RogerBW's Blog

The Fountains of Paradise, Arthur C. Clarke 08 October 2017

1979 Hugo- and Nebula-award-winning science fiction. Vannevar Morgan is determined to build a bridge linking Earth to geosynchronous orbit, but humans and physics are going to get in his way.

This is a Clarke book, so you know you'll get some things and not get others. In spite of one or two flashbacks, Morgan is essentially a cipher; we don't really learn why he's so enthused for this particular project, though there are some possibilities hinted at. He has no close friends. And he's about the best-developed character here. Clarke is clearly trying to humanise this grand project, but by sticking to a small cast who all know each other he makes it feel like someone's garage-based hobby put together with a few friends rather than a massive cooperative enterprise.

On the other hand there's lots of physical detail about the space elevator, including due credit to Artsutanov for inventing it in the first place; and if the various objections to it are generally put in the mouths of comic figures in order to be dismissed, Clarke does at least put them into the book.

Like much of Clarke's work, this is a very gentle book; even the action-filled climax essentially consists of sawing through a bolt to detach a dead battery. The earlier major concern is that only one site on Earth is really suitable for the ground terminal, and the monks at the top of the mountain want to keep it; this isn't so much solved as coincidentally removed, though it's unclear whether the error that leads to this is deliberate or accidental.

All this is interspersed with occasional passages from the history of Taprobane (Sri Lanka shifted a few crucial degrees south), particularly King Kalidasa (Kashyapa I). This offers some foreshadowing, but is mostly scene-setting. There's also some mention of Starglider, an alien probe passing through the solar system (shades of Rendezvous with Rama) which chats happily by radio… and quietly demolishes the human demand for religion, except for Buddhism. This fits about as well as Tom Bombadil in The Lord of the Rings; it feels as if it's escaped from a different story entirely, particularly since the general absence of religion is not necessary for or relevant to the rest of the story.

I find some of the minor details particularly telling. Morgan's latest project was the Gibraltar Bridge, with 5-km-high pillars and a span (presumably) of 20+ km… which is a lovely futuristic idea, but all Clarke can think of to do with it, perhaps considering the Severn or Golden Gate bridges, is to run cars over it. The Øresundsbron, at a mere 8 km (12 including the tunnel), has train tracks too.

It's OK. It's grand in theoretical scope, but surprisingly small in practice. I just wish it had a different story, and some human characters, to go with the excellent core idea.

Reread for Neil Bowers' Hugo-Nebula Joint Winners Reread.

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  1. Posted by Owen Smith at 03:06pm on 08 October 2017

    The thing about a Gibraltar bridge is it is beyond what can be done with a steel cable suspension bridge. The steel cables would weigh more than 100% of what they could support. With the longest suspension bridge in the world (Akashi Kaikyo in Japan) I believe 40% of the weight the cables support is themselves, so we are already reaching the limits. A Gibraltar bridge would need new materials, like kevlar or carbon nanotube cables.

    It is interesting to note the Messina Straits bridge (endlessly cancelled and restarted politically) would be longer than Akashi Kaikyo. Not to mention most of tbe construction money ending up in the Mafia's pocket, one of the reasons it keeps getting cancelled.

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