… a.k.a. the (other) one with the space elevator
Arthur C. Clarke found perfection in Sri Lanka and I both admire and envy him for this. Some of us spend a lifetime searching for this kind of perfection, while he not only managed to find it, but he lived with it and allowed it to inspire him in writing absolutely amazing novels… among which “The Fountains of Paradise”.
I read this one well after “Rendezvous with Rama” and “Childhood’s end” (both of which I absolutely adored) and, for some reason, I honestly thought that I shouldn’t have expected that much from this book. After all, lightning had already struck twice in the case of Sir Clarke’s novels and I had also been disappointed by “The City and the Stars”, or worse, “The Last Theorem”.
But this… Between the physics, the dreams and the characters…
This is one of those books that delves well into science-fiction waters, all the while not forgetting that the person delving is still a human being. Most authors like to pluck their readers from their comfy armchairs and throw them to some planet revolving around Altair, where they must fight squirrel-looking giants. But with Sir Clarke, the starting and ending points are almost always on boring old Earth… home. He is forever bringing the aliens to us, but not in a terrible sort of way, and he never lets us forget that we have a brain and that we might as well use it in order to welcome our guests properly.
We return once more to a certain island that ends up becoming the centre of the world and we watch a clever engineer build a really impressive bridge to the stars, despite the obstacles men and gods throw his way. He is remarkably intelligent, surprisingly modest (although he might just seem so because he never has the time to brag) and understanding. Sir Clarke tends to cram plenty of characters in his books, thus making spotlight stealing an almost impossible sport. However, Van Morgan does steal the spotlight and manages to hold it, even with his calm and hard-working demeanour that would normally label him as a boring old nerd. But, somewhere between the science and the professionalism, he grows on you… so much so that the last pages of the book are heartbreaking and almost unbearable.
This is not an action-packed novel. Most plots are related to Van Morgan’s attempts to find himself a sponsor and convince a group of monks to relocate their temple, and to King Kalidasa’s fear of being overthrown by his brother. Not very exciting stuff, many would think… except that the present and the past are intertwined beautifully and we are shown just how correct some legends are.