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The Last Theorem
Arthur C. Clarke and Frederik Pohl
Del Rey / HarperVoyager, 303 pages

Arthur C. Clarke
Born in 1917 in Minehead, Somerset, England, and living in Sri Lanka since 1956, Arthur C. Clarke is best known for his 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), based on his short story "Sentinel of Eternity." His Against the Fall of Night (1948) and Childhood's End (1953) are also among his best titles. Clarke was voted Grand Master at the 1986 Nebula Awards. His short story "The Star" (1955) won him a Hugo award, as did the movie adaptation of 2001. A writer of hard SF, though not without some elements of mysticism, Clarke has also written a large volume of science-popularizing non-fiction for which he has won UNESCO's Kalinga Prize (1962) and a non-fiction International Fantasy Award in 1972 (for The Exploration of Space). Clarke has also received many honours from the scientific community, in particular for his work in the development of today's geosynchronous communication satellites. He died in 2008.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review:The Last Theorem
SF Site Review: Clarke's Universe
SF Site Review: The Other Side of the Sky
SF Site Review: Childhood's End
SF Site Review: The Collected Stories
SF Site Review: The Fountains of Paradise
SF Site Review: The Light Of Other Days
SF Site Review: The Light Of Other Days
SF Site Review: Profiles of the Future
SF Site Review: Arthur C. Clarke & Lord Dunsany: A Correspondence

Frederik Pohl
Frederik Pohl was born in 1919 in New York City. His first novel was The Space Merchants (with C.M. Kornbluth) serialized in Galaxy magazine (1952) and his first solo novel was Drunkard's Walk, a Galaxy serial in 1960. He has won Hugo Awards as an editor (1966, 1967 and 1968), as a short story writer for "The Meeting" (with C.M. Kornbluth) in 1973 and in 1986 for "Fermi and Frost," and as a novelist for Gateway in 1978. He won Nebula Awards for Man Plus in 1976 and Gateway in 1977. As well, he has served as President of SFWA during 1974-76 and World SF for 1980-82.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Platinum Pohl
SF Site Review: The SFWA Grandmasters, Volume 1
SF Site Review: O Pioneer!
SF Site Review: The Siege of Eternity

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Paul Kincaid

The Last Theorem
The Last Theorem
Arthur C. Clarke, one of the most important figures in mid-century science fiction, was not exactly an exponent of experimental prose. His view, reflected in a string of classic novels from the 50s to the 70s, seems to have been one where prose should be, as near as possible, an invisible window through which one watches the action. The nearest he ever came to drawing attention to his writing style was probably in the barroom extravagance of his Tales from the White Hart. Frederik Pohl, on the other hand, has always been a little more ready to take risks with the form and structure of his writing; witness, for example, stories such as "Day Million." So we may feel safe, therefore, in assuming that the structure of this novel owes more to Pohl than to Clarke.

It is a book that constantly calls attention to its own status as novel. Right at the start we are given a sequence of three preambles. The third is a way of leading into the story, but the first two are semi-autobiographical pieces by Clarke and Pohl, as if their experiences not only inspired the story to be told but were somehow a part of it. Even when we come to the story proper the very first sentence is: "And so now, at last, we meet this Ranjit Subramanian, the one whose long and remarkable life this book is all about" (3); and this tone, so distant from Clarke's invisible window, continues throughout the novel. And when the story is over, there follow four "postambles," the last of which consists of the author biographies which are thus incorporated into the text of the novel rather than separated from it.

All of this is appropriate since, whatever else it might appear to be, this is actually a science fiction novel about science fiction. In fact, more precisely it is a novel about Arthur C. Clarke's science fiction. When, at one point, a character says that an idea "was suggested thirty years or so ago by a science fiction writer" (186), it is only making explicit a theme that runs throughout the book. The Ceylonese space elevator from Clarke's The Fountain's of Paradise is repeated here (this time, instead of moving Ceylon south to the equator, Clarke moves the equator north to Ceylon); there is a race between space yachts powered by the solar wind that comes straight from one of Clarke's early short stories; and when the aliens finally arrive, one race looks exactly like demons, just as they did in Childhood's End.

Not only does this novel reference so much "golden age" science fiction, it also suggests that if we had listened to these long-ago sf writers, if we had taken their ideas on board, then the world would have been a much better place. The old sf ideas put into practice throughout this novel bring with them an era of peace and plenty and, eventually, a leading role in galactic civilisation. It is, in that respect at least, an incredibly arrogant book.

Though our hero, of course, is far from arrogant. A becoming modesty is only appropriate for someone who might change the world. Our hero, let us not forget, is far more science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke than it is Tamil mathematician Ranjit Subramanian. Though we are told, right from the first sentence of the novel, that this is about Ranjit, that isn't actually the whole truth. Ranjit is the central character, but he is not really a major player in any of the events recounted here, nor is he even a witness to much of it. Earth-changing events affect him, or go on around him, or are seen on his television screen, but he plays little or no part in any of them.

Ranjit is a rather sweet character, a lazy student at a Sri Lankan university who gets excited by only two subjects, the archetypally science fictional ones of mathematics and astronomy. He doesn't even really notice when the prettiest and cleverest girl in the university, Myra de Soyza, comes on to him. He becomes obsessed with proving Fermat's last theorem, not in the way that Andrew Wiles did, but using the techniques that would have been available to Fermat in the 17th century. Meanwhile his best friend, Gamini, with whom he had a brief homosexual fling, has headed off to the London School of Economics and then on to a hush-hush job with the United Nations.

Ranjit isn't so fortunate, at least, not at first. While visiting his father, a Hindu priest, he starts helping a local family whose father is in prison. When the prisoner escapes, Ranjit finds himself unintentionally caught up in the hijacking of a cruise liner, and when security forces sweep in he is rounded up as a terrorist and subjected to rendition, torture and incarceration. Typically, Ranjit played no active part in any of the events that led him to this situation. While in solitary confinement he keeps himself sane by turning his mind back to the puzzle of Fermat's last theorem, and just before he is released he discovers a solution. This, inevitably, makes him an international celebrity and, now married to Myra, he embarks on a worldwide lecture tour. But during the tour he is recruited by the CIA for work that is never made clear, either to him or to the reader; then Gamini tries to recruit him for his shadowy UN organisation. Ranjit eventually turns all these offers down and returns to Sri Lanka to take up a post at his old university, and remains in that uneventful position for the rest of the novel.

Everything else of interest happens off stage. Gamini's organisation turns out to be called Pax per Fidem (Peace through Transparency), which has at its disposal a new superweapon which renders all modern technology inoperable but doesn't kill (at least, not on a large scale). The weapon is first used on North Korea, and soon its threat alone is enough to nullify conflict around the globe. But initiating peace in our time isn't all it does: the flash of the weapon is picked up by alien beings, who recognise it as a threat to galactic stability, and a task force is despatched to neutralise our troublesome planet. Meanwhile a space elevator is constructed in Sri Lanka, and easier space travel is promoted by staging an Olympics on the moon, where Ranjit and Myra's daughter wins one of the races. Then she goes on to enter a space yacht race, but in the middle of the race is kidnapped by the advance guard of the alien task force. She then becomes the mouthpiece for their communications with Earth, the aliens are persuaded that humanity no longer presents a galactic threat, and science fiction wins the day.

To be honest, this isn't really a very good novel. Ranjit is an attractive character, but he is a strange choice as the protagonist of this story since he has no part to play in 90 percent of it. And the constant reminders that we are reading a novel also remind us how mechanically this story is constructed. Nevertheless, it works much better than many of the collaborations from the latter part of Clarke's career, perhaps because of the way Pohl has turned the spotlight on the most interesting aspect of the book: Clarke himself.

Copyright © 2009 by Paul Kincaid

Paul Kincaid is the recipient of the SFRA's Thomas D. Clareson Award for Distinguished Service for 2006. His collection of essays and reviews, What it is we do when we read science fiction is published by Beccon Publications.

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