The Last Theorem is an odd creature, a book that fuses the preoccupations of two major old school Science Fiction writers who both date back to the infancy of the field. It brings together Arthur C. Clarke’s focus on Sri Lanka and a space elevator, signaling technology and world peace; and Fred Pohl’s obsession with machine storage of personalities, alien powers transforming the universe by their own blueprint and the world falling apart into global war. Imagine Fountains of Paradise and Beyond the Event Horizon, and a dozen more being shaken out into a very small cup, and you get The Last Theorem.
As a Clarke novel, The Last Theorem is more about his beloved Sri Lanka than anything else. There’s only problem with that, and that is that any reader had better be really interested in Sri Lanka and the day to day routine of its main character, Rajit, who solves Fermat’s Last Theorem in the last 100 pages, and then doesn’t do anything for the rest of the novel. Pohl shows up between the cracks, penning goofy descriptions of the aliens and world politics, (the alien race headed to earth are armored rabbits and Kim Jong Il is replaced by The Adorable Leader), but The Last Theorem is mostly Clarke and it’s mostly dull.
Clarke wasn’t able to finish writing The Last Theorem, but unfortunately neither was Pohl, because the novel is one long string of dangling plot threads. Rajit solves Fermat’s theorem and then does nothing else noteworthy except hang out with his family. The three major powers unveil something called Pax Per Fidem to end war and it’s suggested that something is going on behind the scenes, but nothing comes of that either. The Galactics decide to sterilize earth, but then change their mind at the last minute. Rajit’s son, Robert, seems to have psychic powers and some sort of connection to the aliens, but that also goes nowhere.
Clarke and Pohl’s writing unfortunately do not blend. Pohl’s goofiness and Clarke’s bland narrative are at odds with each other. And the majority of the book forces us to watch Rajit, a truly boring character live a generally privileged life, eat breakfast, have sex, raise a family and stare at the sunset. The alien invasion is a sidebar that never goes anywhere. And the contrast between the Clarke sections and the final third which is heavily Pohl, make The Last Theorem into an uneven work. Worst of all the book is full of bits and pieces of ideas that we’ve seen both authors do better before. And I suppose that is its real legacy, to remind us of two talented men when they were in their prime.