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The Fountains Of Paradise by Arthur C. Clarke
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Read 2 times. Last read December 1, 2018 to December 22, 2018.

Another year, another reread.

Although it will have passed by the time you read this, as I approached the one-hundred-and-first anniversary of Sir Arthur’s birth (16th December 1917) I find myself picking up another ‘old one’ for a reread. This time it is the Hugo and Nebula Award winning novel The Fountains of Paradise, published in 1979.

The Fountains of Paradise was the next novel published after Imperial Earth (1976). By this stage in his career Arthur was slowing down the fiction writing, feeling bored or at least worn out by the process. It didn’t help that he was having much of his time taken up with other things – he was a regular advisor and speaker at such places as the United Nations and was now seen by the general public as one of the ‘go-to’ commentators on all things science. His last book published, The View from Serendip, was a non-fiction book published in 1977. The hardback cover declares that it is about “Speculations on space, science and the sea, together with fragments of an equatorial autobiography.” If nothing else, such a summary shows that Arthur now had other interests besides writing fiction, living now full time in Sri Lanka.

Consequently, his fiction output was much slower than in the early years of his career (although not as slow, admittedly, as his friend Isaac Asimov.) Imperial Earth had been a long time in the writing - it has been suggested that the idea was developed over twenty years or so. It also showed that things were changing, as it was, unusually, edited differently between the US and the UK editions.

The Fountains of Paradise reflects these changes, in that whilst it seems similar in style and tone to most of his earlier writing, it is a book inspired by a number of Arthur’s personal if rather opposing interests - the cutting edge of science ideas and technology and the mystical spiritualism of ancient beliefs and religions.

For a man known for writing about science, the first surprise is that the book begins in faux-ancient History and spends much of its time telling us a two-thousand-year-old story of the kingdom of Taprobane (clearly a fictional version of Clarke’s new home, Sri Lanka.) Although much of the book is set in the 21st century, the first few chapters are about how a mountain on the island of Sri Kanda became the Buddhist temple of Yakkagala and has frescoes around its perimeter. This is also based on a real place known to Clarke, actually Sigiriya, which Clarke in his Afterword states is a place “so astonishing that I have had no need to change it in any way.” The reason for this is soon revealed – that the mountain site is the best location for the creation of a space elevator that, once built, will allow cheap travel into space. This first part of the book reflects Clarke’s own interest in the real Sigiriya and his curiosity into religion, in this case Buddhism. Whilst not religious himself, Arthur was interested in the importance of such things to the wider world and the influence they have upon human cultures and society.  This part allows him to respectfully examine such matters.

The second section of the book have the priests mainly moved away from this spiritual place for the greater good of Humanity to allow Arthur to then focus upon his key scientific idea – that of the space elevator. Here we tread more familiar Clarke territory, as the rest of the book is mainly based around the design and construction of this key invention. The idea of a way of travelling into space without rockets is now seen as fairly cliched, but at the time was fairly new to the scientific community and fascinated Clarke. In the book’s Afterword it is clearly acknowledged that Arthur is extending an idea of great personal importance and interest to him. He had picked up on the idea of an ‘orbital tower’ on reading an article in Science magazine in February 1966, a few weeks into the filming of 2001: A Space Odyssey. He was fascinated, yet felt it was an “apparently outrageous concept”. Despite this, the more he looked into it, the more it became a major interest of Arthur’s. He spent the next 15 years researching further and thinking about how he could make the idea work in fiction and possibly reality.

To display the potential of this idea, the story focusses on Vannevar Morgan, the engineer whose job it is to build the space elevator. Much of the book here is standard Clarke narrative. There’s lots of discussion of the choices made and the challenges such a megaproject would create, all of which are addressed with enthusiasm and typical Clarke humour. Some of the solutions are ingenious and typically Clarke in their ambition and optimism.

The tension builds as the project nears completion. There’s accidents, crises and adventure of a nature similar to that in A Fall of Moondust, which contrive to keep the pages turning to an appropriate ending.

The final part of the novel is a typically Clarkean combination of how extreme engineering, ambition and human endeavour leads to the human race reaching beyond the confines of Earth’s landscape. There’s an interesting comment about first contact (which was sadly never developed further) that was a little reminiscent of Childhood’s End but it is all, as you would expect from Arthur’s work, generally good-natured and positive. It is a celebration of the resilience of humanity, rising to meet the challenge of living, a perspective not usually seen in 2018, but may be the reason for its success in 1979.

This optimism clearly stuck a chord as when the book was published it was the winner of the 1979 Nebula and 1980 Hugo Awards. My first excited reading back then led to me feeling that it was OK but clearly Clarke showing off his hobby horses and less successful as a result. I seem to remember (possibly wrongly!) was that the awards were more about a validation of Clarke’s body of work to that point rather than specifically for The Fountains of Paradise.  The nominations and winning may also be as a result of the rumour that there was, if I remember rightly, that this was Clarke’s last hurrah before stopping fiction writing altogether – rather like his friend Isaac Asimov. (He was persuaded to write the Odyssey sequels a few years later.)

 

Critics over time have been less kind to it. Many feel that it is a dated work, for whilst it shows many of Clarke’s strengths and is undoubtedly entertaining, it also exhibits many of his weaknesses. (See Jo Walton’s post here.)

On reflection, I think that such a view may be a little unfair, particularly on this rereading. It is typically Clarke in his guise as a knowledgeable and amused observer. He is interested in humanity in all of its aspects and deals with them in that typically Clarkean manner.  I think it shows, more than 2001 does, I think, a rumination on Clarke’s own beliefs – spiritual, technological and social. The Fountains of Paradise is a book that is clearly written from the heart and it shows, but admittedly in the typically restrained manner of the author.

On the downside, the weaknesses of thin characterisation and the gender imbalance are present, though I feel that Clarke is a little aware of this in the writing.  For those who dislike Clarke’s style, this novel may not win them over. It has Clarke’s unique voice, that self-deprecating manner combined with subtle and understated humour, that I find so unique and so much missed, but is not for everyone, especially a contemporary readership.

As ever with books attempting to portray the future, some of the most dated aspects in 2018 are in the suggested technological achievements by 2142. Clarke has accepted the importance of global instantaneous communication  (and indeed was one of the first advocates of such a global development) bu even so computers have developed much more by 2018 than shown here, as has social media, although there are elements of those mentioned. There’s a pleasingly confident statement that “electronic charges” have not entirely replaced “good old-fashioned books” which may be read on a Kindle with a certain degree of humour.

And yet, despite all of this, there’s enough to make this an enjoyable read. The short chapters kept turning and kept me reading until the end. The Fountains of Paradise may not be as loved as 2001: A Space Odyssey, but for me it is an encapsulation of the author’s work at the time of the late 1970’s.  I rattled through this book in a couple of days, once again being reminded of what a positive force Clarke was then and what a special voice he had. There are no authors today writing like this (although Stephen Baxter comes close.) I’m pleased I reread it.

Happy birthday, Sir Arthur.
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Reading Progress

Finished Reading
February 2, 2009 – Shelved
December 1, 2018 – Started Reading
December 22, 2018 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-2 of 2 (2 new)

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Denis Great review!


Mark As ever, Thanks Denis!


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