Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Last Theorem, by Arthur C. Clarke and Frederik Pohl

Reviewed by Nader Elhefnawy
Originally appeared in STRANGE HORIZONS, November 12, 2008

The Last Theorem is, of course, the work of two of the biggest names in science fiction history, each of whom has been named a Grand Master by the Science Fiction Writers of America. Arthur C. Clarke was the author of Childhood's End, The City and the Stars, 2001 and Rendezvous With Rama, widely regarded as comparable only to Robert A. Heinlein and Isaac Asimov as a giant of the genre's Golden Age, and to boot, the man usually credited with inventing the concept of the communications satellite; Frederik Pohl is not just the writer of classics like Man Plus and Gateway, but an equally significant editor, particularly in his Nebula-winning run at If, and Galaxy, where he did much to usher in the New Wave of the 1960s. And of course, both are quite accomplished at writing collaboratively, and that with other Big Names. (Among others, Pohl cowrote The Space Merchants with C.M. Kornbluth, while Clarke has worked with Gentry Lee, Gregory Benford, Stephen Baxter, and on the film 2001, with director Stanley Kubrick.) That this collaboration also produced Clarke's last novel only makes it more of an Event, one fans may dearly hope makes a fitting cap to his long and storied career.

On the other hand, it may seem that Clarke and Pohl are an odd fit, given the differences in their tone and style (not least, Clarke's mystical touch, and Pohl's zanier sensibility and keener satirical edge). The two authors are also far better known for work done decades ago than their more recent output (excepting sequels to the early classics). Some might also worry about the premise hinted at in the title, suspecting that a story where a mathematical proof is at the center may not be all that interesting.

It is also worth noting that The Last Theorem is not a collaboration in the usual sense of the term. It did not begin as a joint project, but rather was Clarke's plan for a final work, which his failing health prevented him from completing, so that he sought a cowriter. Pohl-who has been coping with his own health problems-had only a hundred pages of Clarke's writing to work with, more than half of them just notes for undeveloped ideas. On those grounds, I would argue that this book is better thought of as a Clarke book that Pohl finished.

Of course, by the time you read this, we are long past such speculation. Much of the critical community has had its say, and by and large it was underwhelmed by this book. I would very much like to disagree with them, given my admiration of both writers, and of course, the circumstances surrounding the book's release, not just Clarke's passing, but the challenges both authors faced in finishing it. I certainly think many of the critics have gone about looking at this book the wrong way (trying to mine it for clues to Clarke's private life, whining that there's math in it, etc.), and the reviews I encountered (after finishing the book myself, incidentally), such as this one in the Los Angeles Times, failed to appreciate important aspects of the work. However, I have to admit that this will likely not be remembered as one of the stronger works by either author.

The Last Theorem is the biography of Ranjit Subramanian, a Tamil math prodigy living in Sri Lanka about the middle of the twenty-first century, who early on develops an obsession with finding a truly satisfactory proof to Pierre de Fermat's famous theorem. As in any biography, the novel is highly episodic, concentrating on a very few, key incidents.

Meanwhile the myriad members of the dominant civilization in the galaxy, having learned of humanity's invention of atomic weaponry, prepare to take action about the perceived danger to the peace of the universe. For the first four-fifths or so of the book, the "Grand Galactics" and their subject species crop up only every once in a while, a page or a paragraph at the end of a chapter in most cases.

This is a very difficult narrative structure to work with. To their credit, there are ways in which Clarke and Pohl are successful, specifically their keeping the Galactics a presence throughout the story without distracting from Ranjit's tale.

However, there are more ways in which it ends up not working. Quite frankly, the theorem is never so central as the title suggests; Ranjit finds his proof, and wins his fame with it, halfway through the book. His quest ended, it is memorable more as his mark on history than anything else, and the rest of the book is devoted to his experiences in the Academy and government, and raising a family.

Additionally, I spent the whole book expecting to see the thread of Ranjit's life intertwine significantly and indispensably with the arrival of the aliens, but it never really did, exactly; he was only a minor figure in those events, as "another" minor character later tells us. Of course, all of that might be consistent with a case of history-from-the-margins, but as Ranjit is a celebrity personally involved with figures who were much more central to those events, the book doesn't quite work as that either.

It should also be noted that the speculative element in the story will hold few surprises for readers familiar with Clarke's earlier works. They will recognize the skyhook from Fountains of Paradise (or 3001), complete with the juxtaposition of Eastern holy men and Western high-tech (which also appeared in his classic short story, "The Nine Billion Names of God"). The solar sail-ship race, too, is familiar, from the story "The Wind From The Sun." And once again we have a mysterious Elder Race wondering what is to be done about humanity in a trial that seems awfully unfair given that they are passing judgment on that horrible twentieth century, just as humans have begun to move past it in building a better world (ditto for 3001).

That is not necessarily a problem, since fans may be open to revisiting all those things. However, I had no sense after reading this book that this was a climactic or summary work. In particular, the various elements do not come together inside a compelling vision of the near future, an object at which Clarke tended to be less effective than when he was dealing with the cosmic and far-futuristic. (I recall, for instance, the few details we get of what the world is like in 2001, which struck me as simply having been plucked from the fashionable futurism of the day, and the description of the crisis the world plunges into after first contact with alien civilization in Rama II, which I found profoundly disappointing.)

Theorem starts off some time after 2030, and perhaps closer to 2050 (or so I presume, given that the world's population is repeatedly given in the story as nine billion), but surprisingly little change has happened by that point. By this I mean not just technological change of the kind routinely oversold, but the global political and economic picture, which feels like a particularly bad day from our present, just carried several decades into the future. (Alternatively, given the "tripolar" international scene dominated by the U.S., Russia and China, and the absence of much concern about peak oil, global warming and other such issues, it may be that this scenario was actually borrowed from a few decades back.) The development of "Silent Thunder," the ultimate in Non-Lethal Weaponry, which makes everything that follows possible, struck me as an easy "silver bullet," and I sincerely hope that no one with a pretense to thinking about NLWs, or international security questions generally, takes the scenario seriously. The depiction of the aliens is initially more promising, but for the most part they turn out to be sketches of concepts familiar enough to genre readers.

It also has to be admitted that there are a number of plot-and-character points which aren't as well developed as they might be. Ranjit's lack of ambivalence about getting involved with secret agents of the great powers after his eight months of interrogation and torture during an "extraordinary rendition" (indeed, his lack of any mental scarring or baggage from the experience) seemed an imaginative failing, the recounting of a dramatic incident which was promptly forgotten. There is a brief switch in focus from Ranjit to Natasha which while perhaps not totally unjustified gave the impression that it was just a way of spending more time on the aforementioned solar sail-ship race. The resolution of the crisis that emerges when the aliens arrive, too, is overly abrupt, and it left me feeling that there was at least a good, long chapter missing.

Nonetheless, the book is a light, brisk read. (I breezed through the three hundred pages in a couple of days myself.) Readers may not find everything they hope for, but they will not have their patience tried, and for a book in which mathematics is so central the authors do a fair job of providing an accessible read (even if it can only delve so far into the titular subject). Additionally, while the poetic touch of much of Clarke's best work (Childhood's End, for instance) is less in evidence here than elsewhere, Pohl deserves considerable credit for capturing Clarke's voice. Clarke also deserves credit for doing something quite different from what came before in his career (in its essence if not its gimmicks), and it is on this level which the book works best: an interesting experiment. And in the end, while this is not the book I would present to readers looking for their first contact with Clarke's work, longtime fans looking just to spend a few more hours in the master's company will not regret the read.

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