The Fountains of Paradise – Arthur C Clarke (1979)
One of Clarke’s running themes is that of Human Transcendence, a racial coming-of-age or puberty, during which we throw off the shackles of our irrational beliefs and, well, grow up.
‘Childhood’s End’ saw the human race guided through this process by an Elder Race, while in ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’, a single human is transformed by an Elder Race and returned to Earth to do much the same thing. ‘Fountains of Paradise’ is as joyous as the aforementioned books and thought of by many as Clarke’s best work.
The story follows engineer Vandevaar Morgan and his quest to build a space-elevator (see also Charles Sheffield’s ‘Web Between the Worlds’ and Robinson’s ‘Red Mars’. Robinson named the termini of the elevator ‘Clarke’ and ‘Sheffield’ as a tribute to the authors of the earlier books) anchored on Earth on the equatorial island of Taprobane (based on Clarke’s home of Sri Lanka).
It’s interesting to note that in 1979 Clarke’s boundless optimism leads him to believe that major religions will fall into decline. By the end of the book the Vatican is mentioned, in passing, as being virtually bankrupt.
Indeed, the concept of God is dealt a final lethal blow by information from a passing alien AI (representative of the obligatory ELDER RACE) which reduces religion to an aberrant condition common only to mammalian intelligent species and generally abandoned by those races at a particular level of social and scientific development. Clarke also presents no argument against the destruction of a millennia-old Buddhist monastery to make way for his space-elevator, which (a minor complaint) slightly detracts from his sound points about Mankind’s immaturity with regard to organised religion, and seems at odds with the respect for history and tradition, which is shown to great effect elsewhere in the novel.
Sadly, with the events of September 11, 2001 and the rise of religious fundamentalism around the world, his optimistic prediction of a world freed from the chains of religious belief now seem rather naïve, as much as we would like to share in his hope for a rational future.
The narrative, initially, is sandwiched with the tale of King Kalidasa, who, two thousand years previously, created his own challenge to Heaven with the fabulous Palace of Yakkigala.
The brilliance of the book lies in the way Clarke takes a solid scientifically-provable principle and creates the reality of its potential for us. It is very likely that at some point in the future such a structure will be built.
It’s an exciting and exhilarating thought, made all the more engrossing by Clarke’s mastery of storytelling, the vividness of the setting, the attention to detail and the undoubted (for its time anyway) scientific accuracy.