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Customer Review

on 18 December 2009
The Fountains of Paradise by Arthur C. Clarke

Even though I am a fairly frequent reader of Science Fiction since my teens (I could not get enough of Asimov's Foundations at the time), I had never read anything by Clarke until I got the Fountains of Paradise for my Kindle. I could not really explain why, but I was under the impression that his main book was 2001. Having watched and loved the Kubrick movie, I just could not see myself reading the book. Probably counting against him were the many books he co-authored, which just does not seem right to me (for no good reason in all honesty).

My perspective changed after listening to a class about fantastic and science fiction litterature, where the lecturer clearly seemed to hold him in high esteem. So I went looking for something, and this is what Amazon had to offer. Did I enjoy the book? Yes. Am I overly impressed, not quite: while the book developed thoroughly some neat ideas and had some pretty good sections scattered here and there, it also contained too many dead ends and themes not fully exploited, giving the impression of reading a very good draft rather than a finished product. I'm providing further details below, but you may want to skip this, as it contains spoilers to some extent.

* Neat ideas

First and foremost, this is the concept of space elevator. Described in details. It could have been fastidious, turned out to be pretty good. Clearly the author was very enamoured with the concept and he was often pretty close to getting over the top with the science and the technology, but he set-up a few pretty good scenes, especially the rescue one, where the main protagonist must go out of the elevator and where Clarke captures fairly well the odd concept that he's in space, but still subject to gravity.

The second neat idea is that of the "Gibraltar Bridge", as a precursor to the space elevator. I felt dizzy thinking about the massive arch in the sky.

Then there's the technology underpinning the elevator: diamond cables in particular.

* Good Sections

Pretty much the entire part dedicated to Sigirya and the old Singhalese kingdom (he calls them differently). This was well written and evocative: I visited the rock a long time ago (I was 18!) and was awed by the paintings. Many sensations and memories came back through Clarke's prose.

The scene where the builder of the elevator journeys to the summit of the mountain where he wants to install his device. The mountain is occupied by buddhist monks. The prose is very evocative. The idea to watch the shadow of a peak stretching through the plain during sunrise is wonderful (apparently this truely occurs at Adam's Peak in Sri Lanka)

The end, with the engineer dying as a gets back to earth after saving a team of scientists. Clarke uses the "automated health monitor" he had introduced before to maximimum dramatic effect.

* Dead Ends and Themes Not Fully Exploited

There are shallow dead ends and deep ones. Those I call shallow are mostly minor characters inexplicably given "air time" beyond what is needed to advance the plot and who are not particularly interesting in themselves (the old ambassador, the world famous journalist, the nephew of the builder, the scientist turned buddhist). They end up feeling like fillers. The deeper dead ends have to do with the structure of the book:
- one gets a prelude dealing with an historical king in Sri Lanka, and for the first two chapters the historical narrative is intertwined with what turns out eventually to be the main story. So one is led to expect a deeper connection between the deep past and the deep future, but this just falls flat: we never hear again about the ancient king. One may have expected some sort of spell, or dramatic analogy, but one gets nothing.
- then one gets aliens exploring the solar system, with again the story alternating with that of the space elevator. Again, we get no connection in the end. While the way the aliens are introduced is actually pretty neat and opens wide perspectives, this is just not weel fitted in the overall scheme of the book.
- there's also the entire sub-plot about getting the buddhist monks to agree to the installation of the elevator. One gets a fairly promising scene between the engineer and the abbot and his aide, who turns out to be a scientist: is this a prelude to a match of intellects? a match between science and mysticism? between hubris and wisdom? It turns out to be none of it, as the buddhists leave their precint later as an accident in the elevator fulfills a prophecy. That's pretty weak and uninspired.
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