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 who died in 2013. 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 for 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 by means which were available to Fermat.
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 race only has a few decades left.
Now before you all decide to avoid this book because it has math in it, which 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. 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 story 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 his books, The Last Theorem will feel familiar, which is what a lot of people look for in a book. As you can tell by Pohl’s blog (which I recommend you check out), he seemed to be permanently amused at the world and some of that tone can be seen in the book, even if this fictional world isn’t always pretty.
The pace of The Last Theorem is probably where most of the criticism is directed. Up to about two thirds of the book I didn’t really see why so many people didn’t think it was great. 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 story chronicles. The conclusion of the story 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 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 am 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 a 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 story is quite unbalanced and the connections between the various elements are 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 Last Theorem 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 The Last Theorem. If you are new to his work, I suggest you start with one of his earlier novels. My personal favourite is Rendezvous with Rama.