Read for the SF Masterworks Reading Challenge and Science Fiction Masterworks Book Club here on Goodreads, the 12 in 12 Challenge, the LGBTQ Speculative Fiction Reading Challenge, and the Hard Core Sci-Fi Challenge.
This book won the Hugo and Nebula Awards in 1979/1980, and was nominated for the BSFA and the Locus.
This book was a clever idea. Clarke again proves his mastery of the genre by asking a question, and following the answer to its logical conclusion. What would happen if an engineer decided to build a space elevator? This was a novel idea when Clarke started writing about it. How would it be done? And what kind of person would it take to do it?
There were obvious references to the Tower of Babel, although Clarke made use of a story about an ancient South Asian king as his comparative narrative for its symbolism instead, and I suppose it’s a testament to Clarke’s worldbuilding in that I have no idea if the story has any truth in it, or is an allegory based on a real historical or mythological figure, or is entirely made up for the book. It felt genuine, and perhaps that is enough.
I can’t quite give it five stars, though, because in my opinion, the characters lose something. I’m not really clear what; they just felt kind of flat to me. It might entirely be my own perspective, because these 70s male scientific and religious characters are perhaps too far out of my own experience to really empathize with in the way I perhaps should. I gleaned that Clarke was probably also using the story as an allegory for himself, and musing on whether or not it’s dangerously vain to want to create a magnum opus, because how are we to really know whether or not such a thing would work, and if so, whether future generations will value it? A worthy thought, for sure.
It might also be that the narrative felt slow in places. It’s important to invest oneself into the technological puzzle to enjoy the tension in this book, and since we have yet to achieve the kind of technology that could make a space elevator feasible, perhaps I just wasn’t as invested.
Still, it is an excellent book, the idea is brilliant, and I see why it has taken its place among the SF Masterworks.