The latest scheme dreamed up by Dr. Vannevar Morgan, a materials engineer, is either pure genius or pure crackpot: He wants to build an elevator to space. He’s discovered a new material that he thinks is strong enough to withstand the gravitational and climatic forces that would act on such a structure and he’s found the only place on Earth where it’s possible to achieve his dream: the top of the mountain Sri Kanda on the equatorial island of Taprobane (pronounced “top-ROB-oh-knee”). Unfortunately, this mountain is the sacred home of a sect of Buddhist monks who are not willing to budge unless one of their prophecies is fulfilled.
Dr. Morgan is not the first ambitious man to have grandiose plans for this particular summit. Hundreds of years before, King Kalidasa struggled with the same sect of monks when he built his pleasure gardens. His crowning achievement was the construction of “The Fountains of Paradise,” which utilized a pump system and slave labor to propel jets of water high into the sky. King Kalidasa’s pursuits and achievements foreshadow Dr. Morgan’s own desires for the same mountaintop. Both men have ostentatious goals that are ahead of their times, both are revered by some and ridiculed by others, both are plagued by the knowledge that they may die before seeing their dreams come true, and both must consider the possibility that there exists a higher power who may not look kindly upon such brazen displays of human pride and ambition.
The Fountains of Paradise was published in 1979 and won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards that year. The fictional setting is an alternative Sri Lanka, where Arthur C. Clarke lived the second half of his life, and King Kalidasa is based on a real Sri Lankan king.
The Fountains of Paradise is an exciting story that still feels fresh more than 30 years later. The clever juxtaposition of Morgan’s dreams with King Kalidasa’s similar pursuits adds much beauty and poignancy to the tale. Dr. Morgan doesn’t know about Kalidasa until he reaches Sri Kanda, but on the mountain, the grand king comes alive for him and, with Morgan, we experience the beauty of that ancient civilization.
In glorious contrast, we see Dr. Morgan’s stunning vision of Earth’s future — people quickly and inexpensively traveling back and forth to multiple space stations that orbit the Earth and are connected to the planet by Morgan’s elevators. This spectacular vision is especially plausible coming from Sir Arthur C. Clarke, whose contributions to the history of geostationary satellite communications is well-known and makes the reader wonder whether this implausible image may someday become reality, just like the fantastic dreams of Morgan and Kalidasa.
Thank you to Brilliance Audio for putting The Fountains of Paradise on audio. Marc Vietor’s narration is flawless and I enjoyed every moment of this production. It’s a great time to revisit this classic visionary novel.