As a Hugo Award winner of 1980, The Fountains of Paradise is an interesting book.
By now, I’m used to surprises. All the Hugo winners must be special in one way or another. With this one, Clarke doesn’t really explain the purpose of the book until later. Who’s the hero? What’s the drama? What’s the setup? However the start is by no means boring, I would say the beginning it’s one of my favourite parts.
We start in the far past, following King Kalidasa as he builds his paradise on Earth in his small kingdom. Jump forward 2000 years and we’re following Morgan, world’s top engineer whom recently built a bridge from Africa to America and everything in between.
King Kalidasa is the foundation for the book, we’re shown a king that knows his throne will soon be taken and fights to conquer not this world but the heavens. Morgan is trying to do the same, conquer the heavens. His dream is to create a space elevator, a bridge that will connect Earth with space. Nothing compared to the old and brute-force rockets.
Mars has been long colonised and advances in technology bring prosperity, but Morgan knows that the human race will soon start to decline unless we advance further. Rockets are destroying the environment and they won’t do as the population and needs grow. He finds himself in a fight against religion; the elevator can only be built atop a sacred mountain with Monks and a sanctuary on it, and against politics and bureaucrats; his boss in the Eart’s construction company won’t support him in his endeveaours.
The whole book is really about this guy wanting to build a space elevator, that’s it! It sounds dull, but we’re constantly seeing the bigger picture, a changing world and unique events that shape history.
Earth is suddenly visited by a space probe, an artificial intelligence that roams the universe in search for other forms of life. When we’re found, we discover that first, we’re not alone in this universe, there are hundreds of civilisations out there, and second, that we’re idiots, no surprise there.
Out of all the advanced worlds out there, only 3 races believe in any kind of God. All of the 3 being mammal species. All the other, be it less or more advanced societies, believe in no God.
Starglider, as the space probe comes to be called, gives us wisdom and a pat on the back while explaining “most of what you believe in is groundless and silly”. Startglider doesn’t provide any scientific advances, as it’s prohibited to do so, but it does destroy what remains of religions. Human society finds itself being told, not by another human, but by a higher intelligence that there is no God, and shoots a few proofs of it to us in the meantime before continuing his journey.
Alongside this, Morgan succeeds in conquering the sacred mountain and starts to build his stairway to heaven.
The book is hard to define, it jumps around a lot and tells many different stories. The main point always being the very same: humans must advance or stay forever unchanged, and decline. It’s a story we’re heard many times before, yet in Fountains of Paradise, it feels real, more like we’re reading a good futuristic biography rather than a sci-fi novel.
Earth is not a utopia in the book, it is shown as a complex world, with a complex society. But it also shows the greatness of humankind, forests being protected, animals thriving alongside us, no more wars and no more aggressive states. As in many sci-fi novels, Earth is a consortium of zones rather than individual countries. Clarke also pops a bit of information on how this came to be in the book.
At the end, human ingenuity persevered, even when the Sun blackout.
It was a good read, I’d call it a winter book for more reasons than one, but no spoilers, at least not this one.