Monday, July 12, 2010
Arthur C. Clarke & Frederik Pohl - The Last Theorem
This is a strange novel indeed. There is much of interest within it - it's certainly the only novel I can think of that starts with a Sri Lankan mathematician who has a homosexual relationship with his best friend. The story is set at an indeterminate, but short time in the future and is heavily influenced by current political and social issues - extraordinary rendition is an important theme.
But there are problems. Not least the plot, which jumps of idea to idea. The central character, Ranjit Subramanian is socially naive young man who sets himself the challenge of solving Fermat's Last Theorem. In doing so, he puts himself at the heart of a network of people of great importance to the future of planet Earth.
Simultaneously, a secondary plot line deals with several interstellar alien species. One of which has evolved to a new level of consciousness that is independent of matter. These beings see the evolution of human kind and their technological driven expansion as a threat and a couple of other species are dispatched to end human life.
Apart from the various fantastical notions in the book (Ranjit solves the Last Theorem in under five pages for instance) the authors throw half formed and irrelevant ideas into the plot seemingly at random. We're treated to the first "Lunar Olympics" and a new super-weapon which can destroy all the technological in a given national boundary.
The problem is, that neither author seems to have the skill to hang all this together in anything approaching a plausible way. Science Fiction often deals with fantastical ideas, but some of this was so implausible that it made me laugh out loud. The idea for instance that China, Russia and the USA would sit down with a new super-weapon on the table, and discuss how they could use it for the world's good was amusing enough.
But what annoyed me was the way that the more unusual elements to the story vanish and are replaced by more standard fair. Ranjit's homosexuality is simply a phase he goes through, eventually he marries a gorgeous, scientist who happens to be one of the world leaders in AI. The second target of the world's new super-weapon (after North Korea) includes Venezuela, which appears to be showing sub-imperialist interests in the region. Whether the crude descriptions of the leaderships of these two countries are lazy writing or they are common caricatures, it smacks of the worst of Cold-War science-fiction, which linked Russia and the "alien threat".
Oddly the book is compulsive, mainly I think because it's so unbelievable that the reader wants to see what depths are going to be plumbed next. The ending is a sort of "and they all lived happily ever after", but the novel is really nothing less than a collection of half-baked fantastical ideas linked by the most tenuous of plot lines.