There's a metric that I've found very useful as I read any book. I continually ask myself, "Will I ever want to read this book again?" If the answer is "Yes," it goes into my library. If the answer is "No," it's relegated to the public library donation pile. As I applied this metric over many years, I built up a large collection of books that I enjoyed very much the first time through, and still enjoy re-reading from time to time. Most of the works of the late Sir Arthur C. Clarke are in this category, as evidenced by my pristine paperback first editions (we're talking 35- and 50-cent-cover-price books here!) of all of his classic science fiction books. Unfortunately, "The Last Theorem," a collaboration between Clarke and his colleague Frederick Pohl, is not a keeper.
I really wanted to like "The Last Theorem" much more than I did. I hoped it would offer the same sense of wonder that used to be such an enthralling part of reading science fiction, but is rarely found today. The central story, the life of Sri Lankan mathematician Ranjit Subramanian and his successful effort to prove Fermat's Last Theorem, seemed to offer a lot of promise. But, ultimately, I found that the book did not deliver.
Set mostly on Earth in an undated but not-distant future in which brushfire wars rage worldwide, it somewhat resembles Clarke's "Imperial Earth" in being more of a "gee whiz" travelogue than a story the reader can sink his or her teeth into. The fact that Subramanian proves Fermat's Last Theorem is largely incidental--it really has little bearing on the tale. And many things in the book are rehashed from other works. There's a space elevator, of course. As in "The Fountains of Paradise," its Earthside terminal is in Sri Lanka, despite the physical impossibility of it being there (the terminal must be on the Equator, which Sri Lanka is not). Unlike "Fountains," the space elevator in "The Last Theorem" is throwaway technology--you'll find none of the details about the "skyhook" that made "Fountains" such a great read. There's also pentominoes, solar sailing and human consciousnesses transferred into computers--other favorite Clarke subjects. There's really not much new, and, sad to say, its all a bit boring. Most unforgivably, in telling the story of Subramanian's entire life in a scant 300 pages, its often quite superficial. Applying the metric I mentioned earlier, "The Last Theorem" is worth reading once, but it's not worth re-reading. It's not bad, but it's not great, either, and thus I give it a middle-of-the-road rating.
I had a special reason for wanting to like "The Last Theorem." Years ago, when my wife and I were on vacation in Sri Lanka and had a few hours to spare in Colombo, I looked up "Clarke" in the telephone directory. There was only one. I noted the address and we set out on foot from our hotel with a crude city map. We had no trouble finding Mr. Clarke's villa--a former embassy building, as I recall--and I boldly approached a Sri Lankan man working under the bonnet of a Land Rover in the driveway. "Is Mr. Clarke in?" I asked. He was. The great Arthur C. Clarke, one of my childhood heroes, came out to meet us, invited us into his home and we spent a short but very enjoyable time (at least to me) talking about spaceflight, the "Golden Age" of science fiction, rocket testing at White Sands Missile Range and other wide-ranging subjects. Mr. Clarke was gracious, pleasant and accommodating to a headstrong American tourist who barged in uninvited and disturbed his privacy. I'll never forget that.