In the 22nd century visionary scientist Vannevar Morgan conceives the most grandiose engineering project of all time, and one which will revolutionise the future of humankind in space: a Space Elevator, 36,000 kilometres high, anchored to an equatorial island in the Indian Ocean.
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Inspired idea, uninspiring story
I don't think it works very well as a novel, but would work wonderfully as a speculative schematic - something along the lines of the Haynes Manual for the Death Star, but more serious, with loads of diagrams and some (optional) mathematics, and materials science that compares what's currently available with what's needed.
(Obviously this wouldn't work as an audiobook.)
But as a novel it's not so successful. We have a central idea which is simply brilliant, but what to do with it? So we get an account of the problems, solutions, setbacks and successes of building a space elevator. This is padded out with speculations that were probably radical at the time (why oh why didn't I read the paperback when I bought it back in 1980?) but are now so dated they aren't even quaint.
I've come to believe that space travel is ten times harder than the most pessimistic estimates, and Clarke was one of the most optimistic. Which was fair enough at the time - the Moon landings and Skylab were still fairly recent, we'd had probes send pictures back from the surface of Mars and Venus, close-up views of Jupiter (and Saturn in the near future), and a space shuttle under development.
But I've worked in engineering since I devoured Clarke's key works, and whenever a character announces they are ahead of schedule or under budget or that a material performs better than expected, it rings a false note for me.
Furthermore, Clarke tends to populate his novels with rather similar people. In Fountains, he sort of anticipates the internet troll, but doesn't consider that the technology will be available to everyone, including people who tend to favour foaming-at-the-mouth rage over friendly and intelligent jibing..
The ending proper was surprisingly moving, considering the characters were mainly talking heads. That was followed by an epilogue which was pleasant enough, but only tenuously (or perhaps thematically) linked to the main story - which is fine as the prologue can be similarly described.
He read clearly, and made some effort to differentiate voices.
Yes - I just hope it doesn't turn into the desperate snorefest that was Childhood's End.
I'm pleased to see Charles Sheffield's take on the same idea, The Web Between The Worlds, is also available from Audible. I will be interesting to compare the two, given that they both came out the same year.
- Dr Caterpillar
Good book if a little unexciting,
- Joe Black