Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #28 of 107: “The Last Question” by Isaac Asimov

Isaac Asimov was obviously aiming to tell the tallest tall tale he could imagine when he wrote “The Last Question” for the November 1956 issue of Science Fiction Quarterly. And what a whopper! No one has ever claimed to have caught a bigger fish. Hell, “The Last Question” is the most hubric statement ever made about mankind. Asimov was known for his ego, and he assumes our species is just as egotistical. But then, science fiction has never been timid about thinking big.

Asimov claimed “The Last Question” was his favorite story he ever wrote. See this quote I stole from Wikipedia:

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” is stuffed full of science fictional ideas, and has often been dramatically presented at planetarium shows. At the ISFDB.org the story is also listed with quite a number of topic tags for such a short story. Unfortunately, the tag system hasn’t been widely implement yet. I’d love to know all the other SF stories that deal with “reboot” and “heat death of the universe.” I know Tau Zero by Poul Anderson was a reboot story, but it has a different topic tag for that concept – “big crunch.”

“The Last Question” reminds me of an old cartoon. Let’s see how well my memory works. The cartoon showed a giant mainframe computer and two men in lab coats in front of it. One scientist had typed in “Is there a God?” and on the printer the other scientist reads, “There is now.” I’ve always wondered if that cartoon inspired Asimov to write “The Last Question.” I can’t find a copy of that cartoon on the net, but if anyone has a copy please post a link in the comments. On the other hand, the cartoonist may have gotten their idea from the Asimov story.

“The Last Question” is very popular and there’s many audio versions on the net, including this one read by Leonard Nimoy.

In 1956 when this story was written, computers were huge machines that filled large rooms and were only getting bigger. Most people had not seen one, but they were often discussed in pop culture, frequently within jokes. People considered them thinking machines. 1956 was also around the time that artificial intelligence became an academic discipline.

I thought it amusing that Asimov imagines a “Microvac” computer, but even then his micro was quite large. Did science fiction writers ever imagine small personal computers before small personal computers were invented?

Overall, “The Last Question” is a gem of a story, and one that epitomizes the idea story in science fiction. Asimov quickly sketches in a series of characters at every temporal stage of the story, and even though they lack depth of characterization, they capture different stages of humanity that have been imagined before in science fiction. Jerrodd’s family reminds me of the family Stone in Heinlein’s The Rolling Stones. VJ-23X of Lameth was a common futuristic character type in 1930s science fiction, like the kind that Edmond Hamilton, Neil R. Jones, or Raymond Z. Gallun wrote, and Zee Prime recalls what Olaf Stapledon imagined in Last and First Men or Star Maker.

In other words, this is a very science fictional story. And to steal from Aldous Huxley, “The Last Question” reflects the Perennial Philosophy of Science Fiction, which believes humanity will go on no matter what. If our planet dies we’ll find another one. If we lose our star, we’ll build another one. If we outgrow this galaxy, we’ll take over all the rest. If the universe dies, we’ll create another. Nothing is going to stop us. It’s certainly a positive philosophy, but is it a healthy one?

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James Wallace Harris, 10/11/21

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