The Last Question
|"The Last Question"|
|Genre(s)||Science fiction short story|
|Media type||Print (Magazine, Hardback & Paperback)|
|Publication date||November 1956|
"The Last Question" is a science fiction short story by Isaac Asimov. It first appeared in the November 1956 issue of Science Fiction Quarterly and was reprinted in the collections Nine Tomorrows (1959), The Best of Isaac Asimov (1973), Robot Dreams (1986), the retrospective Opus 100 (1969), and in Isaac Asimov: The Complete Stories, Vol. 1. It was Asimov's favorite short story of his own authorship, and is one of a loosely connected series of stories concerning a fictional computer called Multivac.
In conceiving Multivac, Asimov was extrapolating the trend towards centralization that characterised computation technology planning in the 1950s to an ultimate centrally managed global computer. After seeing a planetarium adaptation, Asimov "privately" concluded that this story was his best science fiction yet written; he placed it just higher than "The Ugly Little Boy" and "The Bicentennial Man". "The Last Question" ranks with "Nightfall" and other stories as one of Asimov's best-known and most acclaimed short stories.
The story was first adapted for the Abrams Planetarium at Michigan State University in 1966 featuring the voice of Leonard Nimoy, as Asimov wrote in his autobiography In Joy Still Felt. It was adapted for the Strasenburgh Planetarium in Rochester, New York in 1969, under the direction of Ian C. McLennan. It played at the Hayden Planetarium in the Boston Museum of Science and in the historic Fels Planetarium of the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia in the 1970s. The show also appeared at the Morrison Planetarium in San Francisco, California in the early 1980s.
A reading of the story can also be periodically heard on BBC Radio 4 Extra in the United Kingdom.
Asimov wrote of it in 1973:
- Why is it my favorite? For one thing I got the idea all at once and didn't have to fiddle with it; and I wrote it in white-heat and scarcely had to change a word. This sort of thing endears any story to any writer.
- Then, too, it has had the strangest effect on my readers. Frequently someone writes to ask me if I can give them the name of a story, which they think I may have written, and tell them where to find it. They don't remember the title but when they describe the story it is invariably "The Last Question". This has reached the point where I recently received a long-distance phone call from a desperate man who began, 'Dr. Asimov, there's a story I think you wrote, whose title I can't remember – ' at which point I interrupted to tell him it was "The Last Question" and when I described the plot it proved to be indeed the story he was after. I left him convinced I could read minds at a distance of a thousand miles.
The last question was asked for the first time, half in jest, on May 21, 2061, at a time when humanity first stepped into the light. The question came about as a result of a five dollar bet over highballs, and it happened this way ...—Opening line, The Last Question
The story deals with the development of computers called Multivacs and their relationships with humanity through the courses of seven historic settings, beginning in 2061. In each of the first six scenes a different character presents the computer with the same question; namely, how the threat to human existence posed by the heat death of the universe can be averted. The question was: "How can the net amount of entropy of the universe be massively decreased?" This is equivalent to asking: "Can the workings of the second law of thermodynamics (used in the story as the increase of the entropy of the universe) be reversed?" Multivac's only response after much "thinking" is: "INSUFFICIENT DATA FOR MEANINGFUL ANSWER."
The story jumps forward in time into newer and newer eras of human and scientific development. In each of these eras someone decides to ask the ultimate "last question" regarding the reversal and decrease of entropy. Each time, in each new era, Multivac's descendant is asked this question, and finds itself unable to solve the problem. Each time all it can answer is an (increasingly sophisticated, linguistically): "THERE IS AS YET INSUFFICIENT DATA FOR A MEANINGFUL ANSWER."
In the last scene, the god-like descendant of humanity (the unified mental process of over a trillion, trillion, trillion humans that have spread throughout the universe) watches the stars flicker out, one by one, as the universe finally approaches the state of heat death. Humanity asks AC, Multivac's ultimate descendant, which exists in hyperspace beyond the bounds of gravity or time, the entropy question one last time, before humanity merges with AC and disappears. AC is still unable to answer, but continues to ponder the question even after space and time cease to exist. Eventually AC discovers the answer, but has nobody to report it to; the universe is already dead. It therefore decides to show the answer by demonstrating the reversal of entropy, creating the universe anew. The story ends with AC's pronouncement,
And AC said: "LET THERE BE LIGHT!" And there was light--—Closing line, The Last Question
- Answers from Multivac and its successors
Throughout the story, the answer given changes, albeit slightly, yet refined after each iteration. The first answer was simply five words, "INSUFFICIENT DATA FOR MEANINGFUL ANSWER".
When Jerrodd, Jerrodine, and Jerrodette 1 and 2 asked in the second section, the answer refined to "INSUFFICIENT DATA FOR A MEANINGFUL ANSWER.", increasing to 6 words.
VJ-23X and MQ-17J contemplating the similar, the Galactic AC stated: "THERE IS INSUFFICIENT DATA FOR A MEANINGFUL ANSWER", totaling to 8 words.
With Zee Prime and Dee Sub Wun asking the same, the response was "THERE IS AS YET INSUFFICIENT DATA FOR A MEANINGFUL ANSWER.", expanding to 10 words.
Humans asked as separate beings, and again as an entire consciousness, and were given the same response of "THERE IS AS YET INSUFFICIENT DATA FOR A MEANINGFUL ANSWER." The question asked by the collective consciousness is followed by a conversation between it and the AC about the history of the question and further perspectives. The last time it was asked, it was the last question it needed to answer, and thus, the AC spent its remainder of time solving the question.
- Technological singularity
- Omega Point
- Cyclic model
- "The Last Answer"
- Heat death of the universe
- The Best of Isaac Asimov
- http://www.asimovonline.com/asimov_FAQ.html#literary5, retrieved 2 January 2010.
- Asimov, Isaac. The Last Question. Science Fiction Quarterly. November 1956