Fiction Reviews

The Last Theorem

(2008) Arthur C. Clarke & Frederik Pohl, Harper Voyager, 18.99, hrdbk, xii + 300pp, ISBN 978-0-007-28998-1


A young Sri Lankan student, Ranjit, with a penchant for mathematics accidentally ends up in the midst of a cruise ship hijacking and robbery. Being bilingual he acts as a translator between the pirates and the passengers. However when the armed forces come to the rescue Ranjit is accused of being one of the pirates and is taken away for interrogation and incarceration. To occupy his mind Ranjit sets about to mentally solve Fermat's theorem. He succeeds and when finally released finds instant fame.

Meanwhile, a race of super advanced beings called the Grand Galactics have noticed that the human race may poise a threat, albeit an embryonic one to Galactic harmony. They send a couple of their client species to Earth with a view to cleansing the planet.

The Last Theorem to some extent reads and has the feel of early Clarke, that is until you look to the overall plot. There are a number of plot flaws. For example, the Grand Galactics use of client species is a now established SF trope (for example from Brin's 'Uplift' sequence to Babylon V). However given that the Grand Galactics can fold space time (hence have FTL) it is surprising that they find it expedient for their chore of cleansing Earth be undertaken by clients using non-FTL capability. Also the overall novel does not have a rounded plot arc and the story ends somewhat precipitously.

Yet these flaws notwithstanding, it is clear that Clarke had unfinished business and he wanted to communicate some more with his many readers. The two big space related themes that Clarke has running through his works are those of human social and biological evolution set against an interstellar context, and that of human-alien encounters set against their technological and evolutionary developmental disparity. Here the addition The Last Theorem makes largely comes in one of the book's afterwords and I am not going to spoil your enjoyment by revealing that in this review. For my money this afterward says much about Clarke's view as to where we are going in the long-term.

As with Clarke and Stephen Baxter's Firstborn: The Conclusion of A Time Odyssey one gets the clear sense that Arthur was tidying up loose ends and getting some final thoughts off his chest. So again, as with Firstborn the value of this work is not so much this particular novel in itself but where it stands in terms of developing the themes explored in a number of Clarke's other novels. Along the way we return to some of Arthur's other concepts and loves. We get a ride on a space elevator, there is a bit of diving, and of course there is plenty of Sri Lanka (Clarke's adopted home for much of his adult life). Flawed as this work is, it is a farewell. Also the flaws are completely understandable; Clarke was very old being 90 and in ill health, so time and energy were both against him. Consequently I completely forgive the authors for this last offering being far from refined and thank them for one last ride.

This brings me on to Frederik Pohl's contribution. Clarke at 90 is one thing, but Fred is still 89! Thank goodness he had his wife to assist him. Clarke apparently handed over to Pohl some 50 pages of more or less fully developed scenes and the rest were just notes, with some pages just having a few lines of ideas on them. Apparently, having handed the material over Clarke contributed little more. In part this was because he could not always remember what it was that gave him a particular idea he jotted down or where it fitted in to the novel. Given all of this it is remarkable that the book ever came out and we, the SF reading community, owe Fredrik Pohl a lot for embarking on this project and seeing it through. Apparently Clarke approved the final manuscript with Pohl just a day before he died.

So where does this all leave us. Well if you are someone who only occasionally dips into SF for their reading, and who is new to Clarke, then I would certainly steer you towards other of Clarke's novels and collections of short stories as these are much better. For novels I would go for: The City and the Stars (1953), Childhood's End (1953), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Rendez-vous With Rama (1973). For short story collections then seek out Tales From the White Hart (1957) and The Nine Billion Names of God (1967).   However if you are an SF book aficionado then The Last Theorem is a 'must have' for the collection. True, it is not Clarke at anywhere near his best but the man has contributed so much to mid-20th century SF, and this book does reflect some of this author's oeuvre's themes so that no serious collector will wish this to be absent from their shelves.

Jonathan Cowie

See also Peter Tyers' review of The Last Theorem.

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