The Fountains of Paradise Essay - Critical Essays

Arthur C. Clarke


(Critical Survey of Science Fiction and Fantasy)

The idea for an Orbital Tower, or Space Elevator, was first proposed by a Leningrad engineer named Yuri Artsutonov in 1960. It was independently reinvented in different places at least three more times in the next fifteen years. Perhaps the project will not get started within two hundred years, as envisioned in The Fountains of Paradise, but endorsement by Clarke guarantees that the concept will be taken seriously.

Clarke is the well-known author of such science-fiction classics as Childhoods End (1953) and Rendezvous with Rama (1973). He collaborated with film director Stanley Kubrick on 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). As a scientist, he is credited with nothing less than the invention of satellite communications, an idea he proposed in an article published in 1945.

The Fountains of Paradise effectively dramatizes the technological problems likely to be encountered in building a forty-thousand-kilometer bridge to the stars. Beyond this remarkable accomplishment, however, the novel develops at least two important literary themes. The protagonist, Morgan, is a study in the nature of heroism. He is a sympathetic version of Mary Shelleys Dr. Frankenstein; he takes little interest or pleasure in people except insofar as they may contribute to attaining his goal. Readers are told that Morgan has long since made the choice between work and life that is required at the highest levels of human achievement. Even Morgans climactic rescue mission is motivated more by his concern for the project than by his concern for the endangered people. Even so, his trip in the spider up the ultimate strut of the unfinished tower seems to define paradise in this novel. Poetically interpreted, Morgans life is a jet shot thrillingly into the air, only to splatter back lifeless to Earth.

The Fountains of Paradise is full of speculation about the existence and nature of God. Traditional religion has been swept away in this vision of the future. Superintelligent, but not omniscient, aliens have arrived in the solar system and have taken the place of the deity. By gaining easy access to space via the Orbital Tower, humanity will find something there to make all the effort worthwhile. For a nonbeliever, Clarke spends a significant amount of time investigating this ultimate question in his writing. The Fountains of Paradise may be the most interesting of his theological flirtations. It brings to mind William Blake’s definition of God as nothing other than the intellectual fountain of humanity.