It’s tempting to call The Fountains of Paradise Arthur C. Clarke’s magnum opus. Containing bits and pieces of nearly everything the author was involved with, personally and fictionally. The book has it all, from his beloved Sri Lanka to the immense possibilities of science, alien phenomena to his belief humanity will improve itself, the realistic presentation of science to “knowledge” as the hero, not to mention being produced in the latter stages of his career. Part historical overview, part thriller, and all hard sci-fi, whether or not The Fountains of Paradise is the best of Clarke’s oeuvre is up to the reader to decide. That the novel is at its heart is undeniable.
The Fountains of Paradise is the story of the Vannevar Morgan. Fresh off the successful construction of the three-kilometer high Gibraltar Bridge, the engineer is ready to start on his next vision: to design and build an orbital tower—an elevator to space. The time late 21 st century, mankind has begun inhabiting the nearer planets in the solar system. Development ongoing apace, many needed resources must still be brought from Earth, something an orbital tower, with its capacity to deliver vast payloads into the atmosphere without the need to launch fuel-guzzling, noisesome rockets, would greatly improve. Morgan past middle age and having a heart problem, the time needed for the project’s conception and implementation, however, may just exceed the number of years he has remaining.
And Morgan faces other challenges. The best site for locating the Earth-side anchor of the tower happens to be at the top of a mountain on the fictional island Taprobane (an “island 90% similar to Sri Lanka” according to Clarke’s afterword). Transportation and logistics are not the issue, however. Having called the place home for thousands of years, the group of monks who reside in their temple at the island’s peak are not so eager to give up their sacred grounds, adding to the conflicts of interest the single-minded Morgan must deal with.
I have not read the entirety of Clarke’s books, so perhaps I’m about to put my foot in my mouth, but from my limited reading, The Fountains of Paradise is unique in the author’s oeuvre for its extensive use of historical elements. Sri Lankan history specifically, chapters of the opening section tell of King Kalyapa (called Kalidasa in the novel) and his conception of the Fountains and Sky palace at Lion Rock (called Yakkagala). Creating an architectural and historical parallel to the scientific endeavors which later overtake the plot, the manner in which Morgan’s aims echo the king’s is downright literary, something the author has not been accused of many times.
Problems with The Fountains of Paradise—there are none per se. The style is more polished, more rich than Clarke’s early novels, the pace is brisk but effective, and the story has a perfect structure, from playing out the individual strands in the beginning, bringing them together in a suspenseful climax, to the aftermath. “Point of contention” would seem a better descriptor for some of the narrative choices. The view of religion rather simplistic and the epilogue seemingly skewed, Clarke may have tried to tackle too much in these instances. Regardless, they are assembled with the other elements into a satisfying whole that speaks to something realistic in mankind’s hopes for the future.
In the end, The Fountains of Paradise is one of Clarke’s best novels. As mentioned, it is representative of his oeuvre for the parts which comprise the whole. Big dumb objects (Rendezvous with Rama), hard science conundrums (A Fall of Moondust), jumps in evolution (2001: A Space Odyssey), hard science (every Clarke novel?), and the myths and architectural heritage of Sri Lanka—err, Tapobrane—are the motifs filling out the story of Morgan and his dream of an orbital tower to space. The Fountains of Paradise’s hard science grounding in economic, religious, and political ideals is a commendable example of the genre and worthwhile for anyone who ever pondered upon the real-world design issue facing thinkers who think big—space elevator, big.