The Last Theorem
by Arthur C. Clarke
Review by Ernest Lilley
Del Rey Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9780345470218
Date: 05 August 2008 List Price $27.00 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
The Last Theorem is Arthur C. Clarke's last book, written with colleague Frederik Pohl and published just a few months after his death in March 2008. It's Clarke to the core, reprising many of the themes he's developed over his career, from advanced aliens tending the galaxy's crop of intelligent beings to the construction of a space elevator and the development of world government. It's more reassuringly Clarke than earth shatteringly so, but as a result its a good capstone for one of SF's most beloved voices. Kudos to Frederick Pohl for bringing Arthur's voice to life one last time.
The Last Theorem is classically Clarke, though it was written in collaboration with Frederik Pohl, and through an email collaboration at that. For those of us who've read more or less everything Clarke has written (including his books about scuba diving) there are no real surprises in store, but rather a tour of the ideas that string together his books, from sky hook to galactic over being, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
The main character, or at least the one that anchors us through the story, is Ranjit Subtmanian, a Sri Lankan mathematician that becomes intrigued with solving Fermat's Last Theorem and rises to world fame as the result.
The story follows Rajit's life from his teen years at University, through an unpleasant period where he winds up in the hands of pirates who've taken over a cruise ship, to being thrown in jail on a case of mistaken identity, where he finally finds the time to work out a solution to the mathematical puzzle that's filled his head for years.
For me, that would be enough of a story, and perhaps better in the end, because Ranjit's life, his friendship with politician-to-be Gamini Bandara, and his eventual romance of Gamini's girlfriend Myra, provided all the drama I really needed. True, the characters all display the emotional affect of your typical British engineer, which is to say somewhat understated, but it works for me, and I don't miss the angst of second wave SF writers.
Clarke/Pohl didn't leave it at the level of human drama, though it stands well enough on its own. There's also an impending alien invasion going on in the background, with our characters none the wiser for most of the book. It adds some tension for the reader, giving one pause to wonder where the story lines are going to meet up, and what Ranjit's role will be in saving the planet. Its real purpose is to give the writers a chance to roll out ideas we've seen before in The Sentinel, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Childhood's End, or even his recent Time's Eye collaboration with Stephen Baxter.
The resolution of the invasion storyline is ultimately anticlimactic, and much the same story has been treated better elsewhere by Clarke, but it's not so much jarring as unneeded.
The interesting story is that of the future history that the authors spin throughout Ranjit's life, from medical advances to space travel and world government...much envisaged in Clarke's Profiles of the Future (1962) or his other novels. In fact, the novel that has the most similar feel to this is one of my favorite early Clarke's, The Deep Range (1957), which follows the life and career of its main character through times of world changes as well. Checking on the publication date of The Deep Range turned up the interesting fact that Pohl had included the short story it was based on in his 1954 Star Science Fiction Stories No.3 anthology.
The difference this time around is that Clarke has had to live through many of the years he'd dreamed about, and manages to incorporate the geopolitical landscape as it has emerged into his story.
Though The Last Theorem was published five months after Clarke died, he'd reviewed the galley a few days before, so it's not a case of another author finishing an incomplete work. Granted, I don't know how much Clarke and how much Pohl it represents, but, as I opined at the outset, it feels Clarkish, and I'm more than happy with the result.