Short Story Sunday: ‘The Last Question’ by Issac Asimov

So after many years sitting on my ‘to read’ list I finally picked up some Issac Asimov in the form of his short story ‘The Last Question.’

Warning: here be spoilers

Insufficient Data for a Meaningful answer

So this was my first direct exposure to Issac Asimov. I watched some films like i robot and I’ve read loads of stuff that reference him and that was inspired by him but this was the firs thing I’ve read that was penned by the man himself and it was AWESOME!

The story is structured as a series of scenes, spaced thousands and thousands of years apart and always dealing with different characters. In each scene the characters decide to ask a computer the ultimate question: “How can the net amount of entropy of the universe be massively decreased.” They are concerned that, despite the fact all of their society runs on solar power, the sun will eventually expire and humanity will face crisis. The computer returns with the wonderfully dismissive response “Insuficient data for a meaningful answer.”

The following scenes are set millennia apart and we get to see humanity evolve and spread amongst the stars and technology surpassing the minds that made it. The breadth of his imagination is incredible. In every scene a character asks this question and receives the same answer.

Until the last scene.

Here’s a second spoiler tag for those bold people who ignored the first

SPOILERS

ready?

Humanity progresses and technology along with it so that the original computer is this massive intelligence that largely exists only in hyperspace. Over the course of trillions of years, man populates all galaxies, discovers the secret to immortality and eventually evolves beyond the need for physical forms and fuses together to form one great consciousness and finally it’s just the computer left who finally has the answer and reboots the universe with another big bang and the phrase “Let there be light.”

The computer has become God, created by man in his own image to answer his fears about death and decay. Mankind consumes, spreads out, takes over the universe, completely altering the face of it. Though the story never mentions it one can picture all the colonised peoples and destruction that’s caused in the wake of this expansion. The computer is there to babysit and bail out humanity though, to give it a second chance.

The stories is a series of conversations, and while we never get too close to any one character we get to see that all across society and time, from young children to mates bunking off work, everyone is concerned with death, whether it be their own or the eventual extinction of the race. The abundance of dialogue also makes it very easy and quick to read. The breadth of imagination and economy of language required to tell such a vast tale in 4,000 words is incredible. There are some complaints about the science in this story and the presentation of population dynamic. However, it’s difficult to linger on them as the story barrels along.

The problem with such an old, influential story is that many people either already know the answer or can guess at it because they’ve seen so many things that were inspired by that. It’s lost some of the impact that it might originally have had. It’s still worth a read, quite short, you can see Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett were hugely influenced by this story as well as many other writers.

Definitely check it out, you can read it here

Notable lines: Insufficient data for a meaningful answer

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