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

File:I_Robot_-_Runaround

(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)

 

The 3 Rs: Required Reading & The Richardson House

News! Podcasts! Living the Good Life! Happy to report on my new podcast, Required Reading, with my collaborators Matthew Meschery and Steve Goldbloom. We'll be producing one 45-min show weekly(ish) on all the stuff you should have read, watched, and listened to in the previous week but couldn't fit in. Next week: The Life and Death of Mike Wallace, The $1 Billion-Dollar Photo, and The Strange Case of Augusta National. Check us out -- you can listen to RR right there on the link above. And it's FREE!

I went out to California a few weeks ago to finalize podcast details and on the way I had to drop by my dear mom in Truckee, my hometown. Sometimes it's nice to be a tourist in your hometown. For the first time, I did not stay with family or friends but at a (gasp!) hotel! Not just any hotel, though: The Richardson House. Anyone who's ever been to Truckee has probably seen it: a gorgeous Victorian sitting atop the hill overlooking downtown Truckee. I've lived, at different points in my life, within a two-minute walk of The Richardson House yet I'd never stayed in it -- until last month. It did not disappoint.

My son referred to it throughout our trip as "The Mansion" and it did feel like that. Gorgeous, high-ceilinged rooms, beds covered in seven layers of featherbeds, and a view of Mount Rose from our room. It was amazing. I may never stay at my mom's house again (sorry, Mom). The Richardson House is a Truckee treasure -- try it!

That's my Truckee Insider Tip for this month. Hey, I should add that to the podcast....

PS: Here's our podcast crew: Steve, Matthew, Leo (our producer, with pacifier), and Me. Hope you enjoy the show!

A Nation of Garbos.

Book Review: Eric Klinenberg, Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone (Penguin: 2012)

This review originally appeared in the Dec/Jan 2012 issue of BookForum, available here.

Americans love our icons of individuality — Henry David Thoreau, The Lone Ranger, Carrie Bradshaw — almost as much as we wish all the single people would just settle down and get married. As sociologist Eric Klinenberg writes in Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone, “Americans have never fully embraced individualism, and we remain deeply skeptical of its excesses.” [8] Nevertheless, we’d better start getting OK with it--because as Klinenberg shows, this country is getting more single by the minute. The facts are astonishing. “The majority of all American adults are single,” he writes. “The typical American will spend more of his or her adult life unmarried than married, and for much of this time he or she will live alone.” [4] And as he goes on to note, “people who live alone make up 28 percent of all U.S. households.” [5] Adults living alone are “more common than the nuclear family, the multigenerational family, and the roommate or group home.” [5] OK, fine: We’re single. So why are we so insecure about it?

Like his predecessors who have mined the social fallout of the country’s individualist streak–writers such as David Reisman (The Lonely Crowd, 1950) and Robert Putnam (Bowling Alone,1995)--Klinenberg wants to expose a previously underreported fact of American existence, something so huge we’ve come to take it for granted. As he writes, “living alone is something that each person or family experiences as the most private of matters, when in fact is its an increasingly common condition and deserves to be treated as a subject of great political significance.” [6] When it does become the topic of debate, living alone is usually presented as “an unmitigated social problem, a sign of narcissism, fragmentation, and diminished public life.” [6] But Klinenberg maintains that none of these judgments are necessarily true.

Klinenberg begins with a basic admission: This book is about the middle and upper classes. And this concession by itself tells us something important about living alone: People do it as soon as they can afford to. So please do not throw the book (or this review) on the floor when I tell you the first chapter begins at a championship adult kickball game in Brooklyn. Klinenberg starts with the Non-Committals (imagine the sociologist’s joy: that’s the actual name of the winning kickball team) because here we have one of his target groups: people in their twenties and thirties who “have come to view living alone as a key part of the transition to adulthood.” [31] What happened to all the “boomerang” kids, those foot-shuffling college grads who live in their parents’ basements? The data show that there are fewer slackers today than ever before. [31] Maybe they’re just more visible because of the kickball.

Going Solo really gets interesting when Klinenberg addresses a seemingly inevitable fork in the path of American singletons (as he calls them): That moment, usually sometime in their 30s, when living alone morphs from a symbol of status (signifying financial security, confidence, independence) to a symbol of pathos (signifying loneliness, unattractiveness, an inability to find a romantic partner). Klinenberg delves into the challenges of living alone, starting with discrimination at work, as in the case of Sherri, who witnessed married coworkers getting raises as management continued to deny her any pay increases. When she confronted her boss, he told her “You wear all these clothes, and you’re always out, and we figured you don’t need it.” [74]

Sherri quit. But the bigger problem is one that is most Americans under 50 will recognize, single or not. “The work world makes extraordinary claims on the lives of young workers. Give yourself to business during the prime of your life, or give up your hope of achieving real success.” [61] It’s a brutal fact with very real consequences. In the “free agent” [61] labor market that now governs our working life, he writes, “the twenties and early thirties is precisely not the time to get married and have a family.” [61]

Going Solo is most compelling in moments like this, when Klinenberg makes connections between public policy, the law, and the rational choices human beings make in response to economic reality. Why should we be surprised that 50 year-old women are first-time mothers (as featured on the cover of a recent New York magazine with the headline “Is She Just Too Old for This?”), when those women had to devote what had previously been thought of as their “childbearing years” to securing  a financial foothold in an increasingly cutthroat economy?

Klinenberg also spends time on the topic of aging alone (today, one in three Americans over sixty-five lives alone, and that number increases in higher age brackets) [157]. His previous book, the award-winning Heat Wave, investigated the deaths of more than 700 Chicagoans — mostly single — who perished in the city’s 1995 heat wave. A city investigator called them “a secret society of people living alone” [23] and as Klinenberg demonstrated, in many cases their social isolation led to their deaths. Here, Klinenberg explores how American society might make the challenge of aging alone less lonely and more humane. He cites Congress’s passage of the 2006 Lifespan Respite Care Act, which allocates money to help pay for community-based caregiving for the elderly and the disabled [228] as a positive, though inadequate step forward. Quality assisted living facilities are also in high demand. “If as it’s often alleged, the baby boomers are a distinctively self-interested generation,” he writes, “they may well use their political clout to promote housing programs that benefit them first.” [229] If it happens, this could be the Me Generation’s most valuable legacy.

And regardless of one’s age demographic, living alone creates certain challenges for society. “What if, instead of indulging the social reformer’s fantasy that we would all just be better off together,” Klinenberg writes, “we accepted the fact that living alone is a fundamental feature of modern societies and we simply did more to shield those who go solo from the main hazards of the condition?” [221] Indeed, “what if” public policy could be created in response to “facts,” as he suggests, rather than irrational fears? It would be preferable, of course. But it’s so much easier to keep rooting for Carrie to marry Mr. Big.

Big News: My new novel, EFFIE PERINE, is now available on Amazon.com.

Buy the EFFIE PERINE ebook on Amazon by clicking here.

Yes, that beautiful artwork you see (by genius artist Dan Brereton, author/illustrator of the beloved "Nocturnals" comic books, among many others) is the cover of my new novel, EFFIE PERINE, which is finally available as an e-book for Kindle on Amazon.com today! It will soon be available in all the other major formats and ebook outlets (Nook, Kobo, iBooks, etc.) so stay tuned for that announcement.

EFFIE is available at a low initial price of $0.99 as a special thank-you to family and friends who buy the book and post their reviews on Amazon. Reviews are the major way books get sold on Amazon, so please consider posting something, no matter how short and sweet it is -- thank you!

Synopsis: Effie Perine comes to San Francisco on the hunt for work and her long-lost father, so when she’s offered a job at a detective agency she figures it’s a two-birds-one-stone situation. But when her strange new boss invites her into a world of hardboiled mystery, the line between real life and film noir fantasy becomes as foggy as a San Francisco summer — and Effie’s future happiness is at stake.

A novel of mystery and love as well as a coming-of-age story, Effie Perine crosses the genres of fantasy, mystery, and metafiction. Effie Perine tells the story of a young woman just starting out in the world. Raised in rural Northern California, Effie’s mission to find her lost father gives her a sense of purpose as she tries to find her bearings in the big city. But she soon discovers that San Francisco’s familiar landmarks might not be as solid as they first appear. As she’s seduced by her ever-shifting surroundings, Effie starts to wonder if she’s losing the ability to separate dreams from reality.

Readers of slipstream fiction and fantasy will appreciate Effie’s journey through changing historical eras, while mystery fans will enjoy meeting their favorite hardboiled types in wholly new settings. For everyone who ever wondered, Who was Effie Perine?… here is your answer.

This Week in Geniuses: Stephen Greenblatt and Lucretius.

My review of THE SWERVE: How the World Became Modern, by Stephen Greenblatt (W.W. Norton: 2011) appeared in The Boston Globe's Sunday Books section on September 25, 2011:

At the center of Stephen Greenblatt’s dazzling new book, “The Swerve: How the World Became Modern,’’ is a hero: Poggio Bracciolini (1380-1459 CE), “[a] short, genial, cannily alert man [who] reached out one day, took a very old manuscript off a library shelf, saw with excitement what he had discovered, and ordered that it be copied.’’ It may not sound heroic, but “behind that one moment was the arrest and imprisonment of a pope, the burning of heretics, and a great culturewide explosion of interest in pagan antiquity . . . if he had had an intimation of the forces he was unleashing, he might have thought twice about drawing so explosive a work out of the darkness in which it slept.’’

The work in question was a remote German monastery’s copy of “On the Nature of Things,’’ the epic philosophical poem written by Lucretius ca. 50 BCE . Extravagant as it sounds, Greenblatt argues that Lucretius’s poem is the forgotten keystone in the foundation of western civilization, helping to inspire an entire culture’s rebellion “against the constraints that centuries had constructed against curiosity, desire, individuality, sustained attention to the material world, [and] the claims of the body.’’ Lucretius, in other words, helped create modernity. By the end of this erudite and entertaining book - no, by the second chapter - he will have you convinced that it’s true.

Greenblatt has written an intellectually invigorating, nonfiction version of a Dan Brown-like mystery-in-the-archives thriller, right down to the suppression of a great work of radical art by the early Christian church. In the first chapter, titled “The Book Hunter,’’ we’re introduced to our detective, Poggio. He’s on the trail of lost knowledge, following clues and his intuition to find the book that “changed the landscape of the world.’’ In its gumshoe mode, “The Swerve’’ races through the inner sanctums of corrupt popes, crumbling monasteries, and a shockingly violent gathering of Catholic bishops at the 1413 Council of Constance. Once the manuscript is discovered, Greenblatt explores all the ways Lucretius’s poem influenced the modern world. As Poggio departs center stage, “The Swerve’’ leaves the mystery genre behind and becomes a vibrant history of ideas, tracing Lucretian thought from the Renaissance through the Declaration of Independence, Darwinism, and Einsteinian physics.

But still there remains a deep mystery to be solved. How exactly does culture change? Specifically, how was it possible “for a whole culture to turn away from reading and writing’’ and then, centuries later, turn back again? Much has been written (and disputed) about just how dark the so-called Dark Ages were, but in Greenblatt’s view they were very dark indeed. After the fall of the Roman Empire, Greenblatt writes, the Christian church undertook “the difficult project of making what appeared simply sane and natural - the ordinary impulses of all sentient creatures - seem like the enemy of the truth.’’ In contrast to Lucretius’s Epicurean-inspired assertion that the highest goal of life is to seek pleasure and avoid pain, Christians “understood that pleasure is a code name for vice.’’ Yet by the 15th century a few educated Florentines began to look around at the ruins of ancient Rome - the crumbling yet still functional aqueducts, the Forum, which was now used for grazing sheep - and wondered what had gone wrong. “The spectacle of the world,’’ Poggio lamented: “how is it fallen! . . . How defaced!’’ A thousand years of Christianity had not improved life on earth. Then again, it hadn’t really tried. After all, redemption was only available after death in heaven, if you were lucky enough to get in. For a humanist like Poggio, who had already been exposed to life-affirming classical philosophies, that was too long to wait.

Lucretius’s “On the Nature of Things’’ offered something radically different. The “Lucretian challenge,’’ as Greenblatt calls it, rests on a basic principle known as atomism, one of the foundations of Epicurean philosophy. Man was not formed in the image of his Creator: There is no Creator. Instead, everything, including man, is made of tiny particles called atoms, “the seeds of things,’’ Lucretius explained, which are eternal, indestructible, and infinite. They come together in infinite varieties, with a natural balance between creation and destruction, which goes on forever. Two thousand years later the philosopher George Santayana would call this “the greatest thought that mankind has ever hit upon.’’ While gods may exist, they do not control or even care about the lives of humans. “[T]he fact that it is not all about us and our fate . . . is, Lucretius insisted, the good news.’’ Free of superstition, man could fix his efforts on that which he could actually control: the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain. Of course Lucretius knew nothing of Darwinian evolution nor of molecular biology nor of quantum physics. Astoundingly, all these modern scientific theories would prove him right.

“The Swerve’’ is the story of Poggio’s heroic rediscovery of a book that has shaped human consciousness for over 2,000 years. It is a thrilling, suspenseful tale that left this reader inspired and full of questions about the ongoing project known as human civilization. Although Lucretius was neither an atheist nor a hedonist, his views were anathema to Christian leaders so they were censored and nearly forgotten. But thanks to the subversive and strenuous efforts of one determined 15th-century scholar, Lucretius’s gift to humanity was saved. Greenblatt reminds us that Thomas Jefferson, who owned eight copies of Lucretius’s “On the Nature of Things,’’ described himself as “an Epicurean,’’ someone who rejected superstition in favor of “sensation, of matter and motion, [on which] we may erect the fabric of all the certainties we can have or need.’’ “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’’ certainly reflects an Epicurean philosophy; perhaps, thanks to Greenblatt’s heroic rediscovery, Lucretius can lead us into the light of reason once again.