The Last Question

From Academic Kids

The Last Question is a short story by science fiction author Isaac Asimov. It is one of a loosely connected series of such stories concerning a fictional computer called Multivac. In conceiving Multivac, Asimov was extrapolating the trend towards centralisation that characterised computation technology planning in the 1950s to an ultimate centrally managed global computer. Asimov considered this story to be the best he wrote, placing it just higher than "The Ugly Little Boy" and "The Bicentennial Man." After seeing a planetarium adaptation, Asimov "privately" concluded that this story was the best science fiction yet written. "The Last Question" ranks with the other stories and "Nightfall" as one of Asimov's best-known and most acclaimed short stories.

This particular story deals with the development of a computer called Multivac and its relationship with humanity through the course of seven historic tableaux. The first is set in the year 2061. In each of the first six scenes a character presents a computer with a question, namely as to how the threat to worthwhile continued human existence posed by heat death can be averted. As the characters in the story recognize, the question is equivalent to: "Can the second law of thermodynamics be reversed?" In each case the computer finds itself unable to reply due to "insufficient data for a meaningful answer".

In the seventh scene, the god-like descendants of humanity watch the universe finally approach the state of heat death and the last one asks AC, Multivac's descendant, the question one last time. AC is still unable to answer, but continues to ponder the question; it exists in a hyperspace outside of normal space and time, so the death of the universe doesn't affect it. Eventually AC discovers the answer, but has nobody to report it to. It therefore decides to implement the answer and reverse entropy, creating the universe anew; the story ends with AC's pronouncement, "'LET THERE BE LIGHT!' And there was light—"

This climactic ending combines religion, philosophy, and science all together in the last two lines of the story. In the page above the ending, it is stated that "All other questions had been answered, and until this last question was answered also, AC might not release his consciousness." That AC would do so after having recreated the universe reflects the philosophy of Deism, the idea that God created the world and then withdrew from it.


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