The Last Theorem by Arthur C. Clarke and Frederik Pohl

In Uncategorized on 2009-01-05 by Kyle Maxwell

Arthur C. Clarke passed away in 2008 prior to the publication of his final novel, The Last Theorem, co-written with Frederik Pohl. In sort of a valedictory approach, it echoes many of his earlier themes: Sri Lanka, space elevators, diving accidents, space sailing, children that think differently than their parents, and truly “alien” aliens. The novel also includes a good deal of commentary on current events, which ends up illustrating the work’s main problem: it doesn’t know what it wants to be.

The plot sections based on current events often distract the reader; for example, at one point the protagonist undergoes extraordinary rendition. Why? We don’t know, really, and while that alone could have created some excellent Kafkaesque drama, unfortunately it never really goes anywhere.

Similarly, while the book touches here and there on some religious themes, the authors pass up some golden opportunities to delve further into that area, other than to briefly (and belatedly) point out to otherwise-educated characters that the Golden Rule exists in various forms in a number of ethical systems, not just religious ones. And the climax of the plot could easily have tied into eschatological fascination, rather than just a brief mention of Satanists in a bit of callback to Childhood’s End.

Clarke and Pohl long exemplified “hard” science fiction, replete with mounds of technical details leading to endless discussion of the physics or biology behind whatever phenomena they’re discussing, and while The Last Theorem does that in a few places, it feels more educational and didactic a la Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon rather than boring. (Disclosure: this reviewer holds a degree in mathematics and thus may be somewhat predisposed.) But even then, a number of threads get brief mentions and then never followed at all, like a cryptic reference to quantum computers’ impact on Diffie-Hellman key exchance and public-key cryptography.

The novel ends up running out of steam and coming to an abrupt end that may leave readers unsatisfied. But for that sort of reader  who regularly thumbs back through a copy of The Collected Stories of Arthur C. Clarke always kept near his desk, the endless references to earlier work seem perhaps a fitting way to close out his career. Indeed, the space sailing race seems partly lifted from his story “Sunjammer”, and a number of other plot points seem to have no other purpose than to reference earlier novels and even “The Sentinel”.

Clarke didn’t believe in an afterlife of any sort, but this final reminder of all he had to say keeps him close in the minds of those who look to the future with anticipation and not just trepidation.


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