Monday, January 7, 2008

Review - The Fountains of Paradise

The Fountains of Paradise
by Arthur C. Clarke
1980 Hugo Winner for Best Novel
1979 Nebula Winner for Best Novel

With The Fountains of Paradise I decided that the longer works of Clarke were simply not for me. I found the book too heavy with the engineering, too light on the glossed over human elements, and just bland in general. In other words almost exactly like his previous winner Rendezvous With Rama.

Also this is the end of the almost perfectly coinciding Hugo and Nebula winners that the first fifteen years of Nebulas had (over the previous decade the winners in the novel category were the same 80% of the time). The next four years the awards do not match followed by a short run of matching winners and then finally going their separate ways only occasionally meeting again.

The Fountains of Paradise deals with the construction of the first orbital elevator in a slightly fictionalized version of Sri Lanka, a cable with the top in geostationary orbit and the bottom anchored to the ground so that one can simply climb up the thirty thousand miles to space. Complications abound such as the ancient monastery on top of the mountain where the elevator terminus would be and sabotage from the Tamil Tiger stand-ins.

I'll give Clarke full credit for having an interesting idea for the novel. There's no reason why the push to create a space elevator shouldn't be an interesting idea but Clarke writes about it like he's writing about the construction of a parking garage. I don't mean that the characters should spend time going "Gosh, wow! We're transforming the future of humanity!" but they are and everything is so passionless that it just wears me down. The best that Clarke does is near the beginning as he describes to us the wonders that will be disrupted by the massive project. I suspect that comes from his love of the country that he's describing which he would retire to after the book was published.

Oddly enough a major plot device in the book is the near total control over the weather that the Earth has (fine enough to whip up a major storm in a specific location). I would think that anyone with the technology to manipulate a chaotic system in such detail on a global scale would have no trouble with a space elevator project. Weather control on that scale is so far into Clarke's technology indistinguishable from magic that when you posit a civilization that has that has it then you might as well say they have anything.

The Fountains of Paradise is a very anti-religion novel. Besides the Buddhist monks who stand directly in the path of the superhighway there is an alien probe that passes through the solar system and essentially says, "Oh by the way, all of your religions are wrong! See ya!" Clarke tells us that this shuts down religion world wide and makes everyone happy. Except the Buddhist monks, of course.

For a book with a fantastic premise The Fountains of Paradise is just weak. If you are happy with novels about engineering then it may appeal to you more than it did to me but it ended my desire to read any more from Clarke.