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I was disappointed in this book, though I confess that part of it is my fault. Clarke didnt tell the story that I wanted him to tell, and this is always an unfair expectation on the part of the reader. If you want a particular story, you should write it yourself. is the rightful reply of the writer. But Im only human, and when I get figs when I was expecting chocolate, Im disappointed (even if I like figs, which I do).The Fountains of Paradise is about mankinds first attempt to construct a space elevator. It would perhaps be more precise to say that it is about one mans attempt to construct a space elevator, as Clarke suffers from his usual failing of trying to tell grand world transforming stories from the viewpoint of a single individual who has limited social interaction. The result is that the largest enterprise ever undertaken by man is made to feel like its a small business with perhaps five employees.But that would not have particularly disappointed me had not the whole matter been made to seem so easy. One of my particular and growing pet peeves is science fiction that makes the conquest of space seem like it ought to be a trivial matter. Im increasingly of the conviction that science fiction - which had been and ought to still be at the forefront of encouraging us to set our sights on the heavens, grow up, and leave the nest - is instead becoming a hindrance to us. We are increasingly becoming content with shoddy poorly realized visions of the stars that serve to make the real painful and difficult work of space exploration seem just that much less attractive. In the stories, it is always so easy. We flit across the unimaginable gulfs between stars not with the comparative ease with which we crossed the oceans (much less a real sense of the difficulty involved), but with the ease that we drive down to the corner convenience store. If it seems hard to get from here to there, we find alien artifacts that do the hard work for us. If we despair at our ability to cope, well then we are uplifted from our ignorance by passing benevolent alien patrons. We break the laws of physics with the power of plot, and we settle into the easy fantasies of human hubris rather than face up to the immensity of Old Man Space with some sort of maturity.Part of the problem is that only the last one third of the book actually concerns the construction of the space elevator. By the time the construction of the space elevator is really joined, its completion is a foregone conclusion and the great problems are dispensed with off stage in favor of smaller scale and more personnel tragedies and triumphs. It is as if the project the artist has conceived is too grand of scale for his imagination, and so he deals with something that isnt. The result ends up seeming less grand than even, for example, the story of the laying of the first transatlantic telegraph cable.(For example.)But the biggest disappointment is that the first two thirds of the book dont deal directly with the construction of the tower at all, but instead deal with the protagonists struggle to obtain permission to build the space elevator on land currently occupied by an unwilling Buddhist monastery. This part of the story is more engaging than the last third but ultimately Clarke forces it to resolve down to just another story about the supposed conflict between reason and faith. Despite the fact that these first 200 pages have the structure of a good 20 page short story, they would make for pretty good reading in Clarkes capable hands except that in the midst of this he finds himself unable to avoid picking up the trite hammer to nail his point home.Given how Ive already confessed that I hoped this would be the story of the titanic struggle to conquer near space, you can perhaps imagine my dismay when Clarke trots out that most tired of easy sci-fi escapes - the Alien Messiah. Interspersed with this conflict between reason and faith in the form of the passively truculent monks standing in the way of human progress, Clarke adds an utterly unnecessary plot element of an alien visitor who is made to represent the last word in this metaconflict. Exactly why Clarke thought the story was well served by such a ham-handed device, Im not sure because without it I think the story and the conflict is more thought provoking and its precise meaning more difficult to tease out. I will grant that as Alien Messiahs go this one is pretty original and well disguised. Instead of an actual alien, its the AI of survey probe of alien manufacture. And it does not in fact bequeath the usual super-science on the otherwise helpless mankind and thereby usher in an age of peace, abundance, and justice. However, other than that its a pretty typical Alien Messiah that saves mankind from itself and I was hoping at the outset that we could perhaps for once have a story without the intervention of a super-alien at all.In this case, the salvation takes the form of eliminating all religions from the Earth. Instead of bestowing on mankind the usual technological wisdom, it dispences philosophy.I kid you not. Arthur C. Clarke - avowed atheist - imagines an alien from on high come to Earth and pronounce in its irrefutable superhuman wisdom, that Arthur C. Clarke has been right all along and all religions are hooey. Now who could have guessed that twist? Its such a jarringly humorous and incongruous episode in the middle of the rest of the story that I really didnt know what to make of it. Is Clarke trying to be nasty here? Or, is he trying to make a joke? Is he convincing himself, or does he have some motive for deliberately advancing an extremely weak argument involving among other things the misuse of Ockhams razor, a failure to really consider the different role of infinite and finite numbers, a red herring, and a failure to consider the cosmological and theological import of the big bang?Whatever Clarkes larger intent, within the setting Clarkes technological prophet is taken with such seriousness that we are told virtually all religious belief ceases and human spiritual activity reaches an atheistic eschaton. Just like that, a new age dawns. Exactly why the unambiguous refutation of Thomas Aquinas would accomplish this is not really addressed, but for me as a computer scientist it does raise an interesting question of the presumed sophont class of the probe in question that it was able in under an hour to exceed the mental activities of billions of words of pious gibberish with which apparently intelligent men had addled their minds for centuries. That is a god-like intelligence indeed! As Clarke puts it, For the first time we knew what wed always suspected, that ours was not the only intelligence in the universe, and that out among the stars were far older and perhaps far wiser civilizations.And if Clarkes imaginary alien probe doesnt convince you that super-wise aliens will come along and usher in paradise on this Earth, well just what would? When I started the book I was most afraid I would be annoyed with the rampant use of unobtanium and handwavium in the construction of the space elevator. Little did I realize that the unobtainium in the elevator filaments would pale in comparison to the unobtainium in the philosophical constructs. Still, for all that Clarkes digressions may annoy (or may stimulate depending on your philosophical inclinations), the first two thirds is still a good story. Its so good that when Clarke wraps this first story arc up, the remaining novel seems anticlimactic. The first part is so much better and more fully conceived that it as if the second shorter story arc is tacked on to fill out the story to a more respectable length. Much as I wanted the story to be about the second part, Clarke didnt seem to know what to do with it. So, in the end I got a good story, but it was far from the one that I wanted.

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