The last time I read an Arthur C. Clarke novel, it was 'Rendezvous with Rama', which won him the Hugo Award in 1974. This time, we're six years on and he won again with a novel that does what 'Rama' did but does a much better job of writing characters to hook all the grand ideas on, especially when he throws them into life or death action scenes.
And there is no shortage of grand ideas. The most obvious is the space elevator that has become the magnum opus of superstar engineer Vannevar Morgan, now that the bridge he designed to link Europe and Africa across the Gibraltar Straits is complete. He hasn't got a heck of a lot of chance of achieving this goal, given the obstacles in his way, from technological advancements to the fact that he'll need to build it on a mountainside in the fictional country of Taprobane and a Buddhist temple has been continuously on the site for a couple of millennia.
However, if this book has a message, it's that we'll achieve massive things if only we can dream massive enough, and Morgan certainly does that. There are smaller ideas here as well, so many that I'm sure I didn't note them all down. Weather control has quite a big role to play, but heat monitors, limb regenerations and automated birthday reminders come into play too.
Also, while this isn't set in the same universe as Rama, a visit from a similar interstellar vessel, dubbed Starglider, has already happened when the novel begins and it's changed a lot of things, most obviously our gravitation towards religion. This time we were able to communicate with Starglider before it left again and we never forget that, whatever else we do in the meantime, we're not alone in the universe and first contact is coming.
It's well known that Clarke, who was born in England, one of the standard countries for great science fiction authors, lived for over half his life in Sri Lanka, his adopted home, and that certainly flavoured much of his fiction, including this book. Taprobane isn't on any of our maps because it's a fictionalisation of Sri Lanka and a little further south than it ought to be to meet the technical requirements of the space elevator.
Clarke said that it was "about ninety percent congruent" and, while I've never visited it, I certainly got a feel for the place and some of its history and culture by reading this. It mostly unfolds as a future story with Morgan (or others) finding ways around obstacles so that his dream can happen, but there's a consistent alternation and connection to an ancient king, known as Kalidasa, who built the fountains of the title two thousand years earlier.
I should point out that Kalidasa and Yakkagala are historical, in the sense that they're a fictionalisation of Kashyapa I and the ambitious city he built at Sigiriya. These two eras are connected thematically in this novel, as well as through the presence of the temple on the sacred mountain of Sri Kanda nearby, with Kalidasa dealing with the Mahanayake Thero of his era, just as Morgan has to deal with the 85th Mahanayake Thero in his.
I liked 'Rendezvous with Rama' but only for its big ideas. Rama itself dominated, to the point that I found that I forgot who some of the puny humans who visited it were even while they were there. It wasn't a human story; it was an alien story and the human race paled in comparison, whether individually or as a whole. The revelation that this visitor from another star system wasn't even here for us at all but was merely using our sun to slingshot towards its real destination was hard to take.
I like 'The Fountains of Paradise' much more, because its big ideas are mostly human in origin and ably demonstrate what we can achieve when we put our minds to it, both the individual minds of people like Vannevar Morgan and the collective minds of a species. We're big and growing in this book, because this space elevator is a gateway to orbit, a necessary step if we're going to easily expand beyond our planet. In 'Rama', we were the sentient equivalent of Carl Sagan's pale blue dot.
What's more, Morgan, as driven and often alone as he is, is a fleshed-out human being whose existence and actions we acknowledge and appreciate and will remember. 'Rama' was blissfully shy of any of those. There are other, less prominent, characters here that I'll remember too, such as the 85th Mahanayake Thero's secretary, formerly a physicist named Dr. Choam Goldberg, who retreated to the monastery on Sri Kanda after telling the world, "Now that Starglider has effectively destroyed all traditional religions, we can at last pay serious attention to the concept of God."
I haven't read as many of Clarke's works as I should, but I've read enough to see that it's this book that should be the first port of call for those interested in exploring his work, rather than his more famous works like 'Rendezvous with Rama' and the short story 'The Sentinel' which was adapted to film as '2001: A Space Odyssey'. While, unlike those other works, it has no sequel, it certainly connects to much more of Clarke's other writing. It's appropriate too, as that the space elevator is his gateway to space and his book about it is his gateway to his work.
The flaws here are somewhat forgiveable. Yet again, there are precious few women with a role to play in this future, though that gender isn't excluded entirely. The high concept nature of much of the book jars a little with the old fashioned rescue storyline which is Morgan's coda. Neither of those issues spoil the book, but they both serve to highlight just how much is going on within its pages. It's almost a shock to realise that it ends in fewer than three hundred of them. Nowadays, a novel like this would sprawl over more than a thousand, if not a whole series.
And with this book now done, I'm into another decade. 'The Fountains of Paradise' was published in 1979 and won the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 1980. Looked at together, the winners during the seventies were a wildly varied bunch with very different goals, a change from the wildly varied bunch in the sixties which mostly questioned society. It's hard to find common ground between 'To Your Scattered Bodies Go', 'The Dispossessed' and 'The Forever War'. 'The Fountains of Paradise' at least has some obvious company in other high concept sf novels as 'Ringworld' and 'Rendezvous with Rama'.
With the fifties, sixties and seventies now done, next month I'll start in on a new decade with Joan D. Vinge's 'The Snow Queen', which I haven't read. I have read four of the next ten and I realise how different 'Neuromancer' is from 'Ender's Game'. I also realise that 'Foundation's Edge' is the only novel to come from a previous winner. The eighties were for new names, with C. J. Cherryh, David Brin and Orson Scott Card winning twice each. It promises to be as interesting a ride as the previous few decades have been. I like this walkthrough. ~~ Hal C F Astell
For more Hugo winners click here
For more titles by Arthur C Clarke click here