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The Last Theoremby Arthur C. Clarke and Frederik Pohl
Synopses & Reviews
Two of science fiction's most renowned writers join forces for a storytelling sensation. The historic collaboration between Frederik Pohl and his fellow founding father of the genre, Arthur C. Clarke, is both a momentous literary event and a fittingly grand farewell from the late, great visionary author of 2001: A Space Odyssey.
The Last Theorem is a story of one man's mathematical obsession, and a celebration of the human spirit and the scientific method. It is also a gripping intellectual thriller in which humanity, facing extermination from all-but-omnipotent aliens, the Grand Galactics, must overcome differences of politics and religion and come together...or perish.
In 1637, the French mathematician Pierre de Fermat scrawled a note in the margin of a book about an enigmatic theorem: "I have discovered a truly marvelous proof of this proposition which this margin is too narrow to contain." He also neglected to record his proof elsewhere. Thus began a search for the Holy Grail of mathematics — a search that didn't end until 1994, when Andrew Wiles published a 150-page proof. But the proof was burdensome, overlong, and utilized mathematical techniques undreamed of in Fermat's time, and so it left many critics unsatisfied–including young Ranjit Subramanian, a Sri Lankan with a special gift for mathematics and a passion for the famous "Last Theorem."
When Ranjit writes a three-page proof of the theorem that relies exclusively on knowledge available to Fermat, his achievement is hailed as a work of genius, bringing him fame and fortune. But it also brings him to the attention of the National Security Agency and a shadowy United Nations outfit called Pax per Fidem, or Peace Through Transparency, whose secretive workings belie its name. Suddenly Ranjit — together with his wife, Myra de Soyza, an expert in artificial intelligence, and their burgeoning family — finds himself swept up in world-shaking events, his genius for abstract mathematical thought put to uses that are both concrete and potentially deadly.
Meanwhile, unbeknownst to anyone on Earth, an alien fleet is approaching the planet at a significant percentage of the speed of light. Their mission: to exterminate the dangerous species of primates known as homo sapiens.
Although "The Last Theorem" is being touted as the final novel by Arthur C. Clarke, it was written mostly by Clarke's friend and fellow science-fiction icon, Frederik Pohl. In recent interviews, Pohl has said that Clarke, who died in March at the age of 90, "got bogged down" because of poor health and sought a collaborator, a role for which the now 88-year-old Pohl volunteered. Clarke had produced... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) 40 or 50 pages of manuscript, with an equal number of pages of notes, some of which were so vague that Clarke couldn't recall what he had meant by them. Pohl, in turn, can no longer type and had to write longhand, resulting in his own indecipherable scribbles that had to be translated by his wife. These age-hampered travails inspire sympathy for the authors, but they don't excuse the annoying mess of a book they have foisted on their fans. "The Last Theorem" reads like a dog-eared album of favorite themes from yesteryear. We find Clarke's preoccupation with humans' first contact with aliens, familiar to readers of "Childhood's End," "Rendezvous With Rama" and, of course, "2001"; his old concept of a space elevator that would supersede our currently limited method of ferrying materials into space, already explored in "The Fountains of Paradise" and elsewhere; even his fondness for the idea of sailing spaceships on solar wind. Pohl returns to his beloved theme of the human-machine hybrid, explored especially in "Man Plus," and his enthusiasm for campy aliens. Most of the rest of the ideas in the book, if not already used by Clarke and Pohl, have been circulating through science fiction for decades. "The Last Theorem" features a group of omnipotent aliens, the Grand Galactics, in a galaxy far, far away (all the way back to 1950s movies). They discover that the inhabitants of a certain blue-and-green boondocks planet — inhabitants not known for their kindness toward their own or other species — have developed nuclear weapons. Throughout the glacially creeping story, the Grand Galactics' minions, races called the Nine-Limbed and the One Point Fives and the Machine Stored, are zooming toward Earth, determined to eradicate a dangerous infection before it spreads. Yawn. It's sad to have to say that this was all done just as well 50 years ago. These sections read like a high school student's late-night notes for a first story; one alien is even nicknamed Bill. Not that the humans are drawn with any more attention to detail than their potential exterminators. Rilke said that in Cezanne's paintings every part seems to know about every other part. In this novel, few parts seem to know what on Earth the rest of the parts are doing. For example, early in the book, its hero, a young Sri Lankan math wizard named Ranjit Subramanian, is aboard a ship when pirates take it over. Mistaken for one of the criminals, he goes to prison for more than two years, facing endless interrogation as well as waterboarding and other kinds of torture. Like most other sections of the book, this ordeal seems to have no relationship to the rest of Subramanian's life. Not only does he suffer no lasting bodily or psychic torment, no change of politics, no nightmares, but amazingly, the experience is seldom referred to again. This kind of emotional disconnection appears throughout the book. The young Ranjit developed a friends-with-benefits relationship with his college buddy, but there is no reference to this homosexual experience having any emotional effect on their lifelong friendship or on Subramanian's wife's friendship with the same man. It's never mentioned again. Critics refer to obviously fake characters as cardboard, but at least cardboard is opaque; these characters are so thin you can see through them. Not burdened by realistic characters, plot developments occur with soap-opera disregard for verisimilitude. While in prison, Subramanian solves the perennial mystery of Fermat's last mathematical theorem, the one about which the French mathematician left a coy note in the margin of other work, claiming that he had solved the problem but didn't have room there to explain it. With fairy-tale ease after his rescue, Subramanian is transformed into an international media celebrity — right, like so many other mathematicians — and almost offhandedly accumulates worldwide fame and, of course, a beautiful and subservient wife. Or consider that no major character dies until after the aliens have given humans the secret of their machine-stored consciousness. Death takes a few lines that are utterly devoid of emotion, and within two pages the character is brought back to life. No need to worry; tissue paper can't suffer. After a promising opening about the young and intellectually eager Subramanian, the later chaos is disappointing. The only bright hues in this dull gray book occur in these opening chapters, during the affectionate portrait of Clarke's adopted nation of Sri Lanka. The rest of the story, in contrast, seems barely sketched in black and white. Reviewed by Michael Sims, who is the author of books about nature and science, including 'Apollo's Fire', Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"Pacing is slow at times...but accelerates as the aliens approach. In the end, the readers will have a most respectable swan song for two authentic giants." Booklist
"Uneven pacing and tone mar an intriguing cautionary tale. This collaboration, completed before Clarke's death last March, would've made a better solo project for either author. (Grade: B)" Entertainment Weekly
Two of science fiction's most renowned writers join forces for a storytelling sensation. The Last Theorem is a gripping intellectual thriller in which humanity, facing extermination from all-but-omnipotent aliens, must overcome differences of politics and religion and come together — or perish.
About the Author
Arthur C. Clarke has long been considered the greatest science fiction writer of all time. He was an international treasure in many other ways, including the fact that a 1945 article by him led to the invention of satellite technology. Books by Clarke — both fiction and nonfiction — have sold more than one hundred million copies worldwide. He died in 2008.
Frederik Pohl is the author of many novels, including The Boy Who Would Live Forever; Gateway, part of his acclaimed Heechee saga; and Jem, for which he won the National Book Award. With Isaac Asimov, he was a founding member of the New York-based science fiction group known as the Futurians. In the sixties, Pohl edited Galaxy magazine and its sister magazine, if, which won the Hugo Award three years in a row. In 1993, he became a Science Fiction Writers of America Grand Master. He lives in Palatine, Illinois.
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