“The Last Question,” a short story by Isaac Asimov, starts in the month of May of year 2061. A conversation occurs between two men, Alexander Adell and Bertram Lupov, both attendants of the Multivac. Multivac is a giant computer that can perform extremely complex computations beyond any human’s capability. It is “self-adjusting and self-correcting” in an almost sentient manner, and has helped mankind reach the Moon, Mars, and Venus. When Earth’s energy resources begin decreasing, Multivac comes up with a solution using the energy of the sun, allowing for the entirety of the Earth to be run on sunpower.
The two men, Adell and Lupov, drink and discuss entropy and what will happen when the Sun runs out of energy. They decide to ask Multivac, but it ominously answers with “INSUFFICIENT DATA FOR MEANINGFUL ANSWER.”
In the future, a family of four consisting of husband and wife Jerrodd and Jerrodine and daughters Jerrodette I and II have migrated via spaceship from Earth to planet X-23. They too wonder about humanity’s increasing consumption of more and more resources, more planets, more stars. The daughters panic about the stars running down, and to console them, Jerrodd asks Microvac (Multivac’s descendent, now small enough to fit in half the volume of a ship) how to turn the stars back on, to which Microvac replies “INSUFFICIENT DATA FOR A MEANINGFUL ANSWER.”
Many more years in the future, VJ-23X of Lameth and MQ-17J converse about space in the Galaxy being filled up. Humans are now “perfectly formed” and immortal due to the Galactic AC’s help. Humans still face the issue of entropy and increasingly decreasing resources as sunpower units are consumed. They decide to ask the Galactic AC, which can now be contacted through a compact cube-shaped device. Once again, the Galactic AC replies, “THERE IS INSUFFICIENT DATA FOR A MEANINGFUL ANSWER.”
In another time skip to the future, Zee Prime and Dee Sub Wun discuss again the matter of entropy, deciding to ask the Universal AC. Humanity has now explored the Universe and spread to many Galaxies, and the Universal AC now exists in hyperspace, separate from time and space. Universal AC, surprise surprise, answers, “THERE IS AS YET INSUFFICIENT DATA FOR A MEANINGFUL ANSWER.”
Further down the line, mankind’s minds have melded into one mind form, Man, the individual bodies of Man cared for by automatons. Man contemplates the dying Universe and the shells of dead stars (white dwarfs), and Man asks the Cosmic AC if entropy can be reversed. The Cosmic AC doesn’t have an answer yet, so Man tells it to collect data until it can answer, which the collective Man will wait for.
Finally, the stars and galaxies die, and the last mind of Man fuses with AC in hyperspace, becoming almost divine. AC continues on, musing of how ten trillion years ago a half-drunken technician had asked AC’s much cruder predecessor about entropy. AC reaches an answer and organizes a program to reverse entropy. After doing so, it says, “LET THERE BE LIGHT.”
The chronic tension is humanity’s tendency to consume and grow beyond its means.
The acute tension is AC collecting data to answer the last question while the Universe succumbs slowly to entropy.
What’s compelling about the “The Last Question” is its appeal to the human condition through changing characters’ points of view, and what these characters add to the story. Different points of view are difficult enough to write into stories, let alone into one where characters never show up again after their section is over. Yet Asimov accomplishes this feat with both grace and clinical precision.
His characters are flat. They are static. They are nondescript, and the most you really get of their physical appearances is when VJ-23X and MQ-17J are described as “tall and perfectly formed.”
As writers, we’re told to almost never write perfect characters like this. We’re to avoid characters that feel no emotion or that look as perfect as VJ-23X because they’re boring. It’s hard because characters are the heart of a story, right?
Asimov is fearless, however, in putting half a dozen faceless, basically nameless characters (seriously, Jerrodd and Jerrodine?) into this work. He knows that they aren’t the stars of the show, instead acting as almost caricatures of humanity as it travels down the timeline until “matter and energy had ended…and with it, space and time.”
“Perfect” characters like Harrison Bergeron in stories like, you guessed it, “Harrison Bergeron” work because behind that perfection are flaws. Humanity grows beyond its limits; it consumes in its path of self-improvement. As readers, we get that message through the progression of each section leading up to that penultimate manifestation of mankind as Man–wiser, unified, but ultimately ephemeral in comparison to AC, the omniscient machine, the divine. It ties together so beautifully, how each byte-sized character is a stepping stone to the main character of Man–not Zee Prime, not VJ-23X, not even Jerrodd and his progeny, or Alexander and Bertram sitting beside each other sipping highballers, but Man.
Another craft technique is how Asimov includes a repeating line, almost a refrain, that changes slightly in every section. “INSUFFICIENT DATA FOR MEANINGFUL ANSWER” becomes more human in every iteration until it becomes “THERE IS AS YET INSUFFICIENT DATA FOR A MEANINGFUL ANSWER.” Verbs and articles are slowly and subtly added. In one of the last sections, AC has an actual conversation with Man instead of a question and answer. These slight changes give variety to an otherwise predictable pattern, and they hook the reader into wanting to know what changes next.
- Why do you think Asimov wrote this story, and how do you think the publishing date of 1956 affects the story’s meaning?
- Composed in snippets with static and flat characters, how does this story work when there are so few moments you can really connect with these characters?
- Isaac Asimov was a biochemist but also one of the best writers of the 20th century. Do the philosophical nature and intent of “The Last Question” take away from its ability as a piece of writing to entertain? Is this what distinguishes literary fiction from genre fiction, and where does that line blur when genre writing becomes “meaningful” enough to warrant a place in literary fiction anthologies?