Arthur C. Clarke, The Fountains of Paradise

March 7, 2002

Arthur C. Clarke is one of the pillars of science fiction writing. Known primarily for 2001: A Space Odyssey, which he co-wrote with Stanley Kubrick, Clarke specializes in making science fiction as scientifically accurate as possible. The Fountains of Paradise is no exception. In this book, Clarke explores the possibility of constructing a "space elevator", in order to transfer people and space ships into orbit without the messy, expensive use of rocket boosters. The scientific basis of the elevator is that, with the right materials, we could construct an elongated geostationary satellite (whose orbits are 42,155km from the Earth's centre, or more than 6 times the radius of the Earth itself), with one end attached to a base station on Earth. While the idea may seem fanciful, the appendix to the novel cites a wide array of scientific literature (mostly Russian) from the mid 20th century discussing the possibilities of such an endeavour.

In Fountains, Clarke clearly writes from the perspective of an engineer. The events of the novel reflect the typical problems faced by civil engineers in large-scale construction. Further, Clarke's vision of life in the 23rd century is not too far fetched, and some aspects, like teleconferencing and the 'net, have already come to pass. The downside to Clarke's approach is that he tends to downplay the more intractable problems of culture and technology, which may have been an easy position for an engineer to take 30 years ago, but which seem to me to be considerably more important and complex today.

On the whole, The Fountains of Paradise is a light, enjoyable read, if at times a bit dull. In terms of Clarke's other works, I would recommend something more fanciful, like the 2001 series. For a more comprehensive review of FoP, see Nicholas Whyte's page.

2 out of 5