The Last Theorem by Sir Arthur C Clarke and Frederik Pohl
Published by (US) Del Rey, August 2008; (UK) HarperVoyager, August 2008
(Review copy received.)
Review by Mark Yon / Hobbit
So here we are: allowing for the shuffling together of old Archive (or fondly by some called ‘Clarkive’) material, we have the last novel that Sir Arthur Charles Clarke wrote.
Or not. Because, as I understand it, although the book uses 100 pages of notes and a beginning by Sir Arthur, most of the book was actually written by friend and fellow professional, Frederik Pohl. Though Sir Arthur was involved throughout, read the final proof document and gave it his seal of approval in the week before he died, if I was being pedantic it would be pretty easy to say ‘it’s not a ‘real’ Arthur C Clarke novel.’
However this is not the first time Sir Arthur was involved in such a process. The book Richter 10 (1996) was written by Mike McQuay based on an idea by Sir Arthur, and it was freely admitted by Sir Arthur in the book’s introduction as the first time that he had done so. Similarly, The Target (1999) was written in pretty much the same way by Sir Arthur and Michael Kube-McDowell. Then, of course, there are his collaborations with Stephen Baxter (2000-2007), the writer who, in my review of Firstborn (2007), I said was perhaps Britain’s closest living writer in terms of style and scientific background to Sir Arthur.
In one respect this is a different collaboration, in that Frederik is one of the few active writers living today who are Sir Arthur’s peers, there at the prosperous times (in SF terms) of the 1940’s and 50’s. (For the record, Sir Arthur died at the age of 90 in March 2008; Frederik is, at the time of writing this review, 88.) Therefore, of a similar age, and thus perhaps with similar experiences (both were great friends of Isaac Asimov, for example), my first concern was whether their writing styles and collective knowledge would together produce an appealing book. And so, for the ‘last book’, The Last Theorem.
At 300 pages, (including three preambles and four postambles) this is not a long book, though longer than some of Sir Arthur’s more recent novels, and consequently the plot outline is fairly straightforward. The basic tale is mainly that of Ranjit Subramanian, a young Sri Lankan mathematician who deduces a short proof (the original being 150 pages long) of the legendary Fermat's Last Theorem. This brings Ranjit worldwide fame and a hiring by a covert United Nations outfit called Pax per Fidem, (or Peace Through Transparency). As you might expect in a Clarke novel, this group aims to create world peace with as few casualties as possible.
In a turn worthy of The X-Files or War of the Worlds, at the same time the world is being observed and about to be invaded by an alien group known as the ‘One Point Fives’. Working for ‘the Great Galactic’, they have been sent to observe and destroy the Earth because of the threat they may pose to universal harmony. Again, being a Clarke novel, and not ignoring science (ie: not exceeding the speed of light), the One Point Fives take about fifteen years to get to the Earth whilst the Great Galactics are busy elsewhere. In the mean time Ranjit has time to get married, father children and pursue an academic career after an initially dodgy start.
As with Firstborn, this is a book which has the usual Clarke lean-prose style. Consequently, it can be accused of glossing over specific details and has some fairly brief characterisation, but like the best of Sir Arthur’s work, is full of great scientific ideas. As is often the case with older SF, the emphasis is less on style and more on concepts. Perhaps as you might expect, this book recycles a few of the well known (and well-worn) ideas from Sir Arthur’s previous work. Surprise, surprise, Sir Arthur’s favourite application, space elevators are here, as too solar sailing (see The Wind from the Sun.)
With the hero being Sri Lankan, it is also clear that the book touches on aspects of that life, perhaps based on the personal experiences and issues important to Sir Arthur. There are many comments on life in this area of the world, not all positive. Some observations about piracy and terrorism, given in an amused tone, sit a little uneasily for me in a world post 9/11. No doubt these have some base on the political tensions surrounding Sir Arthur’s home between the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tigers, whose actions Sir Arthur wished would be resolved before he died. Despite these rather troubled issues, much of the tale is filled with positive comments about the delights of Sri Lanka, enough for a travel company to be proud of. On the personal side, closer to Clarke, perhaps, is Ranjit’s brief dalliance with homosexuality before he settles down to marriage with AI scientist Myra de Soyza.
Wider world issues are examined when (as now) international tensions grow and a UN taskforce headed up by China, America and Russia (code-named Silent Thunder) begins nuclear bombing volatile regimes.
By the end of the book, we have a nicely typical positive ending with everything (almost) ending happily ever after.
So why should you read this book? Critically, I would say that it is not one of Sir Arthur’s best, though it is not his worst either. But despite my concerns at the beginning at the end it is, still, (and despite being co-written), a recognisably Arthur C Clarke book, with the same humour, the same enthusiasm, the great flashes of inspiration, the big ideas and the same curious positivism that underlines most of Sir Arthur’s work. This book has that old style sense of wonder that permeates much of his work. There is a joy throughout here: a joy of learning, of opening up new opportunities and experiences, and a love of mathematics and science that is often not there in a lot of the rather depressing (in comparison) contemporary SF.
Credit here must also be given to Frederik Pohl, who, despite his own personal health difficulties, has clearly made completing this a work of love, making sure that it was finished to a standard that both himself and Sir Arthur approved of. There is a lot of science and mathematical puzzle-solving here, though to my admittedly non-maths background, not prohibitively so. I suspect that a lot of the Maths comes from Pohl, given his background, whilst the humour and commentary is typical Clarke. The joins are not as wincingly horrendous as I had nervously anticipated, indeed there appears to be very few, nor is the novel a confusing mish-mash of styles shoehorned to fill a book. Though the tone is predominantly Clarke’s, the overall feel is definitely old-school collaborative.
On that thought, perhaps the main reason for reading the book is that it has a style. Written in that detached-observer-viewpoint that Sir Arthur does so well, looking at the achievements and the follies of humankind with a wry sense of amusement, it is an engaging manner that, to my mind more so than, say, Asimov or Heinlein, is both resonant of the golden age of SF and deceptively difficult to emulate (though, as I said earlier, Baxter comes very close.)
As such, and from someone who has found that style to be something uniquely special through his years of reading SF, it is quite sobering to realise that with this novel we will probably never see its like again. Though not Clarke’s best, it is still very good: worthy of reading and a last chance to read ‘the ego’ (as he called himself) that was Sir Arthur Clarke.
And with that thought, I left the book as I should, with fond memories, much more satisfactory than I had hoped for, and a pleasingly worthy addition to the portfolios of true SF masters.
Mark Yon / Hobbit, August 2008
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