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)


Don't you just adore Scotland?

I do. I visited Edinburgh with my father a long time ago, when I was in fifth grade. What I remember most: Edinburgh Castle; eating baked apples; the story of Greyfriar's Bobby (a cute and heroically loyal little Skye Terrier - hey! I was in fifth grade!)... you get the picture. I loved the trip and still have the kilt my dad bought for me way back then.

Today I was reminded of just how much I love Scotland when I read this review of my book on the ScotGen genealogy blog. Oh, Scotland, you had me at Greyfriar's Bobby... and now this?

Great Signage of Wyoming: Laramie

Last weekend we drove through Wyoming, en route to hot springs.

Laramie: pop. 27,000 people / 23 fantastic signs and storefronts.

Above: Marquee for the Wyo Theater. Currently playing (surprise!) the French film, I've Loved You So Long.

Above: Alexander's Fine Jewelry. Love the pink awning and those wonderful serving dishes.

My personal favorite: Alibi Drive In Liquors / Bar. There's such a great Jetsons feel to this sign.

Best of: Ungents

I love Carmex.

What's not to love? Just like the sun, just like love itself, Carmex is bright, sticky, and just a little bit sweet. Also, it's cheap.

Carmex was invented in 1937 by Alfred Woelbing and the company, Carma Lab, is still a family-owned business. Alfred Woelbing died in 2001 at age 100. He never officially retired. Was the gooey wonderfulness of Carmex responsible for his longevity? No one knows for sure.

Personally, I think it's incredible that a product whose packaging goes out of its way to scream that it's FOR COLD SORES is wielded by men and women without shame. Good for you, America.

The Carma Lab geniuses at go out of their way to let you know that the stuff is not addictive. I never realized being addicted to Carmex was a problem. And you know what? It's not.

Illustration credit: Paula Becker

Best of: Book Intros

Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.

She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.

Did she have a precursor? She did, indeed she did. In point of fact, there might have been no Lolita at all had I not loved, one summer, a certain initial girl-child. In a princedom by the sea. Oh when? About as many years before Lolita was born as my age was that summer. You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, exhibit number one is what the seraphs, the misinformed, simple, noble-winged seraphs, envied. Look at this tangle of thorns.

- Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita (1955)