The Last Theorem


When I was writing The Last Theorem with Sir Arthur Clarke, I found it necessary in the story, for plot purposes, to have the hero, Ranjit Subramanian, spend a prolonged period in a jail, in solitary confinement.

The obvious way to get that to happen was to have Ranjit get tangled up in the Sri Lankan civil war between the governing Sinhalese, who had been in the habit of keeping all the positions of power for themselves, and the rebellious Tamil Tigers, who wanted to share in the governance. (Both Sinhalese and Tamils were uninvited immigrants from India. The Sinhalese, however, had arrived earlier.)

The war was ongoing and bloody,and it dovetailed nicely with my general plans for the novel, so I happily wrote some ten or twenty thousand words embodying that material. I got quite a few pages further along in the story, sending twenty- or thirty-page chunks on to Arthur as I finished them for his comments, suggestions and approval.

By then Arthur was beginning to be ill. He still read everything and gave me feedback, but it took him longer. I was running fifty to seventy-five pages ahead of his reading, but I didn’t worry; since I knew that what I was writing was pretty good stuff.

It was, however, the wrong pretty good stuff.

Arthur’s next letter was longer than usual and much more alarmed. Had I forgotten (he asked) that he was a guest in the country of Sri Lanka, and his permanent-residency permission could be revoked at any moment when the government came to think of him as an embarrassment?

Well, actually I had forgotten, and not because I hadn’t been told. As far back as the 1950s when we were touring Japan together — maybe even earlier — Arthur had let me see how precarious he thought his residency was. There was never a suggestion that the Sri Lankan government had made any threats or issued any warnings. If anything like that had ever happened, Arthur didn’t mention it to me. As far as I could see, the problem was that Arthur loved Sri Lanka, had made it his permanent homeland and was worriedly aware that a couple of bureaucrats in Colombo could kick him out of the land he loved at any moment, for any reason or for no reason at all.

If I didn’t give that the importance Arthur did — if I let myself forget about it in writing that draft of the novel — it wasn’t that I had truly forgotten. It was simply that I couldn’t believe that the Sri Lankan government would ever consider antagonizing the man who, through his books, was the finest press agent and ambassador that any struggling Third World country could ever imagine having.

On the other hand, I could readily believe that governments as a class are all too likely to shoot themselves in the foot, doing stupid, self-harming things. Arguing from principles of reason and common sense didn’t pay when you were talking about governments. And anyway it was Arthur whose ox would be gored, and thus his decision to make, not mine.

So, not without a few tears, I threw away some twenty thousand words of perfectly good copy about the Sri Lankan civil war and replaced it with (as I now believe) some actually rather better words about 21st-century high-seas piracy and the American custom (especially during the disastrous reign of America’s worst president, ever, George W. Bush) of farming people you wanted to make disappear into the penal systems of democracy-challenged countries.

That’s how collaboration works, my children. You get to have the literary skills and talents of your collaborator working for you, which is a useful thing. But sometimes you get unexpectedly ambushed by his (or her) hang-ups as well. That can be a serious pain in places where you don’t want a pain. But sometimes it can all work out for the best.


  1. BTS says:

    History remains to decide if Bush was really the worst president ever. Right now I’d say he was a damn sight better than the current occupant of the White House who couldn’t lead a gold fish inside a bowl. But we’ll see.

  2. David B. Williams says:

    Worst? Do you really want Bush to hold the honor of first place on any list? What about Andrew Johnson?

  3. James Davis Nicoll says:

    James Buchanon has to rate worse than Bush; he let the US fall apart on his watch. Every other President to date, even Baby Bush, can say “Well, at least I didn’t hand the next guy a Civil War like James Buchanon did.”

    He was also the genius responsible for the Utah War.

  4. Robert Nowall says:

    I kinda figured our comments might zero in on that one comment. I could dispute it—I do, in fact—or talk at length about the deficiencies of several other occupants of the Presidency.

    I have a better idea. We’ve seen your pick for “worst President ever.” How about “best President ever”? Don’t forget to justify it, with examples…

    Also, despite the comment, I enjoyed the commentary on Arthur C. Clarke…