Friday, December 17, 2010

Book Review: The Fountains of Paradise

Arthur C. Clarke
Awards: Nebula, Hugo
Rating: ★ ★ ★ – –

This novel is not one of Clarke’s best, but I basically enjoyed it.

The book follows several intertwining, somewhat-related plot lines which seem a little bit artificially mashed together. As usual with Clarke, though, the science in it is realistic and impeccable. And the last half of the book, which focuses almost completely on only one of the plots, is pretty exciting.

The main story takes place in 2069. Humans have established colonies on the moon and several other planets in our solar system. Vannevar Morgan, an engineer who has become world-famous for building a bridge across the Straights of Gibraltar, now wants to build a space elevator. This would essentially be an incredibly tall tower extending from a point on Earth’s equator all the way up through the ionosphere to a space station in geosynchronous orbit. Goods could be brought up and down the elevator using relatively cheap electricity, and ships could shuttle those goods between the space station and other planets without having to waste energy getting in and out of Earth’s atmosphere.

Morgan needs to build the earth-bound terminal station of the elevator (a) in the area of greatest gravitational stability and (b) at an elevation high enough to avoid hurricanes. The best place is one particular mountain on the fictional island of Taprobane (which Clarke has modeled after Sri Lanka) in the Indian Ocean. Unfortunately, the location is already occupied by a 2,000-year-old Buddhist monastery and the monks are reluctant to leave, to say the least.

Interwoven with this modern story is the story of the corrupt and ruthless king Kalidasa who ruled Taprobane 2,000 years ago. He built an enormous pleasure palace, including elaborate fountains kept filled by water-carrying slaves, next to the same Buddhist monastery, and his disruptive presence and decadent lifestyle led to similar quarrels with the monks.

Another parallel story is that of Starglider, an interstellar probe built by aliens on a planet 52 light years away, which passes through our solar system in the early 21st century. Starglider is definitive proof that we are not alone and forever changes our understanding of our place in the universe.

Debates about God and religion come up throughout the book. There is constant tension between those who feel that you should not challenge the gods (usually represented by the monks) and those who appear to challenge them (represented primarily by Morgan, Kalidasa, and Starglider).

The God debate holds promise and the separate plots are interesting in themselves. The space elevator is particularly tantalizing because it could, in fact, be built today, if we put our minds to it (see Kim Stanley Robinson’s exploration of the idea in his Mars trilogy). Unfortunately, together, the different story lines make for a little bit of a disconcerting jumble. And the messages Clarke seems to want to send us about challenging God (if, in fact, that is what we are doing) are muddled; there are sympathetic and unsympathetic characters on both sides.

I did, of course, appreciate Clarke’s reference to R. Gabor’s Pharmacological Basis of Religion, published in 2069 by Miskatonic University Press.

One technical note: If you’re getting this book used or from the library, avoid the 1979 hardcover edition as it has a few erroneously transposed paragraphs in key places towards the end.

1 comment:

Lord John Whorfin said...

Well, I'd never heard of this book before, and I actually think Clarke is mildly overrated.

However, I just want to point out the guy who made the Miskatonic University website is hilarious. Thanks for linking to that; it is a great website. Also, I think he went to Brown. Or at least put some real research into what Lovecraft's college must have been like.

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