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Beth Meacham, David Brin

The Fountains of Paradise

The Fountains of Paradise - Arthur C. Clarke
"There's a lady who's sure all that glitters is gold
And she's buying a stairway to heaven"
Hmm... not an entirely appropriate Led Zep reference I suppose but I got to start the review somewhere, and the phrase "Stairway to heaven" does appear in the book, but regrettably not the guitar solo.

It is quite often pleasant to go into a book without knowing anything about it. Not exactly the case with this one, I knew it is about space elevators, it's not exactly an obscure book by an unknown author but beside the two words "space elevator" I have no idea what else to expect. I vaguely remember attempting to read this book in my teens but could not get into it, I found it to be very dry. On this occasion the pages just fly by very pleasantly.

This is a "near future hard sf" set in the year 2142, with some early chapters set 2000 years earlier for effect. Basically it is the story of the first implementation of a space elevator, and idea conceived in the 60s but yet to become reality as - among other reasons - the super strong cables required can not be produced at an affordable cost just yet. I love the idea of space elevators, they seem to be much more elegant than noisy rockets. The idea that some kind of satellite keeps the elevator cables taut by its geosynchronous orbit, I can just imagine the cables going up and up into the sky seemingly fixed on nothing because you can not see the satellite it is hooked on. If my inexpert description makes no sense to you, you may want to Google space elevators. Two recent sci-fi books I read feature this mode of interplanetary transportation, Alastair Reynolds' [b:Chasm City|89185|Chasm City|Alastair Reynolds|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1309203334s/89185.jpg|2926628] and Kim Stanley Robinson's [b:Red Mars|77507|Red Mars (Mars Trilogy, #1)|Kim Stanley Robinson|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1320484020s/77507.jpg|40712]. Both are excellent books, well worth reading. In both books the space elevator is not the focus of the story, it is something in daily use, which makes the idea even more vivid for me.

Clarke is of course a giant of the sf genre, but I suspect he does not get enough credit for his fiction writing skills. While it is true that his prose lacks poetic or literary quality of Iain M. Banks, Jack Vance, Gene Wolfe etc. and that his characters tend to be under developed. However, his writing is clear, accessible and visual. The Fountains of Paradise is written with Clarke's customary attention to details, especially where science is concerned. He examines the idea of the space elevator from all possible angles, technical, political, religious, social etc. He even dreamed up a few plausible contingencies that may occur.His humanity, compassion and optimism is also present in this book. The main protagonist Dr. Vannevar Morgan is another one of Clarke's stock stubborn heroic scientist archetype, we don't really get to know him in depth but he does drive the plot forward effectively without hindering the entertainment value of the book. Nobody really reads Arthur C. Clarke for the characterization.

There is even a bit of what seems like self-referential humour in the book:

“I once saw an old space movie at the Sydney Art Museum that had a shuttle craft of some kind with a circular observation lounge. Just what we need.” “Do you remember its name?” “Oh—let’s think—something like Space Wars 2000. I’m sure you’ll be able to trace it.”

(I think it's a reference to 2001: A Space Odyssey)

My only criticism of The Fountains of Paradise is the alien "Starholmers" who seem to have been shoehorned into the story unnecessarily. Aliens are great for space operas, first contacts or alien invasion stories but in this book they are not the focus of the story, they just make a sort of cameo appearance and somehow subtract from the level of realism of the book. Another minor gripe is a rescue scene late in the book which goes on too long for my taste. The ending is nice and poignant though.

The Fountains of Paradise is a classic and a quick read, definitely a must-read.
(4.5 stars at least).