Fiction Reviews

The Last Theorem

(2009) Arthur C. Clarke and Frederik Pohl, Harper Voyager, pbk, £7.99, 423pp, ISBN 978-0-007-29002-4


This is the first and only collaboration between Arthur C. Clarke and Frederik Pohl. For fuller details of the collaboration, and indeed his opinions of the book, see Jonathan Cowie's separate review of The Last Theorem, but in brief Arthur had the ideas for the story and produced the bones of it, whilst Fred added his own ideas and had the considerable task of turning it into a published novel. Although Arthur had approved the draft, he passed away before the task was completed.

The cover bears the legend 'The final novel from the grandmaster' which is a little disingenuous in certain ways; firstly I would regard Fred as being equally a grandmaster as Arthur (and SFWA (the Science Fiction Writers of America) awarded the title 'Grand Master of Science Fiction' to each of them), and secondly it implies that this is somehow the last great novel, which it is not – 'great' that is (as against merely 'good').

I have always regarded Arthur as one, but just one, of the great writers of science fiction. His stories have been filled with interesting ideas and have concentrated on those ideas rather than on being thrilling page-turners (if I want a dose of “thrilling” I will watch a Scwarzenegger movie) or on using fantasy because it allows one to ignore the problems of physical realities (not that I am against fantasy). Apart from his earliest works, which tended to read more like technical articles than stories, I have found his works to be both very interesting and enjoyable to read. I have likewise always found Fred's works to be well thought out and well written, again interesting stories that are very enjoyable reads.

In The Last Theorem I found a book that was, as expected, both interesting and well written. It was neither particularly exciting nor did it have anything particularly special to say, though I certainly did enjoy reading it.

It is fundamentally the life story of Ranjit Subramanian, who turns out to be one of the world's great mathematicians, with a dose of alien life forms thrown in for good measure. And those aliens are very important for the future of the human race, or even if it will have a future. However, the vast majority of the book is about Ranjit.

Most of the story is set in Arthur's beloved Sri Lanka and includes mentions of his equally beloved coastal waters and diving. As it opens, sixteen year old Ranjit is a student and is reflecting on his life so far; he has been summoned to the Hindu temple of Tiru Koneswaram, of which his father Ganesh is the chief priest, and is due for a paternal ticking off - he and his best friend Gamini Bandara have been caught committing youthful indiscretions. Returning to the university, he finds most of his studies to be very boring and is well on course for attaining marks that are merely adequate, if that, but is “rescued” by the astronomy class which, at last, sparks a deep interest within him and provides the challenges his intellect requires. He has also developed an interest in mathematics, inspired in him by his father (who, we discover, was also an excellent mathematician) during his childhood, and seeks to provide a proof of Fermat's Last Theorem (as have so many before him); to this end he cracks his lecturer's password and gains free access via the internet to all the information that he could require. He is, of course, caught in his endeavours but finds that the university is surprisingly forgiving, in part because they are impressed by the way he achieved his aims and by his aims themselves, and also because Bandara Snr., a very important man, has spoken on his behalf.

It is during a summer break that things go wrong. He is tricked into boarding a holiday liner where he is held captive until it sets to sea and is then taken over by Somali pirates. The authorities respond and rescue the ship, but Ranjit is assumed to be one of the pirates and suffers extraordinary rendition to an unnamed country. There he is imprisoned and tortured until he confesses his crimes and tells them “the truth”; this gives him much time locked alone in a tiny cell with nothing to do except work (mentally) on solving Fermat's Last Theorem - which he does! Whilst still perfecting the proof, his old friend Gamini, now working with his father on behalf of the United Nations, locates him and arranges his release. Ranjit's first thought is to document his proof and get it published.

The result of this masterpiece of mathematical reasoning is that Ranjit is suddenly famous and inundated with offers from around the world. Meanwhile he has met again with Myra de Soyza, a friend from his student days, and they fall in love and marry. Shortly afterwards, the world's many squabbling nations are shocked by the deployment of a new weapon, Silent Thunder, during a joint operation by Russia, China, and the United States, against the troublesome North Korea before it can trigger an all-out, worldwide nuclear war. The nuclear weapon destroys all electronics and electrical equipment within the country, the pre-planned relief operation swings into immediate effect, and North Korea has no option but to seek the ways of peace - the Pax Per Fidem has been imposed. The use of the weapon upon other warring countries soon imposes the nearest thing to world peace.

Ranjit decides to return to his university, this time as a respected member of the staff, and to lead classes dealing with complex mathematical problems and theories. The years pass and two children are born to them. More years pass and the world benefits from the imposed peace, such as the amount of research and technological development which went into weaponry now being redirected to things which will help humanity in general. One such beneficiary is the building of a space elevator; this leads to much cheaper space travel and the start of settlements on the Moon.

Natasha, their eldest child, grows into an excellent athlete and represents her country first at the lunar Olympics and then in a race to the moon using solar sailing ships. The family story continues until Myra and Ranjit meet their inevitable ends. But what of the aliens I mentioned? They occupy just a small part of the book but their actions are none the less significant. As our radio waves reach out into the void they are eventually picked up by other intelligent beings who thus become aware of our existence. When the signatures of energy bursts from our nuclear weapons similarly reach these others, they become worried. The Grand Galactics, a race of non-corporeal beings who have been sort of running the galaxy for billions of years, assess the situation and decide that who ever this new race is, their obviously murderous behaviour will become a nuisance and so the planet must be sterilised of all such misdirected life before they become a problem. This is not their response to all the races they find, but all races have learned that arguing with the Grand Galactics is pointless, assuming that they survive such an argument.

And so the Nine-Limbeds, who happened to live close to Earth (in a galactic sense) arrive and start monitoring and recording the planet. Meanwhile the One Point Fives have been dispatched with the order to wipe out the life forms on the planet. Amongst both fleets are the Machine Stored, creatures that long ago shed their biological bodies for mechanical bodies with artificial brains. All would be lost for humanity were it not that a passing Grand Galactic spots the changes that are going on and, seeing the Pax Per Fidem in use, decides to give the human race a second chance. This results in a cooperation between all the races involved and a bright future for the humans. Included in this is a sort of eternal life as we see that both Myra and Ranjit have been preserved as artificial intelligences by the Machine Stored and now have the capability to live for ever, travel the galaxy, and explore it all for themselves.

Many of these themes (warring nations, international peace, vastly 'superior' beings from far distant stars, and mankind 'winning out' with alien creatures) have appeared before in the works of these authors so there is nothing particularly new in this book. Mind you, if every book had to rely solely on completely new ideas there would be very few books! Just how much SF could be written if you could only use spaceships once, only use aliens once, etc.? How many crime novels could you write if there could ever be one murder?

You might think that this being Arthur's last story he had something special or even monumental to offer, in which case you will be disappointed. All in all I enjoyed the book though I did think that the ending was both a little sudden and correspondingly a little weak. That aside, it provided some four hundred pages of very pleasant reading from a couple of guys who know how to create a story and how to write it.

Peter Tyers

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