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From the Files of the River Journal's Surrealist Research Bureau

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Fermat's last theorem and the mystery of Cordwainer Smith

In 1637 the great French mathematical wizard Pierre de Fermat scrawled a brief note in the margin of a book about an enigmatic theorem: “I have discovered a truly miraculous proof of this proposition which this margin is too narrow to contain.” The note wasn’t found until after his death, but it set off a 350-year odyssey for what’s been called the “Holy Grail” of mathematics.

A “proof” of Fermat’s theorem was finally published in 1994, 150 unwieldy pages long, using supercomputers and cutting edge quantum and chaos physics, winning numerous prizes and awards but ultimately satisfying few. For most students of Fermat’s Lost Theorem, the search continues.

That’s the premise of the last book written by sci-fi great Arthur C. Clarke before his death this year (co-authored by Fred Pohl). A young mathematician from India must race to solve Fermat’s Theorem before an alien space fleet arrives whose mission is to exterminate war-making humanity before they spread their war-contagion out among the stars.

I met Fred Pohl, Clarke’s co-author, nearly 40 years ago after a talk he gave at my college. I’d heard of him, vaguely, as a sci-fi writer but I’d attended his talk solely to ask him about his relationship with the mysterious Cordwainer Smith.

Now, Smith had burst upon the sci-fi scene with the short story “Scanners Live in Vain” in the short-lived magazine Fantasy Book and Fred Pohl, like most of the sci-fi notables of the time, quickly recognized a major new voice had arrived. Though the name, obviously a pseudonym, gave no clues to his identity, speculation was rife, for pen names were commonplace in that era. Many authors were considered, among them Robert  Heinlein, A.E. van Vogt, and Ted Sturgeon. Pohl was dismayed to find that Forest J. Ackerman (Famous Monsters of Hollywood) had signed the permission slip allowing the story to be published and there the trail seemed to end.

Fred Pohl later became editor of Galaxy Magazine and bought up every Cordwainer Smith story he could find, including the wondrously evocative titles, “The Dead Lady of Clown Town,” “The Ballad of Lost C’mell,” and “Alpha Ralpha Boulevard,” stories of mile-high abandoned freeways, cat-people and laminated-mouse-brain robots. It was Pohl, I discovered, who gave these stories their dream-laden titles; Smith had simply sent them in untitled or as “Story # 17.” One day Pohl received a phone call out of the blue. “Mr. Pohl, I’m Prof. Paul Linebarger…,” No response. “I write under the name of Cordwainer Smith.”

Paul turned out to be a James Bond-type government expert on China and the Middle East who’d once been the subject of yet another pseudonym. In the book of psychiatric case histories by Dr. Robert Lindner there’s a chapter called “The jet-propelled couch” in which the doctor agrees to treat a government scientist who’s become lost in the science-fiction world he’s created. It’s a good read if you can locate a copy. Another one of his case studies was titled “Rebel Without a Cause” and was the basis for the film of the same name.

I like it when things come together, Arthur C. Clarke’s last work, together with Fred Pohl, “The Last Theorem” (Ballantine Books, 2008, $27) is a good read so far (I’m only halfway through it) and I recall Clarke with fondness. His story “The Sentinel” was the basis for one of my favorite movies, “2001: A Space Odyssey” and stories like “The Nine Billion Names of God” were akin to spiritual journeys in their own right. Still, I have no hesitation in saying that no one wrote quite like Cordwainer Smith, who died of a stroke in 1966 at the bitterly unfair age of 53. Pohl once told me that there are still secrets to be found in Smith’s works, that somewhere in the files of the manuscript collection of Syracuse University there is, or ought to be, an annotated copy of some of his manuscripts with de-coding instructions.

This is a game, he said, many writers sometimes play. Its sometimes fun, but Smith’s work is far more complicated. His concerns went beyond life and contemporary politics, maybe beyond human experience entirely. Religion. Metaphysics. Ultimate Meaning and the Search for Truth. They aren’t about the future of human beings like us; they are about what comes after human beings like us!

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Jody Forest Jody Forest When he's not hidden behind the palatial gates of his Dover estate, Casa de Bozo, Jody is out using outdated and corny pickup lines on various gullible women.

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