Reportedly, Arthur C. Clarke himself regarded The Fountains of Paradise as his best novel. He could be right.
As we’ve noted already, the big hits of his career, 2001, A Space Odyssey and Rendezvous with Rama and their respective sequels, actually represent a decline in the quality of his writing. Characters have become less clearly distinguished, less fully developed, while technological explanations, info dumps, have taken up an increasing proportion of the text. But in The Fountains of Paradise the characters are as strongly drawn and as sympathetic as any in The City and the Stars or Childhood’s End, while there is a wit in the writing that we haven’t really seen since The Sands of Mars.
The reason for this is probably that The Fountains of Paradise is a book that was close to his heart in more senses than one.
In terms of setting, it takes place principally in Taprobane, which is a slightly displaced avatar of Sri Lanka, where Clarke had made his home for many years. Indeed, his house, as he notes in the Afterword, is close to the spot that is central to the action of the novel. That house, it is worth noting, was called “Leslie’s House”, and the novel is dedicated: “To the still unfading memory of Leslie Ekanayake (13 July 1947 – 4 July 1977) only perfect friend of a lifetime …” This is a novel that literally touches his heart.
Moreover, the central technological idea of the novel is the construction of a space elevator. Such an idea has become quite common in later science fiction, but the idea had been first proposed in a little-noticed Russian paper published in 1960, and only started to be proposed by Western scientists in 1966. Even among the scientific establishment, it hadn’t really taken hold, and The Fountains of Paradise was, I believe, the first time that the idea had appeared in fiction. But what was really worthy of note is that the necessary starting point for a space elevator is a satellite in geosynchronous orbit. Not only did Clarke make a major contribution to the idea of satellites in geostationary orbits in a paper published in 1945, but in a 1963 paper he had further refined the idea by looking at ways of achieving a “low-altitude, twenty-four-hour satellite”. In other words, he had helped to lay out the conditions that made the idea of a space elevator possible.
So we have a novel about what may be seen as his technological grandchild, set close to his home and dedicated to the love of his life. How could it not be deeply personal. Given that there is at least one jokey reference to 2001, A Space Odyssey, that one significant subplot replicates the basic idea of Rendezvous with Rama (and leads to a finale not too different from Childhood’s End), and that he very specifically equates the experience of being in space with the experience of underwater swimming, another of his great passions, and you get an inescapable sense that he poured more of himself into this novel than any other science fiction.
The central character is an engineering genius, Vannevar Morgan, who has already built a bridge spanning the Straits of Gibraltar, but who has now conceived the most daring engineering feat of all. He is, of course, a typical Clarke hero, brilliant, slightly maverick, with all sorts of technological know-how at his fingertips. That, alone of such Clarke heroes, he dies at the end gives him an unusually tragic air (that the death is signalled from about the mid-point of the novel doesn’t make it any the less tragic). But he is rounded in a way that the cardboard cutout characters of Clarke’s more recent novels had not been: he is admirable but not always likeable, he has faults and failings, he has a sense of humour, he inspires loyalty but also enmity. He is in some respects an intellectual, technological superman, but his more human traits make it easier to accept his strengths.
Morgan’s big idea is the space elevator, or “Orbital Tower” as he prefers to call it. For various technical reasons the only suitable place is Taprobane, which is Sri Lanka transported 800 kilometres south so that it straddles the equator. And the ideal spot on Taprobane is Sri Kanda, the Sacred Mountain, (Sri Lanka’s Sri Pada, doubled in height), which is located next to the fortress of Yakkagala (Sigiriya) where the parricide king Kalidasa (Kasyapa I) built a pleasure palace featuring the fountains of Paradise. The story, episodic and played out over many years, follows Morgan’s initial attempts to get the idea off the ground, how opposition by the monks on Sri Kanda scupper the plan, how Martian colonists revive the idea, the twist of fate that causes the monks to abandon Sri Kanda, the various challenges that need to be overcome before work can begin on the space elevator, and finally a dramatic accident during construction work that leads to a tense rescue mission 600 kilometres above the Earth.
Like everything else Clarke wrote, The Fountains of Paradise is suffused with his unshakeable belief that the destiny of humanity lies in space, that technological challenges are there to be overcome by human ingenuity, and that science will lead us ever onwards and upwards.
But around the technology that forms the familiar drum beat of every Clarke novel, other interests intrude. From stories like “The Nine Billion Names of God” and “The Star” to novels like Childhood’s End, Clarke showed an interest in the spiritual. That interest comes to the fore in this novel. The monks of Sri Kanda provide a starting point from which a thread of theological ideas run through the novel. Clarke makes it clear more than once that he does not believe in God, he is not inclined towards any religion, and that he believes a trust in the certainties of science obviates any need for religion. And yet he treats the religious figures, like the Mahanayake Thero who leads the monastery on Sri Kanda, seriously and with grace. And from this starting point, arguments about belief and the need for God thread their way right through the novel.
This theological thread is intricately entwined with another of his interests. Decades before the events of the novel, an alien spacecraft known as the Starglider entered the solar system. Like Rama, it did not stop but used the sun as a slingshot to send it off towards yet another star. Unlike Rama, however, Starglider is not visited, but does communicate with Earth, does provide information about other worlds and other beings, and does put humanity in touch with its own home world. While Starglider provides no advanced technological information, it does reveal that humanity is one of very few technologically advanced civilizations that does practice religion. It also suggests that the only other technological societies that practice religion are ones where children are born and raised as they are on Earth, which sets off another of the novel’s theological threads.
One of the other fascinating features of this novel is that passages are set in the past, telling the story of the 1st century AD King Kalidasa, who killed his father, seized the throne, and built the elaborate paradisal palace of Yakkagala before being defeated and killed by his own brother. The story of Kalidasa’s Fountains of Paradise clearly acts as a counterpoint to Morgan’s Orbital Tower, a brilliant engineering feat that has been largely lost to history and built for reasons that, centuries later, are no longer understood. But it also displays an unexpected sensitivity to the look and feel and thought of a past time on the part of the author.
Put all this together and we have what is probably the most complex and the most rewarding of all of Clarke’s novels. Little wonder that it won both the Hugo and the Nebula Awards for Bes Novel, and deservedly so.
From Nebula and Hugo Award–nominated Carolyn Ives Gilman comes Dark Orbit, a compelling novel featuring alien contact, mystery, and murder.
Reports of a strange, new habitable planet have reached the Twenty Planets of human civilization. When a team of scientists is assembled to investigate this world, exoethnologist Sara Callicot is recruited to keep an eye on an unstable crewmate.