Thursday, 23 June 2011

Arthur C. Clarke & Frederik Pohl: The Last Theorem (2008)

This is the novel with which Clarke rounded off his lengthy and prolific career. Like much of his later work (later in this case basically meaning novels published after Clarke was eighty), The Last Theorem is a collaboration. While most genre collaborations are between established authors and newcomers, this is different, in that Frederik Pohl is one of the very few authors who could be considered one of Clarke's near equals for prestige in science fiction.

The Last Theorem is a novel about an alien invasion of Earth, a theme of science fiction which goes all the way back to The War of the Worlds. Concerns today are not those which prompted Wells to produce a novel which is about colonial warfare, however; the motive for the invasion here is not a search for resources, but pest control. Immensely powerful aliens have detected the explosion of the first nuclear bomb on Earth in 1945 and applied their inflexible rule: eradicate the dangerous vermin who act so aggressively. This is surely not a very original scenario (even though I cannot immediately think of exact parallels), and it is indeed not the most interesting part of the novel.

For while the aliens are travelling to Earth (making use of some "loopholes" in the laws of relativity, but still slow enough to allow the plot to unfold), human beings are continuing their usual lives. The authors focus on one man, a Sri Lankan mathematics student at the beginning of The Last Theorem, who goes on to prove Fermat's Last Theorem. (This requires a certain amount of explanation, as Andrew Wiles was already famous for this feat before the novel was written. But Wiles' proof is far too lengthy to be the one Fermat was unable to write in the margin for lack of space, and that is the proof that Ranjit Subramanian finds. In addition, the authors feel - as indicated in their postscript comments - that a proof which relies on computer checking is not really as convincing as one in which the details can be grasped in their entirety by a human mind. So Ranjit's fictional five page proof is the "real" one.) The proof brings him international celebrity and a role in the alien encounter to come (though his daughter coincidentally has an even more important part to play).

At the start of The Last Theorem, the narrative voice is jocular and quite informal; and irritating. But one of the most impressive aspects of the novel depends on this. Once something unpleasant happens to Ranjit (the bridge between being a carefree student and an international celebrity), the narrative voice changes, and becomes more grown up.

The Last Theorem, while readable, is not the best work of either Clarke or Pohl by a long way. As well as the sloppy plotting of the coincidence already mentioned, there are other incidents in the story which don't really ring true. There is nothing new in the basic ideas in the novel. The mathematical components are well done, if you're interested in that sort of thing, and no prior knowledge is needed. But perhaps that is not really enough from two of the greatest writers of the science fiction genre - 4/10.

Edition: HarperVoyager, 2009
Review number: 1426

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