The Last Question
"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 Best Science Fiction of Isaac Asimov (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.
|"The Last Question"|
|Media type||Print (Magazine, Hardback & Paperback)|
|Publication date||November 1956|
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 the story was his best science fiction yet written.[a] He placed it just higher than "The Ugly Little Boy" (September 1958) and "The Bicentennial Man" (1976).
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 story deals with the development of a series of computers, Multivac, and its relationships with humanity through the courses of seven historical settings, beginning on the day in 2061 that Earth becomes a planetary civilization. In each of the first six scenes, a different character presents the computer with the same question, how the threat to human existence posed by the heat death of the universe can be averted: "How can the net amount of entropy of the universe be massively decreased?" That 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 era, someone decides to ask the ultimate "last question" regarding the reversal and decrease of entropy. Each time that Multivac's descendant is asked the question, it finds itself unable to solve the problem, and all it can answer is (linguistically increasingly-sophisticated) "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 who have spread throughout the universe, watches the stars flicker out, one by one, as matter and energy end, and with them, space and time. Humanity asks AC, Multivac's ultimate descendant that 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. AC ultimately realizes that it has not yet combined all of its available data in every possible combination and so begins the arduous process of rearranging and combining every last bit of information that it has gained throughout the eons and through its fusion with humanity. Eventually AC discovers the answer—that the reversal of entropy is, in fact, possible—but has nobody to report it to, since 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 was adapted for the Gates Planetarium at the Denver Museum of Natural History in 1973 under the direction of Mark B. Peterson
It subsequently played, as well, at the:
- Fels Planetarium of the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia in 1973
- Planetarium of the Reading School District in Reading, Pennsylvania in 1974
- Buhl Planetarium, Pittsburgh in 1974
- Vanderbilt Planetarium in Centerport New York, in 1978, read by singer-songwriter and Long Island resident Harry Chapin.
- 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.
- Gates Planetarium in Denver, Colorado (in early 2020)
- In the beginning of reading the story (Science Fiction Favorites) Asimov says:
The next story is just about my favorite story of all the stories I have ever written. They've made it into a planetarium version and I've seen it three different times at three different planetaria and I never get tired of it. It was one of those stories that I sat down and wrote in just one sitting as fast as I could type. Everything broke smoothly and that in itself is enough to endear a story to a writer. Anyway here it is ...
- At the end of reading the story (Science Fiction Favorites) Asimov says:
Now that story was written in 1956, and you'll notice perhaps that in describing the end of the universe I make no mention of black holes. In 1956 astronomers weren't talking of black holes. If I were to write the story now you can bet I say an awful lot about black holes. And that shows how science fiction manages to lag behind science.
- "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 (1973). "Introduction". The Best of Isaac Asimov. Sphere Books. pp. ix–xiv. ISBN 0-385-05078-X. LCCN 74-2863.
- Asimov, Isaac (November 1956). "The Last Question". Science Fiction Quarterly.
- "Asimov, Isaac, 1920-1992 - Social Networks and Archival Context". snaccooperative.org. Retrieved 2021-07-25.
- "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.
- Oles, Paul (July 18, 1974). "The Pittsburgh Press". Viewing the Stars. The Pittsburgh Press. p. 17.
- "ON THE ISLE". The New York Times. 1978-07-09. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2017-02-06.
- "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.
- Gates Museum website