The August Arthur C. Clarke 2013 Reading Challenge book is The Fountains of Paradise. Originally intended to be Clarke’s last novel, it was published in 1979 and is now available from Gollancz.
‘In the 22nd century visionary scientist Vannevar Morgan conceives the most grandiose engineering project of all time, and one which will revolutionize the future of humankind of space: a Space Elevator, 36,000 kilometres high, anchored to an equatorial island in the Indian Ocean. Winner of the Hugo Award for best novel, 1980 Winner of the Nebula Award for best novel, 1979.’
The Fountains of Paradise pulls together a string of themes that preoccupied Arthur C. Clarke in his writing. One of his last novels, largely set on a version of Sri Lanka to which he had retired, it confidently escorts us through a mix of ideas, styles and visions. Some work better than others but there are moments here that are truly moving and memorable.
The story is both small and vast. It tells of one man’s dream to create and build the most enormous structure in mankind’s history. Having already built the Gibraltar Bridge to span the gap between continents, Vannevar Morgan now pursues his quest to build an elevator to the stars, anchored to Earth on an equator mountain, liberating man to explore further into his solar system. This is the most ambitious and costly plan yet conceived but it is presented here almost intimately – as the life’s work of just one man. This is, though, a representation of the ancient battle between religion and science that fascinated Clarke so much. The mountain is settled by Buddhist monks, governed by a man of mathematics and science, an astrophysicist, who has now become a man of God. Ironically, it is their own superstition, as Clarke would have it, that drives the monks from the mountain. The astrophysicist has created the power to control storms. One of these storms causes a mass of butterflies to fall onto the mountain peak, thereby fulfilling an ancient prophecy that foretells the monks’ departure from the temple. It is abandoned to science and to Morgan.
A recurring theme through the novel is the appearance of a mysterious alien craft, Starglider, which silently passes through the solar system, communicating the truth that humanity is not alone in the universe. This, too, confronts man’s age-old dependency on gods shaped as he is.
The Fountains of Paradise contains several different elements, beginning with the history of the mountain two thousand years before when it was ruled by the king Kalidasa who was both mad and a visionary, an architect. Much of the novel, though, presents Morgan’s own struggle to build his marvel, on Earth or on the colonised Mars. There is little about the actual construction of the tower but a great deal about the politics and controversy about its building. I found this section less than satisfying. We also learn little about Morgan during this stage.
Later the tower is built and the book becomes something else that is common in Clarke’s novels – a rescue story. When a group of scientists are trapped on the tower Morgan himself mounts a rescue. Time is short and as Morgan climbs towards them we get to know the main figure of the novel much better. As he marvels at the Earth and space around him, Clarke’s vision of man’s capacity to explore and wonder at what lies beyond our planet’s confines radiates.
We meet other characters, mostly fleetingly, and there are hints at a woman who might have been interested in spending time with Morgan if he had been more earthbound. But The Fountains of Paradise belongs to Morgan and his shadow, Kalidasa. There are other shadows, hinted at by Starglider, and there is a vision of the world much later in its future, almost abandoned as it freezes, humanity escaping via the tower and others like it. While this part of the story fits less well than others – and there are other scenes that seem tagged on – it is wonderfully written, full of vision and awe and a big part of why I love Clarke’s writing. Likewise with the Starglider moments. These are scene stealers.
The Fountains of Paradise is the latest novel by Clarke that I have read, composed after the Moon landings. It presents a more familiar solar system than the earlier books but the extraordinary ideas remain. Some might be expressed with little subtlety – especially the ant-religion stance – but there are some truly awe inspiring scenes and even intimate moments between man and his universe that will stay with me, the ending chief among them. Sections stand out as some of Clarke’s finest writing and for these pages I would urge you to read The Fountains of Paradise.