I really need to read more Arthur C. Clarke. Of the “Big Three” of science fiction (Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, and Arthur C. Clarke), Clarke is becoming my favorite. He is a more talented writer than Asimov and does not get bogged down in political or philosophical musings to the same extent as Heinlein. This factors that made Rendezvous with Rama one of my favorite Hugos from the 1970 are on display in 1980’s winner, The Fountains of Paradise.
The premise of Fountains is not nearly as enticing as Rendezvous with Rama, however. When I read the description on the back of the book I was not encouraged. The plot, boiled down its core, is how an engineer creates the first space elevator. That’s it. No exploration and no sense of discovery. A space elevator is giant structure that links the planet’s surface to a satellite so people and objects can be moved easily and cheaply up into space. An interesting and practical idea to be sure but not something on which to base a whole book.
Yet Clarke makes it work. He keeps the premise firmly grounded in hard sci-fi but gives it an interesting human elements as well. The book delves into an interesting parallel story about King Kashyapa I of Sri Lanka and his construction of the city of Sigiriya and a place on top of a giant rock. The place looks so interesting that I want to visit it myself. The major conflict of the first half of the story is convincing a group of Buddhist monks to give up their monastery so that the base for the elevator can be built there. Like Rendezvous with Rama, the conflict feels minor and not the real point of the goal of the narrative. The only tension in the book occurs in the last section when the protagonist, Dr Vannevar Morgan, takes a one-man vehicle up the elevator to save a group of trapped researchers. Clarke sticks to the hard sci-fi approach here as Morgan has to balance his oxygen use and momentum to make it to the group in time. It is a gripping segment that surprised me a bit since the rest of the book is so sedate.
The Fountains of Paradise is a great book but I would still place it behind Rendezvous with Rama on my list of Clarke’s works. Fountains lacks the sense of wonder that Rendezvous had. Partially, this is the result of the premise. The building of a space elevator is just not as interesting as exploring a mysterious alien space craft, at least to me. There is more tension but I missed the sense of discovery.
I should mention that this book also contains first contact with alien intelligence as a minor plot point. Before the beginning of the novel, an unmanned alien vessel, Starglider, swings through the Solar System and makes contact with humans. Starglider is a powerful artificial intelligence that uses scientific logic to refute all religions which subsequently vanish almost immediately, with the exception of Buddhism. I found this part both odd and a ridiculous. Odd in that it had very little to do with the rest of the story and ridiculous because it is absurd to think that religion would just vanish because an alien computer said that religion does not hold up to scientific logic. Clarke is clearly trying to make a humanist point about a more utopian post-religion world (he could have said nothing and the rest of the story would be unchanged) but it falls flat. Many secular humanists think that people cling to religion because they don’t understand the world and if they just understood science then they would cease to believe. Yet, like much of the human experience, reality is bit more complicated than that. Personally, I do not believe that science and religion are like oil and water. Stephen Hawking wrote (I am paragraphing) that science does not disprove the existence (nor non-existence) of God but does show the rules He used to create the universe. Believing in the one does not negate the other. The Fountains of Paradise also end with aliens. In the far future, humans have stopped living on Earth and instead moved to orbiting space stations that encircle the planet. It was interesting ending but felt far removed the rest of the book.
The 1980s are off to a good start. I thoroughly enjoyed The Fountains of Paradise and I feel any sci-fi fan would as well. Clarke deserves his place as one of the greats of the genre. Hopefully 1981’s winner, The Snow Queen, will be just as good.