Engineering and Sri Lanka: Arthur C. Clarke’s The Fountains of Paradise

The Fountains of Paradise won the 1980 Hugo, but it’s a much more old fashioned book than you’d expect for something published in 1979. It’s hard to believe it was written in the same year as Kindred (post), Tales of Neveryon and On Wings of Song. In fact, it’s hard to believe it was written on the same planet. The Fountains of Paradise is a story of a man building a beanstalk, a space elevator, from Sri Lanka to orbit. It’s an engineering project that runs into trouble with politics, with office politics, with some monks on a mountaintop, and of course technical problems. The characterisation is very thin, and the plot is even thinner. It contains a number of Clarke’s hobbyhorses. Even in 1980 I didn’t think it was one of Clarke’s best books, and I don’t think I’ve re-read it between then and now.

If you haven’t read this book and you want to read it, you want to read it for the engineering challenges, and I’m not going to spoil them. They remain futuristic and mildly interesting, the same as they were in 1980. But there will be spoilers for everything else after the cut.

Now, of course, this 2154 is a retro-future. The computers are mainframes, but there are terminals for remote accessing them and you can query information and I’d say Clarke has done pretty well. I kept imagining it as the internet of about 1996, you had to hope there was a free terminal but when you got one there was Google. You could select items to search on, and everybody has themselves on their list of things that send alerts. The way this is integrated with communications involves everyone having one lifelong identity number and if you don’t know it you can Google it. (Well, the equivalent of Google.) There’s an AI called Aristotle who can talk to you and is running their net, which isn’t called a net. This is pretty good, but it’s four years after The Shockwave Rider and four years before Neuromancer.

All the characters are very thin, but it’s still noticeable that there are almost no women, and the one woman there gets less characterisation than anybody else. She’s a journalist. There are no female engineers on the project, and we see one female grad student scientist in the background. There’s also a mention of a romantic involvement in the distant past of Morgan, our engineer-hero, and a female servant of Rajasinghe, a retired diplomat. This is absolutely it for female presence—and this is why I keep saying that Heinlein deserves points for bothering with women even if he got things wrong.

Religion has been abandoned because an alien space probe pointed out that it was illogical and very few other intelligent species had anything like it. I can imagine a lot of reactions to an alien space probe saying that, but everyone saying: “Oh, why didn’t we notice that already…” and packing up their toys doesn’t seem like a plausible one for the world I know. But is it this world? The space elevator is being built in Sri Lanka, on the only possible mountain in the world for a space elevator. But it isn’t Sri Lanka, it’s “Taprobane,” and we’re told in the afterword that Clarke moved it onto the equator and doubled the height of the relevant mountain. He also calls India Hindustan and refers to the colonial Caledonians, Hollanders and Iberians, making me wonder if this really is meant to be a slightly alternate world. If so, it might explain why human nature is so different.

Taprobane is problematic in other ways. There’s a lot about the ancient Singhalese culture, the whole conceit of the book is that the space elevator is completing the two thousand year old vision of a king of Taprobane who wanted to reach heaven. And there’s one Taprobanian character, Rajasinghe, a retired international mediator, who is dealt with very respectfully. But he doesn’t do anything — he’s the most passive character imaginable, introducing people to each other, in contented retirement at the beginning and the end. It’s hard to see why he’s there and why he’s a point of view character. But he’s just one guy.

There are also some monks who insist on staying on the top of the mountain, being among the remaining handful who haven’t given up religion. One of them, a mathematical genius, leaves the mountain and joins the weather control group to disrupt the weather when the proof of concept testing is done. By chance his disruption sends butterflies up onto the mountain where they could otherwise never reach, causing the monks to abandon it to the engineers. This would be less problematic if the genius monk wasn’t a European convert. It starts to feel as if the Taprobaneans are all entirely passive.

The engineering challenges are well thought through in a traditional old-fashioned science fictional way. It must have been quite difficult to think of a situation where a daring rescue could be possible. Clarke makes this aspect of the book work. There are also occasional passages of poetic writing about the universe and science and engineering, which are the thing for which I have always read Clarke. Nevertheless, my strongest feeling on finishing this book is absolute disbelief that this was considered good enough to win the Hugo. This is thin stuff, thin and stretched. There are better things to do with your afternoon.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and nine novels, most recently Among Others, and if you liked this post you will like it. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.


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