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. -Isaac Asimov, 1973
Asimov listed The Last Question as his favorite story, out of the many that he wrote. It was first published in 1956, and was part of several anthologies, as wikipedia can tell you. There’s a free version available here. The tale begins in the 2061, and extends for untold trillions of years, until past the time that all of the universe, all the stars, everything, has run down to maximum entropy. The scales involved are hard to comprehend – the timescale, the population growth, the exploration of the universe.
###Technology There are four major jumps in technology (all thanks to the AC): clean power, intergalatic travel, immortality, and mind-body separation.
####(Near) Infinite Power: Harnessing the Sun I almost neglected to include this jump, since it occurs just before the start of the story. It is Multivac’s first great victory: a belt of solar panels in orbit around the Earth that mean we will never want for power again. The potential social repercussions are not mentioned; everyone is simply celebrating this new step forward. The Beggars in Spain by Nancy Kress spends more time on the reprecussions of infinte energy; however, the issues in that novel are more about the patents on the tech than the energy itself.
####Intergalactic Travel: Using Hyperspace The next great achievement of the AC is hyperspace travel. This is seen in the scene with the Jerrods and thier Microvac, as they exit hyperspace. Intergalactic travel allows humans to eventually inhabit every planet. They apparently do not encounter any notably intelligent forms of alien life in the course of doing so.
####Immortality: Saving Human Lives In this scenario, humanity does achieve immortality, and eventually manages to grapple with the challenges of the resulting population explosion. This aspect is something transhumansits like Aubrey de Grey would like. Admittedly, this is post-intergallactic-travel, so they have much more space to expand into than we would if we managed immortality in the near future, before hyperspace/etc.
####Mind-Body Separation: Stemming Population Growth While immortality is generally received as a good thing (no one wants to die), people do continue to reproduce. This results is a rapidly growing (doubling every 10 years) population. Luckily, before humanity manages to overrun all the planets, the AC comes up with something new. People can let their minds “fly free” of thier bodies, to wander the universe. Obviously, since their bodies are slumbering back home, the birth rate drops dramatically as people transition to spending all their time in this out-of-body experience.
####Evolution of Human Names The people also have different names in the different time periods – differing not just in the specifics, but in their style. Alexander Adell and Bertram Lupov; Jerrodd, Jerrodine, and Jerrodette I and II; VJ-23X of Lameth and MQ-17J of Nicron; Zee Prime and Dee Sub Wun, each of their own galaxy; and finally the collective minds of Man.
####Evolution of AC Each stage of the story shows us a different form of the AC, with a different name and a different physical representation. The AC (“analog computer”) goes through six different names, one for each time it is asked The Question: Multivac, Microvac, Galactic AC, Universal AC, Cosmic AC, and then, simply, AC.
- As Multivac, it takes up hundreds of square miles of a planet, reaching deep underground; there is one per planet.
- As Microvac, it is many; there is one on each spaceship as it has shrunk to a scale amenable to such as use – it does take up a large portion of the spaceship though.
- As Galatic AC, it serves all mankind through 2-inch-square cubes called “AC-connections”; the full physical form of the Galatic AC is a pulsing planet a thousand feet across.
- As Universal AC, it has sensors everywhere in the universe, listening for humanity’s questions; it is a 2-foot glowing sphere plus some untold, unimaginable hyperspace form.
- As Cosmic AC, it surrrounds the collective consciousness of Man, awaiting his questions; it no longer has a physical form, but instead is purely in hyperspace.
- As AC, at the end, it is all there is, and proceeds to remain thinking and awake only to answer the Question.
####Evolution of the Answer Six askings of the Last Question are shown in the story, as are six answers given by the ACs:
INSUFFICIENT DATA FOR MEANINGFUL ANSWER. INSUFFICIENT DATA FOR A MEANINGFUL ANSWER. THERE IS INSUFFICIENT DATA FOR A MEANINGFUL ANSWER. THERE IS AS YET INSUFFICIENT DATA FOR A MEANINGFUL ANSWER. THERE IS AS YET INSUFFICIENT DATA FOR A MEANINGFUL ANSWER. THERE IS AS YET INSUFFICIENT DATA FOR A MEANINGFUL ANSWER.
I like the progression that these answers have. They get progressively longer, as AC becomes more fluent in human English, rather than the broken, stilted language of error message texts. The first two answers are written; the rest are spoken, although mostly not physically since the humans asking are minds flown free of thier (immortal) physical bodies.
###Loyalty of the AC Through it all, the AC remains a tool for mankind. It does not rebel, does not have emotions or desires of its own. It simply exists to serve humanity, to answer their collective questions. It collects data, designs its successor, engineers new modes of transportation for people and information, and runs all the robots and technology that surrounds and cares for humanity. This is a very positive view of the future; of a future where each computer, each AI, invents its successor, and yet never do they introduce a selfish need for survival or freedom from serving humanity as a tool and care taker.