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The Last Question by Isaac Asimov

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“The Last Question” is a 1956 science fiction short story by Isaac Asimov. It is about a super computer that is asked a question about the end of the universe – and the very, very long time it takes to come up with an answer.

Non-Spoiler Summary In A Nutshell:
EniacMultivac is a advanced computer that solves many of the world’s problems. The story opens on May 14, 2061 when Multivac has built a space station to harness the power of the sun – effectively giving humans access to a nearly unlimited source of power. Ah – and that’s the key, it is nearly unlimited. In fact two of Multivac’s technicians argue about this very idea – how long will humankind be able to glean energy from the universe? They decide to ask Multivac for the answer, and all it can say is “INSUFFICIENT DATA FOR MEANINGFUL ANSWER.” Oh well, it was a good idea, and through several smaller stories we see that many more people ask Multivac the same question. Multivac has a difficult time answering – it is a hard question after all! But when do we (and Multivac) finally learn the answer? As you’ve probably guessed – not until the very end of the story.

“You ask Multivac. I dare you. Five dollars says it can’t be done.”

“Adell was just drunk enough to try, just sober enough to be able to phrase the necessary symbols and operations into a question which, in words, might have corresponded to this: Will mankind one day without the net expenditure of energy be able to restore the sun to its full youthfulness even after it had died of old age?

Or maybe it could be put more simply like this: How can the net amount of entropy of the universe be massively decreased?

Multivac fell dead and silent. The slow flashing of lights ceased, the distant sounds of clicking relays ended.

Then, just as the frightened technicians felt they could hold their breath no longer, there was a sudden springing to life of the teletype attached to that portion of Multivac. Five words were printed: INSUFFICIENT DATA FOR MEANINGFUL ANSWER.

My Two Cents:
I am a huge Isaac Asimov fan so that affected how much I liked this story. If you too are an Asimov fan then you will probably enjoy this story. It is written in classic Asimov style: lots of dialog, with few details and it tackles a very interesting question.

• The good:

  • A classic Asimov short story from the Golden Age of science fiction!
  • It is broken up into seven tiny stories about people who eventually ask Multivac the same question – this makes the story really easy to read.
  • Personally I loved seeing Asimov’s predictions of the future of computing – we still have huge room sized mainframes in the year 2061! Woo hoo!

• The bad:

  • This is a thinking story – there is not much (if any) action in it.
  • It consists almost entirely of dialog – just lots of people speculating about the end of the universe.
  • It was written in 1956 so there are some quaint notions of computing – like the “future” computer that still prints out answers on a teletype! Ha!

Fact Sheet:
• Page count: 12
• Word count: 4,434

“The Last Question” garnered the following awards:

  • It was ranked 15th on the 1971 Astounding/Analog All-Time Poll for short fiction
  • It was also ranked 15th on the 1999 Locus All-Time Poll for short story

Where you can find “The Last Question”:

  • This short story first appeared in the November 1956 issue of Science Fiction Quarterly.
  • It is included in the book Isaac Asimov: The Complete Stories, Vol. 1 – a collection which includes several of Asimov’s most famous short stories. (You can learn more about this book at Amazon.com , or search for it on eBay.)
  • You can read a free online version of “The Last Question” here.

Related Yet Still Interesting Links:

  • Asimov himself claimed that “The Last Question” was his favorite short story – and that several people contacted him in his lifetime to ask about it. You can read a nifty post about this at Robotic Revolutions.
  • Did you know that Isaac Asimov wrote nearly 500 books in his lifetime? Yep. You can learn more about this amazing writer at Asimov Online.

Craving More Stories?
If you enjoyed this story then you’ll probably like Ancient Engines by Michael Swanwick – the Hugo nominated short story about what it would take to build a robot that could last forever.

5 thoughts to “The Last Question by Isaac Asimov”

  1. Yes – among the best sf stories out there.

    And I don’t think you need a taste for Asimov for this – he wrote a lot of forgettable stories, given his massive output. But this one is among his most interesting.

  2. Good point Tinkoo,

    It seems that most people I know either love Asimov’s writings or hate them – there are very few on the fence. However, this is a great short story with universal appeal.

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