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 American writer Isaac Asimov. It first appeared in the November 1956 issue of Science Fiction Quarterly and was anthologized 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 (1990). 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. The story overlaps science fiction, theology, and philosophy.
In conceiving Multivac, Asimov was extrapolating the trend towards centralization that characterized computation technology planning in the 1950s to an ultimate centrally managed global computer. After seeing a planetarium adaptation of his work, Asimov "privately" concluded that this story was his best science fiction yet written; he placed it just higher than "The Ugly Little Boy" (September 1958) and "The Bicentennial Man" (1976). "The Last Question" ranks with "Nightfall" (1941) as one of Asimov's best-known and most acclaimed short stories.
The story deals with the development of universe-scale 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 later 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 matter and energy ends, and with it, space and time. 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 the last of 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 answer by demonstration. The story ends with AC's pronouncement,
- Planetarium shows
- "The Last Question" 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 (1980).
- It was adapted for the Strasenburgh Planetarium in Rochester, New York (in 1969), under the direction of Ian C. McLennan.
- It was adapted for the Edmonton Space Sciences Centre in Edmonton, Alberta (early 1970s), under the direction of John Hault.
It subsequently played, as well, at the:
- Hayden Planetarium in New York City[when?]
- Boston Museum of Science in Massachusetts[when?]
- Fels Planetarium of the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia in 1973
- Planetarium of the Reading School District in Reading, Pennsylvania in 1974
- Hansen Planetarium in Salt Lake City, Utah (in 1980 and 1989)
- Morrison Planetarium in San Francisco, California (in the early 1980s)[when?]
- A reading of the story was played on BBC Radio 7 in 2008 and 2009.
- The 1974 film parody Dark Star ends with the sentient "Thermostellar Bomb #20" proclaiming — after prolonged philosophical brainstorming — "Let there be light!" and then detonating, killing most of the story's characters.
- Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything
- Cyclic model
- Heat death of the universe
- Omega Point
- Shaggy God story
- Technological singularity
- The Best of Isaac Asimov
- "The Last Answer"
- "FAQ". AsimovOnline.com. Retrieved January 2, 2010.
- Asimov, Isaac (1994). I, Asimov: A Memoir. United States: Bantam. p. 250. ISBN 055356997X.
- I. Asimov: A Memoir pp. 250-251
- Asimov, I. In Joy Still Felt Avon (1980) pp. 601-602
- Asimov, Isaac (November 1956). "The Last Question". Science Fiction Quarterly.
- "Untitled briefs". The Philadelphia Inquirer. 2 September 1973. Retrieved 27 September 2016.
- Walsh, John F. (30 June 1974). "`The Last Question' appeals to viewers at planetarium". Reading Eagle. Retrieved 27 September 2016.
- "Planetarium presents 'The Last Question'". Deseret News. January 28, 1980. Retrieved 23 September 2013.
- "Planetarium asks sci-fi `star' to update tale". Deseret News. May 30, 1989. Retrieved 26 September 2016.
- "BBC Radio 7 - Isaac Asimov - The Last Question". Retrieved 14 Aug 2015.