THE LAST THEOREM
by Arthur C. Clarke & Frederik Pohl
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Arthur C. Clarke broke onto the science fiction scene in 1946 with his story "Loophole." By that time, Frederik Pohl had been publishing for nearly a decade, since the appearance of his poem "Elegy to a Dead Planet: Luna." In time, both men would go on to win awards, acclaim, and the title of Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master. In 2008, these men published The Last Theorem, their first collaboration together and what would prove to be Clarke's final work.
The Last Theorem tells the story of Ranjit Subramaniam, a Sri Lankan mathematician who works to solve Pierre de Fermat's "Last Theorem," which has puzzled mathematicians since it was discovered in the margin of Fermat's copy of Diophantus' Arithmetica. Furthermore, Clarke and Pohl introduce the story of a group of aliens, the Grand Galactics, and their client races, who appear to be bent on the destruction of the human race after receiving a radar beacon inadvertently sent in 1943 by Arthur C. Clarke. The authors mix a little of their own histories into the novel, notably in the preambles and postambles, which provide the novel with a relaxed feel.
The relaxed feel extends from the framing material into the body of the novel itself. Although the majority of the book focuses on Ranjit and his initial obsession with solving Fermatís Last Theorem, once he makes a name for himself, he and his wife, Myra, sort of amble through their lives. Most of the things Ranjit achieves after his solution are a result of the intervention of his life-long friend, Gamini Bandera. The focus also tends to shift off Ranjit, who reacts to situations more than anything else, onto his daughter, Natasha, although it never really moves her into a protagonist slot, viewing her instead through the eyes of her parents.
Many of the chapters end with a look at the mysterious Grand Galactics or, more precisely, their client races. There are a number of different races with descriptive names like the Nine-Limbed, or the One Point Fives. None of these sections really stay with the essentially anonymous aliens long enough to really allow the reader to draw distinctions in their mind, resulting in the authors continually explaining the purpose and abilities of the various aliens. However the very vagueness the authors employ help define the creatures' alienness.
The novel is clearly a collaboration between the two men, often offering the pessimism which seems to run through much of Pohlís work, although ultimately achieving the optimistic view of technology which Clarke has so often espoused. The two different outlooks donít always mesh smoothly, furthering the unfocused feeling the novel has.The Last Theorem has many interesting ideas, some of which are recycled from earlier works by Arthur C. Clarke. However the book doesnít succeed on its own, with the characters moving listlessly through their lives and career, yet without any real sense of the passage of time. There is the sense that Ranjit should be the protagonist, but once he achieves his mathematical goal, he doesnít really set anything in motion, instead allowing himself to be pulled along by the Bandaras.
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