If you like stories with a twist ending, you’ll like Isaac Asimov’s “The Last Question.” Asimov’s short story first appeared in the November 1956 issue of Science Fiction Quarterly. The recording is 36:34 minutes in duration and the story is narrated by Leonard Nimoy
The story begins with, “The last question was asked for the first time, half in jest, on May 21, 2061, at a time when humanity first stepped into the light.” Two of Multivac’s attendants make a five-dollar bet over highballs.
Multivac was a giant, self-adjusting and self-correcting computer. The men “fed it data, adjusted questions to its needs and translated the answers that were issued.” The computer had, for decades, designed the ships and plotted the trajectories that allowed Man to reach Mars and Venus. But Earth didn’t have enough resources to create the power needed for such trips. Multivac devised a way to use the sun and “all Earth ran by invisible beams of sunpower.”
After seven days of public functions, Multivac’s attendants take a moment of peace with the bottle and the computer. One man expresses his delight that the Earth has free power forever. The second man argues that it’s won’t be forever. Then the first man issues a challenge. “Ask the computer.” So they ask, “How can the net amount of entropy of the universe be massively decreased?”
The computer’s usual clicks and whirs go silent and its flashing lights go dark. Just when the men feared the computer had stopped, it answers. “INSUFFICIENT DATA FOR MEANINGFUL ANSWER.”
By the next day, the two men plagued with hangovers forgot they’d asked.
Years and years later, a family leaves Earth and travels through hyperspace. Microvac guides the ship. A rod of metal as long as the ship, Microvac runs the ship and answers questions asked by the ship’s passengers. The wife is sad to be leaving Earth and her husband tries to comfort her. Their discussion comes around to entropy. He explains to the children what entropy is and that once the stars are gone there’s no more power. This frightens the children so they ask Microvac the question. It answers, “INSUFFICIENT DATA FOR MEANINGFUL ANSWER.”
And so the story goes. Hundreds of years pass and another generation worries about entropy and asks the question. Eventually Man leaves the Galaxy. In time, Man becomes a disembodied being. And after trillions and trillions of years, the stars and Galaxies died. And the last man asks the last question.
Nope. If you haven’t heard the story, I won’t spoil it for you. Read it or better yet, listen to it here.
The Voice Talent
What can I say? Leonard Nimoy narrates this story in a video on YouTube. I love Nimoy’s voice and generally adore his performances. In this story, his narration takes on a bit of monotony. The story is not an intimate one and features this powerful computer, so I understand why he read it in that manner.
I can’t believe it, but Nimoy did not enhance the story for me. Sacrilegious I know.
Born Isaak Yudovich Ozimov in 1920 Russia, his parents brought him to the United States when he was three. His family changed their surname to Asimov around this time.
Raised in Brooklyn, New York, Asimov began reading science fiction pulp magazines in 1929 and became a fan. He began writing stories at 11 years of age. His first published work appeared in Boys High School’s literary journal in 1934. His first published science fiction story, Marooned Off Vesta, appeared in Amazing Stories.
He became a biochemistry professor at Boston University. In the 1970s, he gave up full-time teaching but did occasional lectures.
A prolific writer and editor, Asimov produced about 500 volumes of fiction and nonfiction. He won dozens of awards. You can find his impressive bibliography here.
Asimov’s story, “Nightfall” (1941), his robot stories (beginning in 1940), and his Foundation series (beginning 1951) are his most famous works of fiction. In an introduction he wrote to The Last Question, he called it his favorite of all the stories he wrote.
Asimov died in 1992.
If you wish to know more about Isaac Asimov, you may wish to read I, Asimov: A Memoir and It’s Been a Good Life.
Typically, this is a story that is too distant and too passive for me to enjoy. However, the question is a great hook and one continues expecting the answer will come.
There are signs of the story’s age. It does not mention skin color or ethnicities or sociopolitical situations. I believe Asimov wrote the story this way to allow all readers to relate to it on some level. I’m uncertain it works. But that would be for someone else to judge.
When Asimov wrote the story, the twist ending was a total surprise. Today’s readers, steeped in science fiction tropes, won’t find the twist as surprising but it still made this reader sit back in her chair.
The ending of the story and the answer to the question will have you pondering the themes of this story for days, months, perhaps years. If you’re interested, Google the story. You’ll find dozens of discussions of the themes.
Because of the themes, I believe “The Last Question” by Isaac Asimov is worth listening to for the first or the hundredth time. You can find it here. It’s short story that covers thousands of years and development and poses a question that stays with the reader. That’s a story worth studying. If you liked this review you might want to check out past Story Time Reviews here, here, and here.