In Arthur Clarke's Fountains of Paradise, man makes tidy work of the heavens

If cleanliness is next to godliness, then I can't help but think God must like 1980's Hugo-winning novel, The Fountains of Paradise, by Arthur C. Clarke — even if it's all about getting in His face.

It maybe seems odd, at first, to learn that Clarke ultimately identified himself as an atheist. Given how much of his work dealt with religion in some form, and how ambiguously he treated the subject — even here, in the pretty consistently hard-SF Fountains, at least one game-changing moment reeks of divine intervention — you'd be forgiven for thinking he might have just checked the box next to "agnostic."

But that sort of uncertainty would have been too messy, and if his writing is any indication, the one thing this Englishman adored was tidiness. (This gay Englishman, no less — way to embody two stereotypes, Sir Arthur.) If, in the trivium that constituted the Big Three, Asimov with his robot laws was the logic, and Heinlein was the rhetoric, then Clarke was certainly its grammar. He is all about mechanics and structure, and abstract thought expressed as monolithic physical symbol. His previous Hugo winner, Rendezvous With Rama, is arguably as much technical manual as it is space adventure. And even though his famous short story "The Nine Billion Names of God" appears to come down on the side of a deity, it does so by rendering the majesty of the immeasurable subject to manipulation by a finite process.

I like that about him. I am a copy editor; I am anal-retentive; I make sure all my bills are facing the same way before I put them in my wallet, and my Firefox bookmarks are organized by folder. Clarke's love of order resonates with me on a fundamental level. Philosophically, I have to say, I'd have dug it if he'd been content to leave the Great Unanswerable Question unanswered (that being the scientifically judicious thing to do), but I can appreciate a mind-set that couldn't abide that. I can also appreciate the respect and audacity inherent in the best sort of atheism. When a thoughtful person announces they don't believe God exists, just by making the assertion they're demonstrating a regard for Him, as significant enough to demand dismissal, as significant enough to merit mention as an opponent. They're demonstrating a chutzpah, too, that I like to think God — Who cannot possibly be as insecure as some of His staunchest defenders make Him out to be — admires, after a fashion.

In Arthur Clarke's Fountains of Paradise, man makes tidy work of the heavens

Besides having the most awesome name of any character in a Hugo novel thus far (a homage, I think?), Vannevar Morgan, hero of The Fountains of Paradise, is also a fellow compelled to see things resolved and unable to subordinate himself to a higher power. On the contrary, the engineer feels most comfortable in very high places himself, such as atop the Gibraltar Bridge he built over the Mediterranean to connect Europe and Africa.

The bridge is an indisputable wonder of the 22nd-century world, but in Fountains, Morgan is seeking to outdo it with a new project: the first-ever space elevator, which will launch cargo and people off of the Earth more cleanly and cheaply than any rocket can.

The elevator would make it easier for Earth's growing population to migrate, and streamline trade with colonies on the moon and Mars. Economically speaking, it's a great idea, so one of Morgan's two chief problems — acquiring financing from cautious sponsors — can be overcome through sheer persistence. But the other obstacle in his way is less tractable.

The ideal site for the space elevator — the only feasible site for it, really, since it has to be located on the equator at a high elevation, in a spot free from weird gravitational flux — is atop the mountain of Sri Kanda, on the island nation of Taprobane. Unfortunately for Morgan, the monastery of an ancient Buddhist order is up there too, and the monks' interest in sharing the summit is nonexistent.

Tied into a fondness for order like Clarke's is an affection for elegant minimalism that lends itself supremely well to the practice of science, as expressed in the metaphor of Occam's razor. And his decision to make Taprobane a fictional near-analog of Sri Lanka, the country he emigrated to in 1956, proves that the simplest solution often is the best one: if you're writing an Earth-bound hard science-fiction story, you need numbers on which to base your equations, and it is easier (and probably more fun) to draw them from real life, rather than make them up from whole cloth.

In Arthur Clarke's Fountains of Paradise, man makes tidy work of the heavens

It also lets him work in some Sri Lankan history and personages, such as the legends of Sri Pada and Sigiriya, the Lion's Rock, the real-world counterparts of Sri Kanda and its neighbor Yakkagala, the Demon Rock. The latter is a fortress built 2,000 years before the novel begins by the usurper King Kalidasa, whose legend is based on that of Sri Lanka's King Kashyapa and reflects Morgan's thematically. The first chapter of The Fountains of Paradise take us back to the past, where Kalidasa ruminates on his fear of the monks who live on Sri Kanda, who would bind him to a moral code (to be fair to them, he is a megalomaniac sociopath). Later, he uses slaves and servants without regard for their lives to turn Yakkagala into a heaven on earth, and the titular fountains are his engineers' greatest achievement:

One after the other, springing from the earth as if by magic, the slim columns of water leaped toward the cloudless sky. At four times the height of a man, they burst into flowers of spray. The sunlight, breaking through them, created a rainbow-hued mist that added to the strangeness and beauty of the scene. Never, in the whole history of Taprobane, had the eyes of men witnessed such a wonder.

Though the space elevator too will send matter rising into the empyrean and plummeting back to the ground, it will satisfy more than a single tyrant's aesthetic desires. Still, it's set up as a challenge to a higher power, evoking comparisons to the Tower of Babel.

Of course, this is an Arthur C. Clarke book, and if that weren't enough to give you an idea of whether the elevator will get built, there's also the quote, from first Indian prime minister Sri Jawaharlal Nehru, that serves as the novel's epigraph: "Politics and religion are obsolete; the time has come for science and spirituality." In the world of Fountains, that time has come, at least from the perspective of the reader. The political challenges Morgan must overcome are alluded to, but dealt with off the page. And science itself is a major public concern, handled in large part by the World Federation–run Terran Construction Corporation, but when it's the subject of public debate, the discussion is centered on whether an experiment will work and how well, and not whether it's a conspiracy concocted by elitist, faithless intellectuals, or motivated by the base greed of a multinational's shareholders.

Again, the confusion and chaos one would have to acknowledge if one delved into anything resembling the real-life construction of a brand-new, monumental technology in a holy place — those aren't Clarke's bag. When one character, the elderly expatriate diplomat Rajasinghe (a stand-in for the author), gets news updates by way of what are pretty much Google Alerts, you can bet he doesn't have to scroll through a bunch of irrelevant tweets.

In Arthur Clarke's Fountains of Paradise, man makes tidy work of the heavens

Even his characters are just substantial enough to earn our interest and no more. Morgan, Rajasinghe, the journalist Maxine Duval — there's something ghostly about them; they're like psychic impressions, sketches that offer just enough detail to distinguish them and let us fill in the blanks on our own. Or they're like elements in a chemical formula, or components of a physics experiment — introduced, understood, and then released to play their determinate parts.

It would all feel very clockwork if it weren't for the warmth of Clarke's writing. His characters approach even the most monstrous frustrations with introspection profound enough that it tends to resolve into geniality. He's also so balanced — there's a large chunk of Chapter 37, "The Billion-Ton Diamond," describing Operation Cleanup, the effort to, you know, clean up the detritus that has come to orbit Earth since the satellite era began. From a purely narrative point of view, all the information here serves no necessary purpose — it doesn't drive the plot forward at all, or even really resolve any loose threads. But it's interesting; and it's appropriate, in that it allows Clarke to perform a sort of coda, his own Operation Cleanup, before moving on to the next arc of the story. When an author takes such care, well, you don't want his conscientious work all muddled up by an overabundance of Homo sapiens–style irrationality either. (There is, of course, the game-changing moment I mentioned earlier, involving a flock of butterflies — but that moment of irrationality works here, lends the story a mythic weight. The one thing God and the universe have in common is that they both move in mysterious ways.)

The final key to Fountains' success lies in his interlacing of Morgan's and Kalidasa's stories with that of Starglider, a Rama-like extraterrestrial spacecraft whose passage through our solar system years before, and communication with us, has left humanity's beliefs about God in disarray. Starglider comes out of nowhere, plot-wise, as astonishing to the reader as its actual appearance must have been to the fictional Earth's inhabitants, and its inclusion here is as rewarding as it is surprising, raising questions about religion that are way, way more genuinely intriguing than "Why do bad things happen, then?"

It also sets him up for a final chapter that — cleanly, elegantly — mirrors the first, showing us an Earth where, thanks to the space elevator, humanity really has created a paradise. It's literally fantastic, too, a bright counterpoint to the calm coherence that makes up the bulk of the book.

In Arthur Clarke's Fountains of Paradise, man makes tidy work of the heavens

Even before I read Clarke's notes at the end of the book, where he happily contemplates a future where we recognize that "sometimes — Gigantic is Beautiful," what The Fountains of Paradise had me thinking about was how great it would be if it were even realistic to imagine the creation of something as massive and glorious as a space elevator or a Gibraltar Bridge today. But even outside of all the disorderly political and social concerns involved, we don't really have a Vannevar Morgan to take us there — or at least, we don't acknowledge one. Our scientist-heroes are those who deal in abstract mysteries effectively beyond most of our grasps, like Stephen Hawking; or better known for what they stand against, like Richard Dawkins; or more interested in appeasing our short-term appetites with feats of microengineering, like Steve Jobs. (Certainly, none of them have to risk what Morgan does in the last part of the novel, when he's the best candidate to race into the heavens to save a group of researchers after the elevator malfunctions.)

Above all else, that difference is what makes spending a few hours in one of Clarke's worlds so enjoyable for me. I'd like us to have, you know, bigger goals. I'd like it if other religious people like me could understand what the book's brilliant astrophysicist-turned-monk Choam Goldberg is getting at when he says, "Now that Starglider has effectively destroyed all traditional religions, we can at last pay serious attention to the concept of God." (I think God would like it, too.) Honestly, the pre-elevator Earth seems perfectly elysian compared with ours.

I mean: I'd like us to get our shit together. I don't harbor any illusions that we can the levels of organization in this or any other work of fiction, but I sure wish we could advance to a level of civilization where, instead of involving a lot of tedious, frequently harmful conflict, momentous accomplishments required us to do things as wisely as possible in the service of an end that was truly awesome.

I mean: I think that is a pretty good way to describe what challenging the gods would really entail — being safe, but never boring.

"Blogging the Hugos" appears every other weekend. In the next installment: The Snow Queen, by Joan Vinge, from 1981. Subscribe to the RSS feed and follow @blogginghugos on Twitter for updates.

Josh Wimmer is a freelance writer in Madison, WI. He can usually be found here.