At a distance of a thousand miles: Isaac Asimov and "The Last Question" (1956)


(Is that a terrific book cover OR WHAT?)

It was probably my dad, Jon A. Jackson, who introduced me to the work of Isaac Asimov. I dug it right away. Not just Asimov's imagination and the thrill of wondering what the future would look like, but the direct style of Asimov's writing: concise and clean. No matter how far-out his ideas were, the story itself was always grounded in a pragmatic, conversational style that to me still feels like midcentury America, full of average Joes and Janes drinking coffee and solving problems, whether on Earth or in a spaceship orbiting Mars.

Last year my nephew Jack was turning 13 and I wanted to introduce him to some classic science fiction, so I sent him a copy of Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 (1953) and Asimov's I, Robot (1950). But when I read the synopsis for I, Robot, I wondered if it was the book I really had in mind. I remembered a series of stories about the evolution of artificial intelligence (AI), beginning with early computers and robots and ending somewhere in deep space where a vast computer brain floats, holding the fate of ongoing life in its circuitry. I, Robot fit some of those criteria - it does trace the development of AI and introduces Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics, which were influential in actual robotic technology in the real world. I wondered if I'd just mis-remembered the book and then I moved on to other important issues such as, What am I going to make for dinner tonight?

[SPOILER ALERT: If you want to know which Asimov story I was really remembering but don't want the rest of it spoiled, just skip to the bottom.]

That was about a year ago. A few months ago I decided to reread I,Robot myself. I enjoyed it but it wasn't the novel I remembered. So a few days ago I thought about it again and I had that brilliant thought I have once every few days: Why don't I just ask the Internet? So I Googled: "Asimov story let there be light."

And yes, there was light. See, in my memory the Asimov book ends with this super-advanced computer solving the problem of how to reverse entropy by uttering the phrase "Let there be light." Trust me, it makes sense in context. What the Google search revealed was the Asimov story "The Last Question" (1956) and an entire Wikipedia page devoted to it, which included the following comment from Asimov in 1973:

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.

Here we are, over 50 years later, and the story is still having this effect. On me, for sure. I reread "The Last Question" and was once again floored by Asimov's mix of pragmatism and imagination. It still holds up. At less than 5,000 words it is so totally realized that I remembered it as a novel, not a story. There's a reason the desperate man on the phone - and I - still remember it: "The Last Question" is a story not only about the fate of mankind but the fate of the entire universe. In under 5,000 words! It handles the issues with humor and seriousness and radical economy. And with what we now know about climate change and the Great Extinction period in which we're now living, the story is relevant in a new way.

Sometimes when we go back to the science fiction of the mid-twentieth century it can seem quaintly retro with its man-in-the-gray-flannel-suit conversational styles and the gee-whiz of it all. Then again, in 1956 Asimov and his readers were only thirteen years away from a man walking on the moon. As of 2013, it's been forty years since the last moon walk. Makes you wonder what happened to the Space Age future we were all supposed to be living in.

Read it for yourself: The Last Question by Isaac Asimov (1956)