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From the Old School: Thoughts on The Fountains of Paradise by Arthur C. Clarke, Winner of the Hugo Award for Best Novel, 1980   Leave a comment

At its heart, science fiction is said to be a literature of ideas and extrapolation, typified by the question “What if…?” For this reason the genre is sometimes referred to as speculative fiction. (Current use of the phrase being a bag of angry cats I’m not going to open today.) And although the genre has certainly grown and evolved over the decades, the ideas behind the stories, and the “What if…?” questions those stories explore, remain an integral element of the genre.

For me, as a reader, the most obvious change in the genre – at least, since I started reading science fiction in the mid-1960s – has been the rise of truly character driven fiction, in which center stage is shared – not always equally – between the people created to make the tale come alive, and the ideas and “What if?” scenarios that challenge them. You don’t need to read much sci-fi from the 1940s and 1950s to appreciate this difference in styles, or to see how character-driven fiction opens the way to examine what it means to be human in ways that strictly idea-driven “What if…” stories find difficult to embrace. It could be argued, and I would certainly not disagree, that the genre is richer and more interesting as a result.

This is not to say that the writers of that earlier age failed in any way. Theirs is the work that laid the foundations for what came later, the work that inspired following generations to take the genre further. To ask new and different questions, and to present them in unique ways. That this is true can be seen by how many old-school authors managed to remain relevant in later years, without fully embracing these changes. By way of example, consider The Fountains of Paradise by Arthur C. Clarke, winner of the Hugo Award for best novel in 1980.

The Fountains of Paradise is as good an example of a story written for the sake of a Big Idea as any I can think of, and the construction of the first space elevator surely counts as such. Perhaps it’s not all that surprising, then, that the characters in the story seem to take second place to the swirl of “What if?” questions that surround such an idea. Clarke focuses on the project of the elevator and its construction, while the characters involved dutifully fill their roles without taking the focus away from the idea of building an elevator to near-Earth orbit. Each necessary role is filled by a character, but these characters themselves stand for the ideas of what sort of people would be involved in such a massive undertaking. They are often stereotypes, and little more. There’s a visionary engineering genius, a benign spiritual leader, a journalist, a world-weary ex-diplomat, and a religious zealot, to name a few of the more prominent examples. They are all clearly and carefully drawn, but only the engineer and the diplomat come across as having any real depth. The journalist, in particular, is about as two-dimensional as a character can get. Which, come to think of it, may have been a deliberate dig at that profession by the author.

So, it’s the idea and its “What if?” questions that are the core of this novel. This is not a bad thing, Clarke being one of the true masters of such fiction. Clarke’s prose is, as always, steady, clear, and unadorned, getting the job done without distractions. The story develops over years, dealing with the major challenges assumed to be involved with technology on such a scale, but at the same time sending the clear message that such a thing is believed – by the author, at least – to be within the realm of future human accomplishments. There’s a steady current of “yes, we will, someday” optimism in this story, which is one of the reasons I enjoyed it, even though it felt as if it might have been first published in an earlier age.

One aspect of the old-school approach that did stand out for me was the use of female characters. Or, rather, the lack of such. Aside from the journalist – who comes on the scene occasionally and has one major adventure during the development of the plot – and a faithful housekeeper, there are no female characters to speak of. This was typical of science fiction in the 1940s and 1950s, when female characters generally lacked any real depth, if they appeared at all. I’ve grown so accustomed, in these later days, to major roles in science fiction being assigned to women, that their near-absence in this book, published in 1979, stood out. This says nothing about Clarke and his work in general, since female characters are anything but absent in his other books – Imperial Earth and Rendezvous With Rama come to mind – but their scarcity in this novel struck an odd note for me. It was a puzzling after-thought, though, and not a spoiler. I might have noticed this oddity sooner, while reading the book, if the story had actually been character-driven. But the people weren’t really the point of this story, and I only came to this realization after reading the book, and sitting down to evaluate it for this essay.

Clarke’s work in science fiction is always about the Big Idea, with the characters involved placed there to serve their roles as people necessary for the fictional setting. Someone to deliver the dialog, in other words. Science fiction has largely moved away from this style, but there was still clearly room for such a tale by one of the old masters in 1980. And for all that this style does stand in contrast to so much of what’s out there today, The Fountains of Paradise remains a readable and entertaining work of science fiction. It’s the story of a Big Idea and a host of “What if” questions told by a writer who clearly knew how to imagine the future.

Posted December 16, 2022 by underdesertstars in Uncategorized

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