graduate of King