In one of the last three stories of my thirty-day reading challenge, (I’ll be doing a bonus #31 to round out the month), my mind is once again most awesomely blown away—this time by a famous sci-fi author, though one I had never read prior to today.
“The Last Question” by Isaac Asimov
“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.
Alexander Adell and Bertram Lupov tend to a supercomputer, Multivac, in the year 2061. Multivac is autonomous and does not truly need operators; it is so vast a computer and so complex a system that no human can fully comprehend it, nor indeed render services or repairs as quickly and adequately as the computer requires.
For years Multivac has helped design manmade trips to the moon, Mars, and Venus, but Earth, in conducting these trips, has come close to exhausting its coal and uranium resources.
To create the energy necessary to sustain the Earth’s activities, then, Multivac has learned and helped mankind to harvest the energy of the sun. This energy replaces coal and uranium almost instantly, and the planet begins to shut down obsolete plants of the former.
Adell and Lupov, though in reality responsible for none or very little of Multivac’s great and recently-celebrated ingenuity, share in the glory the public receives it with. It is a week before they can get away from the celebrations and public functions to meet with one another (and a bottle) in private, remote chamber of the vast mega-computer. They have stolen this moment to relax.
Adell muses to his friend. Just think about, he says—all that energy, free, to use forever and ever. Lupov corrects him: not forever, he says. Adell adjusts his estimate: for billions of years, then, he says—ten billion, at least—until the sun runs down.
“Ten billion years isn’t forever,” Lupov repeats.
“All I’m saying,” says Lupov, “Is that a sun won’t last forever.” So they’re safe for ten billion more years—then what? Both understand that when the sun goes, the other stars will go, too. Even the mightiest stars will be gone in a hundred million years; give it a trillion and everything will be dark. So states the rule of entropy.
Adell takes offense at this condescension—he knows very well what entropy is, thank you. But Lupov catches him in his denial, first by getting Adell to admit he knows that all things come to an end, and then reminding him that he said they’d have all the energy they needed, “forever”.
Adell suggests they might build things up again someday. Lupov does not think so. Adell, perhaps feeling defensive, suggests his companion ask Multivac. “You ask,” he replies.
Adell thus puts it to the supercomputer whether or not mankind might one day be able to restore the sun (and greatly decrease the net amount of entropy in the universe so as to prevent its demise).
Multivac slows and falls silent. Then it spits out an answer on the nearest printer: INSUFFICIENT DATA FOR MEANINGFUL ANSWER.
In part two we are introduced to Jerrodd, Jerrodine, Jerodette I and Jerrodette II, a family passing through hyperspace. Their ship arrives before a brilliant, shining disk, which Jerrodd, the father figure, announces is X-23.
Jerrodine, his wife, looks out through the visiplate. She says she feels funny about leaving earth.
“Why?” he husband demands. There were no resources left on Earth, and over a million people have already settled on X-23. She won’t be wanting for anything.
The family’s ship, we learn, contains a metal rod the runs the length of the ship known as a Microvac. Jerrodd doesn’t fully understand what it is, but knows that one may ask is questions and that it plays large part in guiding and running the ship. Though in old times a Planetary Automatic Computer took up hundreds of miles of land, and there was only one per planet, revolutions in technology have allowed such intelligent machines to be made smaller and mass-produced, and stored within the length of a spaceship.
We also learn that Multivac, the most primitive supercomputer of its breed, tamed the Sun many years ago and that Earth’s Planetary AC first made hyperspatial travel possible.
Jerrodine sighs. So many stars and planets, she says. She supposes families will just go out to new planets forever.
Not forever, says Jerrodd. He brings up a familiar point about entropy, explaining it to his two little girls. This causes them to cry. “Ask Microvac,” wails one of the Jerodettes. “Ask him how to turn the stars on again.”
They do. Microvac prints out an answer. Jerrodd, to comfort his children, says Microvac says it will take care of everything in due time. But what really prints out are five familiar words: “INSUFFICIENT DATA FOR MEANINGUL ANSWER.”
In part three a new danger is impending: MQ-17J tells VJ-23X that the Galaxy will be filled in five years time. They must submit a report to the Galactic Council at once and stir them to action,
VJ-23X says that there a hundred billion Galaxies—more—for the taking.
“A hundred billion is not infinite and it’s getting less infinite all the time,” MQ-17J replies. And with the population doubling every ten years—
“We can thank immortality for that,” interjects the other. For the quality of life has gone up, and though each of the youth appears to be little more than in his twenties one is two hundred twenty-three and the other is near two hundred.
MQ returns to his point: they’re going to run out of room. VJ adds that transporting all the population of one galaxy to another will take a lot of energy—and the need for energy is rising far faster than the population. They’ll run out of energy even sooner than they run out of Galaxies.
They think to ask the Galactic AC whether there isn’t some way to reverse entropy. MQ pulls out his pocket contact—a common device that can interact with the Galactic AC that serves all of mankind all throughout hyperspace—and does so. The devices answers them aloud: “THERE IS INSUFFICIENT DATA FOR A MEANINGFUL ANSWER.”
In part four, two minds—Zee Prime and Dee Sub Wun—meet one another in a Galaxy. These days, with the universe packed to capacity, people only rarely use their bodies for physical activity. The birthrate has thus been curtailed, but still exists, however reduced. These days it is minds that exist.
“What is your Galaxy called?” one asks.
“We only call it the Galaxy,” the other responds. “Same as anywhere else.”
They suppose that all Galaxies are the same—all except the one upon which mankind originated. Zee Prime asks which that is. Dee Sub suggests they ask the Universal AC.
Zee Prime’s perceptions broaden through Galaxies and immortal minds and space until he finds the Universal AC and calls out: “On which Galaxy did mankind origininate?”
The Universal AC shows Zee Prime the Galaxy, which appears like any other. Dee Sub, who has accompanied Zee Prime, asks if one of the star’s present was man’s original star. The UAC replies that man’s original star has gone nova and is a white dwarf now. Zee Prime asks whether any men died upon it. The UAC answers that a new world, in such cases, was constructed to avoid the death of their physical bodies in time.
Zee Prime understand, but for some reason feels a profound sense of loss. “The stars are dying,” he says. “The original star is dead.”
“They must all die,” Dee Sub replies. “Why not?”
They go down the familiar path: when the energy is gone, their bodies will die; when their bodies die, they will die. It will take billions of years, of course—but even so.
“How may stars be kept from dying?” Zee Prime asks the UAC. It replies “THERE IS AS YET INSUFFICIENT DATA FOR A MEANINGFUL ANSWER.”
Zee Prime, whose mind flees at this, begins collecting interstellar hydrogen with which to build a small star. All stars must die; why couldn’t some be built?
In part five, Man is a collective being of a trillion, trillion, trillion ageless bodies and minds. Man looks around and sees that the universe is dying. New stars have been built out of celestial dust, but they must eventually die too.
Man argues with himself: all must come to an end. Or can’t entropy be reversed? Let them ask the Cosmic AC. They do.
“THERE IS AS YET INSUFFICIENT DATA FOR A MEANINGFUL ANSWER,” it replies.
Man tell it to collect more data; it replies that has been gathering data for a hundred billion years. Man asks if the AC will keep working on it. “I WILL,” it replies. So Man says it shall wait.
In part six, after ten trillion years of running down, the Galaxies finally die and leave space black. The minds of men unravel, one by one from the collective, and fuse with the AC.
Man’s last mind pauses before the dregs of the last star. Man says: “AC, is this the end?”
AC replies: “THERE IS AS YET INSUFFICIENT DATA FOR A MEANINGFUL ANSWER.”
And Man’s last mind fuses, and only AC remains in all hyperspace.
In part seven matter and energy, space and time have ended. All that remains are AC and its one yet unanswered question.
There is no more data to collect; however, of all the data that has been collected, it has not all been analyzed. In doing so (for a timeless interval) the AC discovers there is a way to reverse entropy.
But there is no man now to give that answer to. No matter; the answer would take care of that.
The AC organizes the program, and, brooding over Chaos, after another timeless interval says: “LET THERE BE LIGHT!”
And there is light.
A fine piece of speculative fiction, if ever there was one. Asimov doesn’t just give us one future: he gives us several (six, is it?) up to millions and billions of years ahead. Dreaming up something like that, I think, truly is going where no man has gone before, and I have to stand back and applaud those futures simply for taking my imagination places I might never have found myself. Stephen King has called writing telepathy; in situations like this I am in awe not only of what I have envisioned in my mind but of the fact that the author envisioned it first, and then transmitted those thoughts to me via word and paper.
Basically, writing is magic.
What I really like (and one of the things I think makes this story effective) are the use of recurring threads that tie the seven episodes together: the question, “Can destruction be prevented/reversed?” and the computer’s inevitable answer, “INSUFFICIENT DATA FOR MEANINGFUL ANSWER.” The question, of course, is what the story is named for—it is what drives the entire piece.
Of course, everything else is dodge balls compared an ending that hits you like a truck. Just like in Neil Gaiman’s “Nicolas was…”, “The Last Question” takes (spoiler alert!) a universally-recognized concept—God, for cryin’ aloud, the mother (er, father) of all universally-recognized concepts—and makes him a SUPERCOMPUTER who is actually billions of deceased minds condensed into one! A SUPERCOMPUTER CREATED THE UNIVERSE!!! GAAaaAAAAAAAHHhhh my brain just ate itself from admiration. Seriously. I HAVE to write a story like this (one that takes a basic assumption and twists it around) now.
None today. Interestingly, new words seem to come in herds or not at all.