Despite one or two implausibilities, this Hugo and Nebula winner is a beautifully mounted story about the human need to reach — literally — for the stars, and the fine line between genius and megalomania. It is also SF's definitive novel about the "space elevator," a concept which enjoyed a brief but enthusiastic vogue among SF circles at the onset of the '80s. The idea seems incredible: an elevator that stretches from Earth's surface to a station in geosynchronous orbit, which would in turn serve as the launching point for voyages to the planets and deep space, thus obviating the need for expensive, inefficient, and environmentally unfriendly rocket launches from the ground. Yet it is not outside the realm of engineering possibility, and Clarke makes an excellent case for the viability of such a project within the context of a completely engrossing story set in the 22nd century.
Vannevar Morgan is a reknowned (or infamous, depending on whom you ask) engineer whose crowning achievement is the construction of a three-kilometer-high bridge spanning the Strait of Gibraltar, linking Spain and Morocco. But Morgan's next project, the space elevator, or Orbital Tower, is the most ambitious in human history. The only viable location to build the Tower is the equatorial island of Taprobane, a fictional analogue of Clarke's adopted home of Sri Lanka.
On Taprobane there is a mountain, Yakkagala, which, 2000 years ago, housed Taprobane's king, Kalidasa, a parricide who was eventually ousted by his brother but not before completing some remarkable engineering feats. Yakkagala held Kalidasa's immense palace, in which he tried to set himself up as a god, adorning the mountain face with incredible enigmatic frescoes of goddesses, and constructing a lush garden with a series of fountains technologically centuries ahead of their time.
Near Yakkagala is an even higher mountain, Sri Kanda, and this is where Morgan hopes to build his Tower. Unfortunately, Sri Kanda is the home of Taprobane's Buddhist monks, a vital part of that island's history and culture. The monks were in heated opposition to Kalidasa 2000 years ago, and cursed him for his palace, an affront to God. Two millennia later, they're no more eager to hand over their sacred real estate to a Tower stretching into the heavens. Morgan is shut out from the mountain, and is eventually forced to resign from his position at the firm he made massive with the Gibraltar Bridge. But just when it looks as if his dream will die, the ball starts rolling again.
The parallels between Morgan and Kalidasa — both are engineers ahead of their time, who outrage custom by "challenging the gods" — are easy to grasp, but not banal. Indeed, the juxtaposition of Morgan's and Kalidasa's stories is a canny narrative choice on Clarke's part. The entire story is written with the grace and economy of prose that is Clarke's calling card. A lot of wit spices up the proceedings as well. Clarke clearly sees human ambition, even at its most awe-inspiring, as having its amusing side. An elevator to space? On such wild dreams is humanity's future built.
Clarke complicates his story somewhat with the unexpected arrival of an alien probe named Starglider, which arrives, Rama-like, communicating openly and changing the world forever before drifting on. The idea of unseen aliens giving us a bit of a nudge in our evolutionary path is a theme Clarke famously explored in 2001 and Rendezvous with Rama, and it worked much better in those stories. Here, Starglider seems a bit tacked on (as if the concept of the Orbital Tower isn't SFnal enough), and Clarke introduces the wholly improbable idea that, simply by virtue of Starglider's testimony that the existence of God is highly unlikely and unnecessary (and found only in a small handful of the hundreds of advanced alien cultures it has discovered), all religion on Earth basically stops. Although this might be the atheist's and skeptic's dream scenario, it would simply never happen that way, because the entire psychological drive behind religious belief is the desire to hold that belief, and a religious fundamentalist will hold onto his belief system even if incontrovertible proof it's all wrong is presented. Faith is an emotional process, not a rational one, and the scenario just doesn't ring true. What would really happen is that religious fundamentalists would vilify Starglider as an emissary of the devil, sent to lure us to our spiritual doom; conversely, religious liberals would simply shrug the whole thing off and pronounce that God has simply made other provisions for the salvation of these aliens, and/or will reveal Himself to them when He sees fit. Starglider's pronouncements, if anything, would lead to a renaissance of religious fervor. That alone could make a novel in itself.
Yet The Fountains of Paradise retains a high rating because everything I just described takes up only a minute fraction of the story. If Clarke had made more of that subplot than he did, the book as a whole might have suffered. Thankfully, Clarke focuses his energies on the amazing saga of the Orbital Tower, and in so doing, delivers a rewarding tale that is nearly as monumental as its subject.