20 September 2012

The Fountains of Paradise

The Fountains of Paradise by Arthur C. Clarke
1986 Hugo Award Winner
Got it from: Public Library
245 Pages

Humanity is on the brink of the greatest engineering achievement to date.  A tower to a space station in geosynchronous orbit could revolutionize space travel.  But before chief engineer, Vannevar Morgan, can claim victory he must overcome insane obstacles of engineering, safety and most importantly…religion.

Why I like Arthur C. Clarke so damn much
The Fountains of Paradise is not one of the titles that I hear come up often in any discussion of Clarke’s extremely impressive body of work, yet it is a perfect example of what about his work that appeals to not only my enthusiastic SF aesthetics but also on a deeper, nuanced and philosophical level.

There was a great conversation at the end of chapter 31 between Morgan and Sheik Abdullah that touches on both of my reasons that went:

“Well, I suppose there’s no law that says a tower can’t hang downward.”
            “We do have one going upward as well, remember—from the synchronous orbit out to the mass anchor that keeps the whole structure under tension.”
“And Midway Station?  I hope you haven’t changed that.”
            “No. It’s at the same place—twenty-five thousand kilometers.”
“Good. I know I’ll never get there, but I like to think about it. . . .”  He muttered something in Arabic.  “There’s another legend, you know—Mahomet’s coffin, suspended between heaven and earth.  Just like Midway.”
“We’ll arrange a banquet for you there, Mr. President, when we inaugurate the service.”
“Even if you keep to your schedule—and I admit you only slipped a year on the Bridge—I’ll be ninety-eight then.  No, I doubt if I’ll make it.”
But I will, said Vannevar Morgan to himself.  Because now I know that the gods are on my side; whatever gods may be.
Chapter 31

So first, I loved Abdullah’s comment: “but I like to think about it”.  I mean…shit.  That one little phrase says so much.  It speaks to the unbridled enthusiasm for getting the hell out to space that any SF fan has to deal with.  It speaks to any one’s enthusiasm for (probably even fear of) human development, and their sense of worth not as a human but for humanity.  I think it also speaks to our fear of space and the incomparable vastness of the universe.  It’s like, if we can do that kind of unimaginable thing, maybe humans aren’t so small after all.  And who doesn’t like to think of things like that?

But I also liked the last line: “whatever gods may be”.  Clarke takes on difficult topics, religion, philosophy of science, politics, contact.  In every case, but especially in Fountains, Clarke does not hand out answers.  Characters struggle and they don’t always feel better afterward and those crises of identity or religion or whatever are frequently unresolved at the end of a book.  Maybe that doesn’t sound like any way to treat a reader, but there is something about that kind of realism that not only strikes a deep and resonating chord with me, but which also makes me feel like less stupid and alone.

And finally, it is also the very combination of these two themes that I love more than anything.  It struck me as a such a beautiful and exciting and dangerous and sad tale of humanity’s physical/scientific conquest of the universe (not only the tower, but making contact!) and simultaneous spiritual inquiry bordering despondency.  Moreover, it is precisely our spiritual uncertainty from which Morgan endeavors…no, MUST construct our most unbelievable scientific achievement.  It’s just so ripe!

Okay, my 4 or 5 titles by Clarke are not enough to really speak to how this fits in to his overall body of work but it is enough for me to say Fountains is going to be hard to unseat from my mind as one of his quintessential novels because it seems to speak so directly to those aspects about Clarke that I have now come to love so much.

Of Clarke’s novels that I’ve read I don’t think he has touched on religion yet.  He has created in each of those, almost a religious devotion and enthusiasm for scientific discovery, debate and progress.  Before you think I’m saying his work is predictable, I have never once failed to be completely shocked by something that seems so un-Clarke as mysterious aliens (I don’t know why that seemed so weird to me…) or religion or whatever it may be at the time.  It shouldn’t have surprised me when Fountains of Paradise began in a Buddhist temple, high in the mountains and away from anything that seemed like science, but it did.  And as with every single of his other books, I began 100% doubtful, wondering (in my super whiney, skeptical voice) “am I gonna like this?”  And as with every single of his other books, I was hooked before the first chapter was up.  I think you will be too.


Universe 5/5
Social/Political Climate 5/5
Dialogue 4/5
Scientific Wonders 5/5
Characters 3/5

Overall 22/25

This week’s book is Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card.  I’m not gonna lie.  I’ve obviously already started this one and I’m loving it so much, I’d rather be listening than finishing this post!

Next week’s book is Speaker for the Dead by Orson Scott Card.  As luck would have it, I’m hitting these two consecutively.


  1. where would you suggest one begin with Clarke?

    A tower to a space station in geosynchronous orbit sounds like the thingymajig John Scalzi uses to transport the old people into space in Old Man's War...he is known to reference other work; I wonder. course, I am working from a fuzzy memory on that specific, it just rang familiar is all.

    glad you are getting some good books right together.

    ~L (omphaloskepsis)

  2. Oh... I'm not sure I'm qualified to give that kind of advice but my favorite has been Rendezvous with Rama if that means anything to you.

    There is also a tower in Red Mars too! Now that I've read so much more SF I really need to read Old Man's War again. There are so many references I'll probably pick up on better.

    I'm glad too :) and the streak is apparently continuing with Ender's Game!


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