Pillar to the Sky

Every now and then, a genuinely new idea emerges in science fiction, sparking many discussions and novels and stories, and sometimes even launching entire literary movements. Cyberspace, the Singularity, nanotech — these concepts, culled or extrapolated or even misprisioned from actual scientific research or theoretical musings, are at first introduced with much narrative buttressing and info-dumping, sometimes tentatively, with all their implications unclear and yet to be explored. After many storytelling iterations, it becomes familiar furniture, dropping from the foreground into the background of the plot. Once upon a time, even commonplaces such as rocketry and television went through this process in the genre. Now, of course, even advanced concepts like warp drive and time travel seem eternally present simple playthings.

Over 100 years ago, the Russian astronautics pioneer Konstantin Tsiolkovsky first proposed the concept of a space elevator, an artificial thread, column, or beanstalk that would reach from the Equator to orbital heights, this titanic construction would allow the easy and cheap propulsion of mass out of Earth’s gravity well into space (by utilizing moving cars attached to the stalk), revolutionizing humanity’s access to that vacuum realm.

For the next seventy-five years or so, the idea remained an idle toy or dream of a few isolated physicists and engineers, being refined and reinvented by many, appearing in the popular science press once in a blue moon. Then in 1979 came the explosive debut onto a larger stage: Arthur C. Clarke’s novel The Fountains of Paradise brilliantly fictionalized the concept, delivering the formerly edgy idea into the mainstream of the genre. (Almost simultaneously, but with less impact, Charles Sheffield published his novel The Web between the Worlds, boasting similar technology.)

Since then, hundreds of tales have featured the concept, until now most veteran SF readers take it for granted. Given the fictional ubiquity of the notion, we have to ask if at this late date in the genre’s state of the art it makes sense to once again foreground the space elevator, its practical development and construction, as William Forstchen does in his new novel, Pillar to the Sky.

I think that ultimately Forstchen makes a very good case for going back to the roots of this dream. For, just as a “First Moon Landing” story from 1930 did not totally obviate a “First Moon Landing” story from 1965, when the prospect had become much more tangible and imminent and refined, so too, as improved technology makes the likelihood of a space elevator more tenable, does a “Birth of the Space Elevator” story take on new angles and possibilities. And Forstchen’s meticulous research, energetic presentation, and suspenseful storytelling add value all the way.

Forstchen’s previous novel, One Second After, was an emotional tour de force about a USA hurled back to pre-technological primitivism by an EMP attack. And while the new book takes place in a peacetime environment, there are plenty of visceral moments along with the intellectual gambits.

We begin at a day-after-tomorrow congressional hearing, where the hidebound Senator Proxley (we are meant, of course, to recall Senator William Proxmire, famous for his wrongheaded budget invective) is dressing down a husband-and-wife scientist team, Drs. Gary and Eva Morgan. He’s shutting off their funding for research into the space elevator concept. Their sixteen-year-old daughter, Victoria, loyally lashes out at the senator, but to no avail.

From there the trio return to see their elderly mentor, Erich Rothenberg, who’s been involved with space exploration for decades. He informs them that a white knight has emerged who intends to fund the space elevator out of his personal pocket. This proves to be one Franklin Smith, African-American Internet oligarch with a soul of gold and a visionary bent. He’s prepared to invest his entire fortune of $50 billion, even though that will only be about half what’s needed, and he’ll have to pray he can drum up the rest.

Before you can say “one small step for man,” the Morgans find themselves on the island nation of Kiribati, whose government has enlisted in the cause. Step by step, over the course of years, the Morgans and other dedicated individuals work to make the project succeed, despite lack of understanding on the part of the public; actual hostility from corporations and nations, politicians, and do-gooders; and engineering difficulties of the highest magnitude. Daughter Victoria, meanwhile, is working toward her Ph.D. in the same field, ready to link her own future in the great cause. As global conditions trend toward collapse, the race to finish the “pillar to heaven” becomes more than a personal, commercial or scientific goal: it becomes humanity’s only hope for the future.

The Ur-template for such a story, of course, is nothing less than Robert Heinlein’s novella “The Man Who Sold the Moon” and its sequel, “Requiem.” These two tales tell of the pursuit by millionaire Delos D. Harriman of his dream of finally landing on the moon and planting mankind’s flag there — with some personal aggrandizement as well. The stories valorize individuality and determination over government shortsightedness and sloth, and affirm that any goal worth winning involves risk and challenges.

In his novel Forstchen adopts the same ethical and pragmatic metric that Heinlein embodied. It’s pointless and misguided to place his book along any traditional conservative-liberal spectrum. Temptations to brand Franklin Smith a new John Galt find little support, since Smith’s profit-disdaining altruism is the opposite of Ayn Rand‑style selfishness. His concerns are more radical, in the sense of returning to the roots of the Founding Fathers and the heroes of the Industrial Revolution. The axis of good and evil for Forstchen is “bold and ambitious” versus “scared and whiny.” “Conservative” Forstchen is essentially blood brothers with “liberal” Neal Stephenson and Stephenson’s similarly focused Hieroglyph Project.

Yes, some politicians come in for a larruping. Others shine as idealistic and forward-thinking. The USA is seen as a singular guiding beacon among nations. But the whole project is made possible by the genius of Dr. Fuchida, Japanese inventor of the carbon super-fiber necessary to build the pillar. And the Chinese almost manage to beat Franklin Smith to the finish line. Franklin Smith’s ancestry pretty much forecloses talk of racism. As for gender matters, a reactionary Greenpeace-style woman academic named Professor Garlin is presented as an over-principled fear monger. Meanwhile, up in space, astronaut Selena Singh is risking her life to unfurl the essential carbon fiber thread. And Victoria Morgan emerges as the heroine of the new generation, with her unique insights into the dream.

But beyond all this mildly amusing but generally irrelevant parsing of sociopolitical underpinnings, the novel provides immense pleasures of both an intellectual and dramatic stripe. Forstchen has a knack for presenting the engineering realities and theoretical axioms of the space elevator concept in vivid and clear prose so that any reasonably educated layperson can easily grasp them. Even a counterintuitive angle, like building the elevator from space downward, not from the ground upward, is made totally comprehensible. This book might serve as the business plan for any real-life Franklin Smith (a few of whom, such as Branson and Musk, get name-checked herein) to present to his investors.

Alongside those intriguing schematics, we get the more traditional narrative frissons. Several set pieces in space are as suspenseful as any spy thriller, putting the reader’s heart in his or her mouth. Any reader who does not feel moved by Gary Morgan’s orbital exploits probably shouldn’t be reading science fiction at all.

By returning near the end of the book to another congressional hearing, a decade or so after the first, Forstchen achieves a kind of valedictory moment, in which all the titanic losses and victories that we witnessed are felt cumulatively. It’s a rare instance of looking backwards in this book, which is all about our contemporary failure to look forward with hope.

Franklin Smith’s peroration during his fundraising speeches might very well stand as the takeaway theme and mood from Forstchen’s old-fashioned but still rousing paean to a tradition of exploration and risk taking:

“Fear never held back Columbus, Magellan, Cook, or those who came to first settle America. Let that spirit flow in our veins yet again!”