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Space Elevator

Entry updated 13 September 2021. Tagged: Theme.

An increasingly popular item of sf Transportation hardware since its introduction to the genre by the near-simultaneous appearance of Arthur C Clarke's The Fountains of Paradise (1979) and Charles Sheffield's The Web Between the Worlds (1979; exp 1989). The space elevator's basic concept is simply that of a tethered "skyhook" cable – fixed at one end to a base on or near Earth's equator, rising to geostationary orbit some 22,000 miles (36,000km) above sea level, and continuing to a counterweight in a higher orbit chosen so that the effective centrifugal force holds up the entire length of cable. An "elevator car" could then climb (or descend) the cable at a steady speed without the enormous fuel wastage required for a Rocket to boost even a small payload into orbit. The device is often called a Beanstalk.

The general notion was anticipated in an 1895 Thought Experiment by Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, whose imagined rigid Tower of Babel structure was an engineering impossibility. Unfortunately this is also true – so far – of the tensioned-cable alternative proposed in 1959 by Russian scientist Yuri N Artsutanov (1929-2019) and adapted for both Clarke's and Sheffield's novels. An at present impossibly strong material seems necessary for the cable to support even its own weight; sf authors blithely assume that such materials will be supplied by molecular engineering or Nanotechnology, a favourite option being Monomolecular Wire (which see). Meanwhile, workable space elevators could (ignoring travel and supply difficulties) be constructed with present-day technology on the Moon or on Mars, owing to those bodies' lesser Gravity wells. A Martian elevator is built in Kim Stanley Robinson's Red Mars (1992), only to be destroyed in a subsequent war. Another off-Earth space elevator, in Alastair Reynolds's Chasm City (2001), is spectacularly sabotaged by nuclear weaponry even as the protagonist ascends. Earth's two space elevators are destroyed – echoing both Samson's suicidal coup in the Bible, and the fall of the Twin Towers – in Ken MacLeod's The Night Sessions (2008).

Although the fanciful cobwebs linking Earth and Moon in Brian W Aldiss's The Long Afternoon of Earth (February-December 1961 F&SF; fixup 1962; exp vt Hothouse 1962) can hardly be regarded as precursors, space elevators have appeared in many other sf novels since Clarke's and Sheffield's. These include Robert A Heinlein's Friday (1982), as the "Nairobi Beanstalk"; Iain M Banks's Feersum Endjinn (1994); the long title story of Larry Niven's Rainbow Mars (coll 1999); Terry Pratchett's, Ian Stewart's and Jack Cohen's The Science of Discworld (2000), whose fictional strand culminates in a far-future vision of an empty Earth evacuated via its still-remaining multiple space elevators; and John Scalzi's Old Man's War (2005), where it is indicated that the elevator makes use of super-Technology unavailable on Earth. Further into the future, a Macrostructure shaped like a gigantic castle in Iain Banks's Feersum Endjinn (1994) proves to be (as has been forgotten) the base of a Tower of Babel space elevator. An amusing reductio ad absurdum in Ken MacLeod's Learning the World (2005) sees a tiny one-man "elevator car" lowered from orbit on a dangling cable to an alien world's surface, failing to impress the natives. However improbable or unfeasible its construction on Earth, the space elevator has become a beloved sf device. [DRL]

see also: Ex Machina.

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