Inverarity (inverarity) wrote,

Book Review: The Fountains of Paradise, by Arthur C. Clarke

Building a space elevator is not as interesting as it sounds.

The Fountains of Paradise

Harcourt Brace, 1979, 245 pages

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 Morgans Orbital Tower is the monastery atop the Sacred Mountain of Sri Kanda.

There are some great authors I am just never going to love, and Arthur C. Clarke is one of them. This Hugo-winning 1979 novel helped popularize the "space elevator" that has been reused many times in science fiction (though I don't think Clarke actually invented the idea). Last I heard, an actual space elevator is still considered to be barely more feasible than a generation ship — something we might theoretically be capable of building, but not feasible with any foreseeable technology.

Clarke makes it feasible with the discovery of a super-strong monofilament cable, though even with this discovery, it will require a substantial percentage of Earth's GDP to build. The engineering protagonist (Clarke's protagonists are always engineers) gets it done by enlisting a consortium of rich, forward-thinking individuals and organizations, and putting it in a near future in which interplanetary travel and shipping is already in existence.

Most of the book is about overcoming the engineering, and to a lesser extent, social challenges in building the elevator. The anchor point has to be put at the perfect equatorial location, which turns out to be right on top of a mountain monastery in the fictional country of Taprobane, which Clarke based on his beloved Sri Lanka. So there are some chapters flashing back to the history of Taprobane, its rulers, and its monks, before moving into the future and the space elevator.

It's all very fascinating stuff for engineers and philosophers. But the entire book is just an engineering challenge. And like most of Clarke's books, I found it fairly boring. The only really interesting part was the brief few chapters about the Starglider, an interstellar probe that cruises through the solar system, letting humanity know that they are not alone, and incidentally delivering a supposedly irrefutable proof, from multiple advanced civilizations, of the unknowability of God. The probe basically tells us that all the big kids in the galaxy think religion is silly and we need to grow up. It's about as close as Clarke comes to getting up on a soapbox.

Besides that, there just weren't any interesting characters and no real plot besides "How will they get the elevator built?" I've had the same reaction to most of Clarke's novels. Science nerds are supposed to love them, but I think there isn't much there for literary fans.

Also by Arthur C. Clarke: My review of Rendezvous with Rama.

My complete list of book reviews.
Tags: arthur c. clarke, books, reviews, science fiction

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