While reading William R. Forstchen’s Pillar to the Sky, I kept thinking this is what would have happened if, back in the 1960’s, NASA had commissioned Arthur C. Clarke and Robert A. Heinlein to co-write a story that would get Americans excited about space exploration… and then forgot to send it to an editor. Pillar to the Sky has an exciting premise and an appealing nostalgic feel, but it’s marred by some annoying editorial issues.
The story is about a couple of innovative scientists — Ukranian Eva Morgan and her husband Gary Morgan — who want to build an equatorial space elevator à la Arthur C. Clarke’s in The Fountains of Paradise. The proposed “pillar” would make it easier and cheaper to get people into space and they’d be able to launch exploratory space missions without the need for so much expensive rocket fuel since the pillar, using the Earth’s angular momentum, would act as a sort of catapult. Also, the Morgans plan to attach solar panels to the pillar so that they can harness the sun’s energy to not only power the elevator, but also Earth’s cities.
Politicians in Washington D.C. think the Morgans are crazy, but the couple finds a financial backer in Franklin Smith, a California billionaire. Together, with the help of an international team of scientists, they set out to bring their bizarre idea to fruition. Along the way there will be triumphs and failures, both for the Morgans and for the world. Like so many other grand schemes in history, such a victory for mankind will require plenty of blood, sweat, and tears.
I’ve always loved the notion of a space elevator since I read Clarke’s book years ago so, though I recognized Forstchen’s idea as an old one, I nonetheless enjoyed revisiting the idea. I was particularly interested in the structural engineering aspect of the story since my son wrote a high-school thesis about graphene a couple of years ago and we talked about how that substance might work for Clarke’s elevator. Also exciting is the idea of powering the Earth by putting solar panels in space — it just seems like such an obvious answer to our energy problems. If these sorts of topics aren’t of interest to you, you’ll probably be bored with Pillar to the Sky.
The story has such a wholesome optimistic feel — much like a Heinlein Juvenile. Readers who find those types of stories pleasantly nostalgic are likely to appreciate this. Others may be annoyed that almost all of the characters (excepting some of the politicians) are intelligent, educated, hard-working, patriotic middle-class Americans. (Even the people from different countries seem like intelligent, educated, hard-working, patriotic middle-class Americans.) There are a couple of references to “air-headed bimbos in Hollywood” and “egotistical Grammy winners” which gives the story a slightly unpleasant elitist tone.
Pillar to the Sky sometimes feels like a fundraiser for NASA. There are speeches to congress and regular reminders of how NASA has benefitted us and how we should expect occasional setbacks and even deaths because previous major human accomplishments, such as the transcontinental railroad, had setbacks and failures, too. Later in the story, when the pillar needs to be defended from terrorists, we see why world governments, rather than private citizens, need to be in charge of such huge international projects. I’m all for funding NASA, but when I’m reading a book I don’t want to feel like I’m being lobbied. (As I understand it, NASA was involved in the book’s publication.)
I’m not sure what happened with the editing, but it’s atrocious in places. Some of the ideas, lectures, and images become repetitive. The world “literally” is used incorrectly. Chapter 18, the climax of the story, is a mess with repetitive phrases and jumbled up action sequences. Related to this is a writing style that doesn’t live up to the majesty and wonder that Forstchen tries to portray. He seems aware of this deficit because in more than one scene Gary Morgan laments that he doesn’t have the right words to describe what he’s experiencing in space. That’s a little disappointing.
Still, despite my complaints, I enjoyed Pillar to the Sky for its optimism and can-do attitude. I listened to the audiobook which was produced by Blackstone Audio. It’s 15.5 hours long. Grover Gardner narrates and he’s always terrific.