Del Rey, 2008, 299 pages, C$32.00 hc, ISBN 978-0-345-47021-8
Any critical commentary regarding this novel takes a back-seat to a simple fact: This is Arthur C. Clarke’s last novel, and it’s a collaboration with Frederick Pohl, one of the most respected veterans of the Science Fiction field.
Everything else is practically irrelevant. The Last Theorem is practically critic-proof: no matter how good (or bad) it is, there’s a good chance that it will be read by a large audience over the next few years, as fans of both authors make their way to a quasi-legendary collaboration between two giants of the genre, and to “Clarke’s last novel”.
So what’s left for a poor reviewer to do?
The best ones will use this opportunity to link the novel to the co-authors’ careers. Those who know that Pohl wrote the novel based on Clarke’s outline won’t be overly surprised to find out that the book’s structure and themes most closely resemble a collection of Clarke’s usual obsessions, and that the writing style is closer to Pohl’s usual clean prose. (Not that Pohl usually wrote in a wholly different way from Clarke, mind you.)
The story itself is closer to biography than to thriller as we spend the book following the life of one Ranjit Subramanian, a Sri Lankan whose tortuous life ends up chronicling an entire future history. Ranjit is unusually fascinated with mathematical proofs, and his pet obsession is Fermat’s Last Theorem. Unsatisfied by Andrew Wiles’ 1994 proof, our hero sets out to solve the theorem with a far more elegant proof. But there’s more to his life than mathematics: His confused love life, his semi-willing abduction by pirates and (later) his work for the United States, involvement in the establishment of a world government and the construction of a space elevator all come into play sooner of later. And that’s not even mentioning the coming alien force mentioned in the early pages of the novel.
If you think that this gives a scattered quality to The Last Theorem, you’d be right: As a combination between a fictional biography and a collection of the author’s latest pet preoccupations, it’s not bound to the rigid demands of time, theme and place. It veers between eras, sometimes jarringly (pirates?).
But if you think that’s a major problem, well, you haven’t read enough Clarke novels. The latter stage of his career (roughly from Imperial Earth to The Hammer of God, but especially toward the latter half of that period) produced a handful of utterly admirable works of pure science-fiction, generally less concerned with plot than neat ideas and concepts that he couldn’t wait to tell us about. Few other authors have dared write such novels, and even fewer have succeeded at it. They remain unique fiction artifacts, among the purest and oddest long-form SF texts the genre has produced. The Last Theorem is often best seen as a slightly more structured example of that form.
Needless to say, it’s best appreciated by lifelong Clarke/Pohl fans than fresh-off-the-street readers. For civilians, The Last Theorem will be self-indulgent, packed with infodumps and without much suspense. The narration is intrusive (the three preambles leading to the novel and three postambles leading from it, many of them about Clarke, Pohl or Fermat, are a good example of the authors directly addressing the reader) and the authors often can’t be bothered to show rather than tell us outright what’s happening.
It’s a strange reading experience, and one that trades heavily on nostalgia. But the last pages of the book only solidify the thought that many had upon learning about the book: This is Clarke’s last novel, and it’s a collaboration with Frederik Pohl. Everything else is irrelevant.