"No less a critic than C. S. Lewis has described the ravenous addiction that these magazines inspired; the same phenomenon has led me to call science fiction the only genuine consciousness-expanding drug." Arthur C. Clarke

My Top Asimov Stories #1: “The Last Question”

My favorite short story of all time is Asimov’s “The Last Question.”  It’s scale, both in space and time, is very extensive for a short story, and it is very plot-based, not centered around a particular human character but around the computer Multivac, a recurring “character” in Asimov’s stories set in the Robot Era.  “The Last Question” was published in the November 1956 edition of Science Fiction Quarterly and has been anthologized many times.

The story follows a series of characters, each who by one circumstance or another end up asking Multivac how the total entropy (or heat death, or “running-down”) of the universe can be reversed.  However, each time, despite the vast resources and power of the computer, it cannot come up with an answer and each human character is disappointed.

As the story progresses, we see the evolution of both Man and Multivac.  The computer begins as an extensive machine, occupying multiple buildings much like the computers which were being developed when the story was written.  Soon, however, Multivac becomes both smaller and farther-reaching, until it has become the central control of everything for humanity.  Humanity, to the same effect, expands it’s control over countless millions of planets and multiplies to the trillions of trillions.  Their evolution parallels each other, Multivac moving entirely into hyperspace (without physical parts) and humanity separating themselves from their physical bodies, becoming only consciousnesses.  In the final stages of this evolution, all the consciousnesses of humanity combine into one to become Man, and ask the entropy question one last time.  But the all-knowing Multivac still can’t answer, and as the universe dies Man merges with Multivac and disappears.  But Multivac continues to ponder the answer, outside of the limitations of space and time, and eventually comes up with the answer, and I’ll let you read the solution.

Part of what makes this story incredible, once again, is the scale at which “The Last Question” operates, at which most novels would not attempt.  In one short story Asimov has traipsed through the entire future evolution of Man to it’s pinnacle and come back, and as usual, makes the reader think about life and the Universe in general.

Asimov consistently said that this story was his favorite, and I certainly agree with him.  Normally I would not do this (because I want you to go buy the works) but this may or may not be the full text.

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