BOWING TO NATURE:
In some recent Arthur
Clarke productions we have seen what happens when a writer of experience gets slack. In
his case, lack of tension is made up for by frequent dipping into a store of ideas, like a
magician taking tricks out of a bag - look! Here's another clever, visually evocative
gimmick from the land of Clarkean technocracy, behold and be amazed. Some of the tension
returns in The Fountains of Paradise, which, indeed, has something of the air of
a se1f-conscious swan-song, for most of all it has its theme: an elevator tower forty
thousand kilometers tall, or more correctly an elevator shaft between the ground and a
geostationary satellite, to lift unlimited quantities of passengers and freight into
synchronous orbit at minimal cost and without the launch rocket pollution that in the 22nd
century is a major problem. With unbecoming modesty Clarke supplies an afterword giving
the history of this proposal, beginning with a 1960 paper by a Leningrad engineer Y.N.
Artsutanov, but falls to mention an earlier pulp magazine sf story, who by I don't
remember (unless it was Murray Leinster) about an attempt to install a gravity-driven
pulley-and-cable arrangement for hauling raw materials from the moon's surface to
near-Earth (the containers being heavier in Earth's gravity-well than in the moon's, those
in front pulled along those behind, while the empties were hooked onto the return side of
the continuous loop).
The feasibility of the orbital elevator depends, of course, on whether there could be a material able to withstand the forces involved (in the pulp story, after his cable kept breaking, the disappointed entrepreneur discovered a region of the moon littered with derelict pulley stations, relics of earlier failures to make the thing work). Clarke's answer is a super duper monofilament version of carbon fibre, of which a single thread too thin to be visible is as good as a steel hawser -- and will slice off your hand into the bargain if you're not careful (a similar thread was used in a sixties story as a means of dismembering people who walked through the wrong door).
With a concept like this, Clarke has no need to dip into his magic bag for the rest of the novel, and he knows it. The tower stands alone, the single stunning organising power in the book, engulfing the dramatis personae who become suitably antlike. The book is, in fact, little more than the story of the effort to build it, and it is a story which is meant to be taken seriously, for Clarke's single-minded concentration on the technical problems involved make it clear he thinks the elevator will probably be built, and sooner rather than later. As far as I am concerned the emphasis on engineering rather than people is just as well - Clarke's bland managerial version of future society does nothing for me. To firm the future up a nit, there is added, somewhat arbitrarily, Starglider, an alien robot exploration craft which traversed the solar system sometime previously and in passing gave mankind the benefit of Clarke's thoughts on the subject of religion, sounding its death-knell by pronouncing it to be mammalian claptrap. Anyone imagining that the religions would be in the least affected by the mouthings of atheist aliens has a pretty fanciful view of human nature but nevertheless religion is still obviously around because it happens that the only suitable site for the base of the orbital tower is a sacred mountain on the island of Taprobane (a fictionalised Ceylon shifted to the equator), and sitting on top of it is an ancient Buddhist temple whose occupants refuse to move.
As a source of conflict this might seem obvious and even boring. Its position in the story is a little spurious, for the real antagonist is neither monk, nor a short-sighted academic who tries to torpedo the project, but nature -- as expressed through the mind of chief engineer Morgan, moving force behind the enterprise: 'the friendly enemy who never cheated and always played fair, yet never failed to take advantage of the tiniest oversight or omission.' The temple is in fact the point of contact for a framing device. Clarke doesn't want his tower to be made of cardboard like his characters. He wants to give it landscape and historical depth. To this end the first eight chapters switch back and forth between Taprobane of the 22nd century (Taprobane is the locale throughout, when we are not sliding up and down the tower) and an eerily similar Taprobane of millennia previously, to the time of King Kalisada, one of those tormented half-mad monarchs who spend their time and wealth on extravagant works of art and engineering -- in this case a huge pleasure garden complete with fountains and a fortress-palace in the sky (i.e. on a mountain top). The aura of the ancient Ceylonese civilisation is perfectly suited to the atmosphere which Clarke is best able to generate. Through its proscenium, with the tale of the boyhood, life and eventual downfall of Kalisada, but particularly of his achievement of the paradise gardens and the mountain palace which remain in our view all though the building of the tower (they really do exist in the real Sri Lanka), the novel is given its tone and texture. In fact only this long perspective makes us feel that the builders of the tower are people at all. Kalisada is by far the most red-blooded character of them all. By contrast, the closest we come to delving into the background of Morgan is to learn that he was heartbroken at losing his kite as a boy, that he built the three-kilometer high Gibraltar Bridge (why it has to be three kilometers tall is not explained) and that he gave up distractions like sex so as to devote himself fully to engineering (maybe that's why his forty thousand kilometer erection had to be held up instead of standing on its own).
Initially thwarted by the Buddhists, Morgan accepts an offer to build an orbital elevator on Mars, only to realize that the orbit of Phobos, the inner moon, lies below the synchronous altitude and that it will collide with the tower every few days. The way round this is to vibrate the tower like a guitar string, timing it to side-step Phobos at each projected collision - and providing lucky passengers with the spectacle of the moon hurtling silently past at close quarters. I'm convinced Clarke indulged in the Mars digression purely in order to take in this piece of imagery. Because we know, of course, that the monks are going to leave the sacret mount from the instant Morgan hears the ancient prophecy of their leaving if butterflies should ever fly up to the summit. Sure enough a storm blows them up, and the monks, highly intelligent men, one of them a world-renowned cosmologist, decamp in dismay - a sequence of events as believable as the voluntary self-liquidation of religions. Methinks the author doth pull his strings too obviously. From then on we proceed fairly rapidly through the stages of construction. Kalisada's early drama is counterweighted in the last sections of the book by the exciting drama of Morgan's efforts to rescue a party of research workers trapped partway up the tower. Like Kalisada, Morgan dies for his pains, but on an unmistakeable note of triumph - both for Morgan and for Kalisada. The tower is nearly finished, and the strange king's mad dreams have been fulfilled by future technology.
But in order to cap it all with a satisfying ending, or so it seems to me, new adventitious themes are introduced into the brieffinal chapter. It is one and a half millennia further into the future. The builders of Starglider have arrived, and disport with human children in a scene yukkily reminiscent of Close Encounters. Not only that, but the sun, developing extra large sunspots, has suddenly precipitated Earth into a total ice age (funny how things happen all at once).
Technically speaking the climactic catastrophe could have been dealt with. But in the intervening years mankind has apparently learned Wisdom, and Wisdom means Going With Nature, not against it. In this case going with nature means allowing Earth to become wholly encased in ice, to the detriment (the extemination, in fact) of all flora and fauna upon it, while humanity, thanks to the invention of the orbital elevator, swarms up and out, to now cooler Venus and Mercury, and also to a vast synchronous ring city for which not just Morgan's tower but a whole set of them are the spokes. What, I wonder, would our ecological conservationists make of it all? Credible? Only if you accept Clarke's one-dimensional view of human society. (Also only if you ignore the economics of it. Maintaining Earth's surface heat by one or more of a number of means that spring to mind has got to be cheaper). I feel that piling on these hackneyed 'expanded vistas' is perhaps a small artistic mistake. Nothing should have over-shadowed that stupendous tower, which I like to think of standing magnificent and audacious, and not to have the alien visitor, as he gazes up at it, think to himself that 'for a young race it was impressive'. The Tower of Babel at least maintained its dignity -- nobody 'up there' offered it a condescending 'well done'.
From these carping criticisms you will gather that The Fountains of Paradise is marvellous stuff, splendidly integrated into its wealth of visual and technical detail. Clarke knows just how to make the tower, which when one first hears of it sounds fit only for New Scientist's "Daedalus" column, into a real project and make no mistake, it is realized. The description, for instance, of Morgan's ascent in a tiny 'spider' up the hyperfilament tape of the unfinished section, through the unexpected aurora of the ionosphere, is thrilling. In short, I ended up believing in the orbital elevator. Incidentally, Chris Moore's back-and-front cover painting for this Pan edition captures the whole thing superbly.
copyright 1980, 2000, Barrington J. Bayley
previously published in Arena #11, 1980