Review: The Last Theorem, by Arthur C Clarke and Frederik Pohl


(Harper Voyager)

(Review first published on the Australian Specfic in Focus website, September 2008)

It’s a daunting experience, reviewing an SF novel by someone who’s been active in the arena of SF for well over 60 years, and who has been acclaimed as a giant in the field. When two such authors collaborate, the stakes are arguably raised further. Factor in the knowledge that this is apparently the final work of one of these writers – Arthur C. Clarke died in March, shortly after The Last Theorem was completed – and, all up, this was a book which I approached with some trepidation.

Both Pohl and Clarke have shown themselves capable of substandard work. I’ve never been happy with Fred Pohl’s sequels to the brilliant Gateway, and while I’m wholeheartedly in awe at much of Clarke’s early work, I think he overextended the sequence which started with 2001: A Space Odyssey. I also feel that some of Clarke’s collaborations with other authors have, well, missed the point. But on reading The Last Theorem, I’ve come around to the viewpoint that Pohl is someone with whom Clarke could profitably have collaborated much sooner. Theorem, I reckon, is what a collaboration ought to look like. It’s a shame we won’t get to see it repeated.

Ranjit Subramanian is a young Sri Lankan mathematics student, obsessed with Fermat’s Last Theorem. At the start of the story, Ranjit has become estranged from his father, the chief priest of the local temple, over the relationship which has developed between Ranjit and his classmate Gamini Bandara. (Friendship between Tamil and Singhalese, Ranjit’s father can accept. Adolescent sexual experimentation, also, is forgivable. But the combination of the two proves too much.) And then Gamini moves from Sri Lanka to London, and Ranjit is cast adrift. Though still preoccupied with the problem of Fermat’s elusive proof, Ranjit finds himself intrigued also by the mysteries of the wider physical universe, thanks to an inspiring astronomy teacher. And then, in circumstances he would never have expected, Ranjit succeeds in solving the Fermat problem.

Theorem is a story on three levels. The main level, the most tightly-controlled focus, is the story of Ranjit and his friends and family. The middle level is a closely observed and encapsulated history of the first decades of the twenty-first century, as the Earth slides towards military catastrophe. And the outer level is an attempt to place life on Earth within a wider Galactic context. For the past several decades, other ears have been listening to the noises made by humans. And not just to the radio-frequency and TV broadcasts, intentional or otherwise. Prominent among the outgoing signals have been the deafening detonations of several hundred atmospheric nuclear tests. It would seem that humans are a pugnacious, dangerous lot, and there are those among the Galaxy’s citizens who don’t take kindly to such demonstrations of militarism …

There are parts of Theorem which are obviously Clarke’s work, such as the detailed presentation of life and society within Sri Lanka (and spot the cameo on p. 137); there are obvious parallels, too, with Childhood’s End and with 2001. There are portions which appear to devolve from Pohl’s interests, such as the multiple races of alien interlopers with exotic, slightly oddball species names (e.g. the One Point Fives), in a manner reminiscent of Pohl’s Heechee sequence. But there are also many aspects which appear to represent a seamless synthesis of interests and beliefs important to each author, such as the abiding concern for a human society which, in several respects, looks as though it is never going to mature into something worth preserving.

I approached the book with doubts, as noted at the start of the review. Overall, I was impressed. It’s not exactly a gripping read, though there are several extended passages which maintain tension across a chapter or two. The themes it explores are hardly new, informed as they may be by current scientific knowledge. But it’s written with the clarity characteristic of Clarke, it has the feel of more than a lifetime’s accumulated wisdom, and it packs within it a good many moments of poignancy. For my money, it shows that Pohl, approaching ninety, still has it. And it’s wonderful to see Clarke go out on a high note.

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