Sunday, May 6, 2007

"The Fountains of Paradise" (novel): Extraordinary plot, ruined

Essential idea behind the novel titled The Fountains of Paradise by Arthur ClarkeThis could have been among the best science fiction stories by anyone, but Clarke just keeps going on tangents rather than sticking to the main story. I felt a bit sad at the end; what a waste!

This also is among the most down to earth stories of Clarke, in company with "The Deep Range". Except for various diversions. Also, these two stories share a tenuous link via Thero, a kind of Dalai Lama of a fictional Buddhist sect based in Lanka; this was first introduced in Deep Range, & also gets substantial coverage in Fountains.

Story summary (spoiler).
Main story is about a concept called "space elevator". Depending on your perspective, it can be seen as an ordinary elevator of extraordinary size (some 40,000 km high), a space vehicle, or a subway.

Idea is to outdate the rockets that take off from earth, & make space travel affordable for ordinary people.

In a massive construction project, a space station will be connected to earth via a physical tower - a kind of very thick cable. All spacecraft will leave off the space station rather than earth - means much cheaper & environment friendly takeoff. You can buy a ticket for joy ride up the elevator, or for actual travel to moon, mars, or elsewhere.

It is the story of an entrepreneur civil engineer. Beginning with the concept, to getting funding, overcoming political opposition, handling displaced people, apart from the various technical aspects. Though handling displaced people has been treated as a joke here. I guess Mukesh Ambani might have done a more convincing job presenting this story, but Clarke does a good enough job - so long as he sticks to the main story. Main story is set sometime between 2100 AD & 2200 AD.

This main story is interwoven with several completely unrelated tangents: the story of a feudal empire in Lanka around 100 AD; story of an alien robotic spacecraft moving through our solar system aka "Rendezvous with Rama"; story of the Sun cooling down to turn earth into an icy wasteland aka first story in "History Lesson"; story of visit to earth of aliens that look like a more physical version of the Swarm in "The Possessed"; a rather juvenile story of our heroic boss of the whole enterprise rescuing some stranded explorers up in the tower during an accident. There might be more, but I can recollect these off hand.

It took me nearly 3 weeks to cover first 20% - story begins on one of the tangents. Around 20% mark, real story begins & for a while you cannot put the book down.

Then the alien robotic spacecraft visits. It is both similar to Rama & different. For one thing, it is very talkative - likes to converse with humans. It is cylindrical, but main craft has dimensions only in meters rather than kilometers. But it has a 500 km diameter antenna for communicating with its home world!

Then again the main story continues well for a while, amid reports of changes happening to the Sun.

Rescue drama begins when you are may be 60 or 70% through the book, & occupies most of the remaining pages. It is not only juvenile, but very filmy - everything that can go wrong does but one at a time, keeping you reading far longer than necessary.

Last 5% is set in about 4000 AD. We meet an alien who is a more physical version of the Swarm of "The Possessed". This is also where we have not only the original space elevator in working condition, but many more across earth, all linked together in space - forming a ring habitat; interior of this habitat will be detailed in the first one third of "3001 The Final Odyssey". You also see earth that is essentially uninhabited because it has now turned into an icy wasteland aka first story in "History Lesson"; humans live in ring habitat up in the sky, & also on Venus & Mercury which are now both habitable.

This is not a book worth skipping. But I had to skip a lot of pages on first reading; then came back to go through the fillers.

Putting the height of space elevator in perspective.
It is easy to read numbers like 36 or 40 thousand kilometers tall. Yes, it sounds tall - but how tall?

This is about the size of the perimeter of earth. Or about 3 times the diameter of earth!

This is also 7% the distance to moon. 15 such structures, & you can drive to moon!

An ordinary commercial jetliner will make you sit for over 40 hours to travel this distance.

How realistic is the concept of space elevators?
There are actually a lot of documents on the subject. I include only a few "not boring" articles meant for general public.

  1. "Space elevators"
  2. LiftPort's space elevator projects' discussion at Slashdot.
Fact sheet.
The Fountains of Paradise, novel, review
Author: Arthur C Clarke
Genre: Science fiction, with a sprinkling of fantasy & ancient feudal history
First published: 1979
Rating: A
Hugo Award winner in novel category in 1980

See also.
  1. This article includes illustrations of space elevator anchors at earth end & sky end (near the bottom of the article).
  2. "The Ghost from the Grand Banks" also has an unrelated small subplot at the end where aliens investigate a now barren earth.
  3. All Hugo Award stories.

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