The Fountains of Paradise

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The Fountains of Paradise
Fountains copy.jpg
Cover of first UK edition (hardcover)
AuthorArthur C. Clarke
Cover artistTerry Oakes
CountryUnited Kingdom
GenreScience fiction
PublisherVictor Gollancz (UK)
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich (US)
Publication date
Media typePrint (Hardback & Paperback)

The Fountains of Paradise is a novel by British writer Arthur C. Clarke. Set in the 22nd century, it describes the construction of a space elevator. This "orbital tower" is a giant structure rising from the ground and linking with a satellite in geostationary orbit at the height of approximately 36,000 kilometers (approx. 22,300 miles). Such a structure would be used to raise payloads to orbit without the expense of using rockets. The novel won both the Hugo[1] and Nebula[2] Awards for Best Novel.



In the 22nd century, an Australian engineer has devised a technology for moving cargo and people between the surface of the Earth and orbit without the use of rockets. The only suitable point for the Earth terminus of the "space elevator" is the peak of a mountain on the island of Taprobane (pronounced tap-ROB-a-nee per Clarke's preface), essentially Sri Lanka, the author's longtime home. The mountain's peak has been occupied for centuries by Buddhist monks with a perpetual lease, but that obstacle is removed after an ancient prophecy accidentally gets fulfilled.

The engineer is let go from the giant corporation that employs him, for going beyond his mandate. He finds outside financing for his project from a company that is interested in building his giant elevator at Earth then moving it to Mars. After a few setbacks, including some fatalities, construction of the Tower gets underway. Although the engineer's heart is failing, he rides up the Tower to take food and oxygen to a group of stranded students and their professor. After overcoming serious difficulties he succeeds, then dies of a heart attack on the way back down.

In the distant future, the Tower has been so successful that an enormous wheel of habitation encircles the Earth.


Part 1 – The Palace

The book opens with a flashback to the 2nd century CE with King Kalidasa of Taprobane (pronounced tap-ROB-a-nee per Clarke's preface) in his palace atop Yakkagala (Demon Rock) contemplating old age and the end of his reign. Kalidasa's father had overseen a massive irrigation project culminating with the building of the titular fountains. More flashbacks of this type, describing the cruelty and death that accompanied Kalidasa's reign, occur during Part 1 of the book.

Two thousand years later, Dr Vannevar Morgan, Chief Engineer (Land) of the Terran Construction Corporation and designer of the famous Gibraltar Bridge, wants to build a "space elevator" out of a thin, ultra-strong material called hyperfilament ("a continuous pseudo-one-dimensional diamond crystal"). Due to various geographic and atmospheric conditions, the only suitable point on Earth for the lower terminus of the elevator system is the summit of Sri Kanda, a mountain sacred to the local Buddhists. The monks have held a lease on the peak of Sri Kanda for many centuries and have no intention of evacuating.

Johan Rajasinghe, a retired peace negotiator with the World Federation, is enjoying his retirement villa at the ancient pleasure gardens of Kalidasa. He meets with Morgan and is impressed by the technology of the hyperfilament, but is skeptical about Morgan's chances of seeing the project through, given local circumstances.

Part 2 – The Temple

Clarke's atheism:

[Goldberg/Parakarma] had been one of the most promising young men in the field of astrophysics when, five years ago, he had announced, "Now that Starglider has effectively destroyed all traditional religions, we can at last pay serious attention to the concept of God." [Ch. 15]

...among all the countless other effects upon human culture, Starglider had brought to its climax a process that was already under way. It had put an end to the billions of words of pious gibberish with which apparently intelligent men had addled their minds for centuries. [Ch. 16]

Another flashback, this one only about 80 years: The inhabitants of Earth are jolted by the arrival in the Solar system of a small probe (connected to an enormous antenna). Dubbed Starglider, it left its origin point 60,000 years previously and has been touring various stellar systems ever since, making contact with any technologically developed lifeforms it finds.

Morgan travels to the Buddhist sanctuary at the top of Sri Kanda and meets with two monks: the 85th Venerable Bodhidharma Mahanayake Thero, namesake of and direct successor to the holy man who crowned Kalidasa the Accursed; and his private secretary, the Venerable Parakarma, who was once the brilliant young astrophysicist Choam Goldberg. Both men are implacably opposed to Morgan's project, and he makes no progress. On his way back down the mountain, his car is stopped by a huge swarm of migrating golden butterflies. His native driver explains the local legend that these are the souls of Kalidasa's warriors, and if they ever reach the summit, Kalidasa will have finally conquered the mountain and the monks will have to leave.

Although Morgan has a design study for his space elevator, he has no funding; and his employer, the Terran Construction Corporation, is not interested in backing it. He visits the man who provided vital financing for Morgan's great triumph, the Gibraltar Bridge: Sheik Abdullah, president of the Autonomous North African Republic, who controls "more power and wealth than almost any single individual on earth." The results of the meeting are inconclusive.

Johan Rajasinghe is watching a television interview being conducted by a friend of his, Maxine Duval. Her guest is Senator Collins, chairman of the Terran Construction Corporation, who is announcing the resignation of Vannevar Morgan from the TCC. Morgan went outside the organization to look for financing for his space elevator, and his premature, back-channel actions have led to an adverse ruling from the World Court: the court ruled in favor of the monks on top of Sri Kanda.

Part 3 – The Bell
The Venerable Parakarma's meeting with Vannevar Morgan has relit a spark of curiosity; he leaves the monastery and returns to the world.

Morgan is beginning to enjoy his forced retirement among the Norwegian fjords when he is approached by the head of investments for Narodny Mars. He offers financing for Morgan to build his space elevator on Mars as part of his consortium's massive terraforming project.

Morgan wins permission from the World Court to do a test deployment of his hyperfilament on Taprobane since it will merely be a one-time inconvenience for the monks. The material can only be manufactured in weightless conditions, so the filament is deployed from a conical bundle dropped by a geosynchronous satellite. As the cone descends and the filament unspools, a gale blows through the area. Morgan is completely disconcerted because World Weather Control had assured him that they would not allow any high winds that day. Although the gale causes the hyperfilament to get tangled just a few kilometers above the lower terminus, the investments chief from the Martian consortium considers it a success, and Morgan gets ready to move to Mars to begin working in earnest.

Strangely enough, the golden butterflies were in flight at the time of the unspooling and the gale carried them to the top of the mountain. Since the ancient prophecy has now been fulfilled, the monks evacuate their temple (the title of Part 3 is a reference to the monastery bell, a gift from King Kalidasa the Accursed, which is only rung upon the occurrence of a disaster). As for the unauthorized hurricane, "there was the ironic role of the Venerable Parakarma, who must surely now feel that he was the pawn of some malicious gods." Having resumed his worldly identity as Dr Choam Goldberg, he had revolutionized micrometeorology and apparently suffered some kind of nervous breakdown while conducting experiments. Monsoon Control promises such a thing will never happen again.

With the monks gone from Sri Kanda, the tower can be built on Earth after all.

Part 4 – The Tower

Design of Space Elevator:

The Tower, for all its overwhelming size, was merely the support for something much more complex. Along each of its four sides must run thirty-six-thousand kilometers of track, capable of operation at speeds never before attempted. This had to be powered for its entire length by superconducting cables, linked to massive fusion generators, the whole system being controlled by an incredibly elaborate, fail-safe computer network. [Ch. 37]

Seven years later, construction of the Tower, as it is now called, is well underway. The formerly sacred mountain of Sri Kanda is now busy with construction activity and is being tunneled. Instead of four tubes, as originally envisioned, the Tower will have a square cross-section and the vehicles will ride up and down on the outside. At the moment, only the scaffolding is in place; this consists of a single 5-centimeter-wide "tape" that has been nicknamed "The Billion-Ton Diamond" because it is made entirely of carbon. An asteroid has been towed into Earth orbit to hold the tape taut by centrifugal force. Pieces of orbiting junk from the first hundred years of space exploration have to be eliminated. Once finished, the Tower will be transported whole to Mars.

Morgan's assistant engineer Warren Kingsley gives Morgan a tour of the mock-up of the car that will carry passengers up and down the Tower. Maxine Duval, the TV journalist, takes a test ride up the tape in a "spider", which looks like "a motorized bo'sun's chair". She ascends twelve kilometers and so is equipped with an oxygen mask. She is astonished by the view.

Part 5 – Ascension
An astrophysicist and a group of his students are stranded, along with their pilot, in an emergency chamber called the Basement six hundred kilometres up after an accident with their transport capsule. They have no food and limited oxygen. Whilst a laser on a weather-control satellite is able to supply heat, it is imperative to provide them with filter masks against the increasing carbon dioxide and also with food, air, and medical supplies, until some rescue can be effected.

Despite his rapidly failing health, Morgan asserts his right to take the vital supplies up the Tower personally. The extra battery that was attached to give the spider the power needed to reach the Basement fails to detach at the necessary moment. Morgan uses the single strand of hyperfilament he always carries with him to saw through the bolt. While succeeding in dropping the heavy battery, he has exhausted his already frail heart. After reaching the chamber and delivering the supplies, Morgan walks around the catwalk surrounding the Tower to investigate the damage caused by the explosion.

On the way back down, he realizes that the geostationary satellites could be connected, and more space elevators could be constructed, forming a wheel-like structure without gravitational-perturbation problems. Before reaching the bottom, he dies of heart failure.

A short epilogue titled "Kalidasa's Triumph" envisages Earth about fifteen hundred years later. The sun has cooled and Earth, slowly being covered by permafrost, is devoid of life except for the bottom of the ocean; humans now live on the terraformed inner planets as well as on Mars. Several space elevators lead to a giant "circumterran" space station that encircles the planet at geostationary altitude. The analogy with a wheel is evident: the space station itself is the wheel rim, Earth is the axle, and the six equidistant space elevators the spokes.

An inhabitant of the planet that launched Starglider has arrived and is studying humanity. This being is unable to understand such human thoughts as myth and humor. The visitor asks why the first space elevator is called the Tower of Kalidasa: in a final irony, it bears the name of a despotic tyrant and its humane designer has been essentially forgotten.


The main theme of the novel is preceded by, and to some extent juxtaposed with, the story of the life and death of King Kashyapa I of Sri Lanka (fictionalised as King Kalidasa). It foreshadows the exploits of Vannevar Morgan in his determination to realise the space elevator.

Other subplots include human colonization of the Solar system and the first contact with extraterrestrial intelligence.

Clarke envisions a microscopically thin (in his demonstrator sample) but strong "hyperfilament" that makes the elevator possible. Although the hyperfilament is constructed from "continuous pseudo-one-dimensional diamond crystal", Clarke later expressed his belief that another type of carbon, Buckminsterfullerene, would play the role of hyperfilament in a real space elevator. The latest developments in carbon nanotube technology bring the orbital elevator closer to possible realisation.


The story is set in the fictional equatorial island country of Taprobane, which Clarke has described as "about ninety percent congruent with the island of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka)", south of its real-world location. The ruins of the palace at Yakkagala as described in the book very closely match the real-life ruins at Sigiriya in Sri Lanka. The mountain on which the space elevator is built is called Sri Kanda in the book, and bears a strong resemblance to the real mountain Sri Pada.

Similarities with other works of Clarke[edit]

  • In the middle of The Fountains of Paradise, an unmanned robotic spaceship of alien origin, called "Starglider" (from an origin world dubbed "Starholme") by Clarke, passes through the Solar system. This situation is similar to Rendezvous with Rama, though the ship exterior and its interactions with humans are very different.
  • The first third of 3001: The Final Odyssey describes details of the interior of the ring habitat that encircles Earth, and is connected to Earth's surface with four space elevators. At the end of The Fountains of Paradise , this ring habitat is shown for the first time, though it has six space elevators rather than the four of 3001: Final Odyssey.
  • At the end of the novel, Earth turns into an icy wasteland because the Sun has cooled. The same situation also occurs in the story "History Lesson".
  • The alien shown near the end of The Fountains of Paradise is a somewhat more physical form of the Swarm, the aliens that land on primeval Earth in "The Possessed".
  • A space elevator is also constructed in the course of Clarke's final novel (co-written with Frederik Pohl), The Last Theorem.

Awards and nominations[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c "1980 Award Winners & Nominees". Worlds Without End. Retrieved 2009-09-29.
  2. ^ a b c "1979 Award Winners & Nominees". Worlds Without End. Retrieved 2009-09-29.

External links[edit]