Saturday, December 5, 2009

The Last Theorem - Arthur C. Clarke and Frederik Pohl

In March 2008 one of the titans of science fiction, Arthur C. Clarke died at the age of 90. At the time he was working on The Last Theorem, a collaboration with another big name in science fiction, the slightly younger Frederik Pohl. He turned 90 last month. Clarke's health would not permit him to do the writing himself so much of the novel was written by Pohl based on an outline and notes by Clarke. Just a few days before he died, Clarke finished reviewing the manuscript and gave it his blessing. Clarke's last novel got quite a bit of attention when it was released. It also got mixed reviews.

The Last Theorem is the story of the life of Ranjit Subramanian. We follow his life, most of which probably takes place a few decades later in this century, from boyhood to middle age. Ranjit grows up on Sri Lanka as the son of a Hindu priest. His father hopes he will succeed him but Ranjit is obsessed with mathematics. Number theory in particular. He is determined to find the proof the Fermat's last theorem. This theorem states that the Pythagoras' theorem (surely you have heard of it) does not hold true for dimensions higher than two. Fermat left the world a note stating he had found this proof but if he actually did write it down, this proof did not survive him. His last theorem has indeed been proven but not my means which were available to Fermat. It is one of the great riddles of mathematics apparently.

A second part of the story is set well away from earth. Starting with the nuclear tests in the Nevada desert in 1945, the world has detonated something in the neighbourhood of fifteen hundred nuclear weapons in the atmosphere. Each a bright flash of light and radiation clearly visible from space. It has taken a long time for someone to notice but when it happens a reaction is unavoidable. A race referred to as the Grand Galactics takes note of the signals from earth. They are not amused. Their reaction will be swift and severe. It seems the human races only has a few decades left.

Now before you all decide to avoid this book like the plague because it has math in it, which in itself is a very understandable reflex, let me assure you that the mathematical side of the story is not that challenging. The authors did not attempt to find Fermat's proof themselves in this book. They do describe some number tricks and general concepts but nothing too complicated. I thought what the authors do show was quite entertaining.There's a fair bit of other science in the book as well of course. It contains just about every concept Clarke has used in his earlier books and most likely a reference to himself as well (the writer who never leaves his house). Clarke did not particularly reinvent himself but for people who have read more of his books The Last Theorem will feel familiar. And that is what a lot of people look for in a book. I have not actually read any fiction by Frederik Pohl, something I intend to remedy soon, but the tone writing does remind me of the posts on his blog (which I recommend you check out). Pohl seems to be permanently amused at the world and some of that can be seen in the book. Even if this fictional world isn't always pretty.

The pace of the book is probably where most of the criticism is directed at. Up to about two thirds of the book I didn't really see why so many people didn't think it was a great book. The story progressed nicely, although the focus shifts a bit from Ranjit's mathematical achievements to world politics. It is here that Ranjit is to play a (small) part in the world shaking events that the book chronicles. The conclusion of the book is fairly abrupt though. Once first contact has been made the authors appear to see the outcome as inevitable and don't spend a lot of time discussing it. The finale of the book will probably raise a few eyebrows with readers. Did we really need so much story to build up to it? Or were the authors in a hurry to wrap things up? I took a few days to let the book sink in before I began the review and I am still not entirely sure. It is an ending like you'll find in more of Clarke's books though, leaving us with a world headed for an utopian future.

In the end I guess The Last Theorem leaves me with mixed feelings too. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it in a way. Like we've come to expect of Clarke it contains a lot if fascinating scientific speculations as well as a number of humorous observations about society. On the other hand the book is quite unbalanced and the connections between the various elements of the story tenuous at some points. It does not excel at character development either, but then, Clarke's books never were about characters. He writes about the world. While the book never bored me, or even failed to entertain me, it does have too many flaws to be a great novel. Normally I wouldn't recommend it, but as a fan, can you really not read Clarke's last novel? Let me put it this way then, if you are familiar with Clarke you will probably want to read it. If you are new to his work, I suggest you start with one of his earlier novels. My personal favourite is Rendezvous with Rama.

Book Details
Title: The Last Theorem
Author: Arthur C. Clarke and Frederik Pohl
Publisher: Voyager
Pages: 303
Year: 2008
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-00-729000-0
First published: 2008

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