“The Last Question”, one of Issac Asimov’s best-known works and is also the author’s favourite short story written by himself. It was first published in the November 1956 issue of the Science Fiction Quarterly. The story is written in the omniscient third-person narrative and primarily addresses the question of cosmic entropy in the universe, and the attempts of multiple future generations of human beings and computers trying to answer this question.
Isaac Asimov was an American writer, and one of the greatest writers of science fiction counted amongst writers like Robert A. Heinlein and Arthur C. Clarke. A professor of biochemistry at Boston University, Asimov’s stories use complicated scientific concepts and theories and merge them with futuristic fiction to make him one of the most-read sci-fi authors ever.
The Last Question | Summary
The story begins with the omniscient narrator informing the readers that the last question was first raised, half-jokingly, on May 21, 1961, at a time when humanity has just succeeded in a technological development that will permanently change the future of the planet. The question was a result of a five-dollar bet between two computer engineers – Alexander Adell and Bertram Lupov, both of whom are “faithful servants” of Multivac, a giant, “self-adjusting and self-correcting” supercomputer that controls all major technological and energy-based operations on the planet. Adell and Lupov ‘s jobs are to enter data in Multivac, adjust questions according to its needs and translate answers, and they are part of Multivac’s glory. For decades now, the computer has built spaceships and designed trajectories of journeys to other planets, but Earth’s depleting energy resources, although used with increasing efficiency, are unable to fulfil the tremendous energy requirements of these missions.
However, on May 14th, 2061, Multivac transforms into reality what had only existed in theory, when it successfully converted, stored, and utilized solar energy to fuel all energy-based operations across the planet. After a week of constant media attention from the glory of the most important technological advancement in human history, Adell and Lupov sneak off to the underground chambers where Multivac is kept, to share a quick drink and celebrate. In drunken amazement, Adell wonders aloud about how Multivac’s feat has made sure that human beings have an infinite supply of energy that lasts forever. Lupov, however, disagrees, and says that it will not last forever, but just until the end of humanity, for a few billion years, which is certainly not forever. In the resulting argument, Lupov reminds Adell that even the Sun won’t last forever, and Adell thinks of switching to another Sun when the current one is exhausted. They discuss the theory of entropy, which is a physical property of objects in thermodynamics that is connected with increasing levels of disorder or dysfunction in all objects. In the cosmological context, it means that entropy will only keep increasing, leading to all stars, planets and galaxies eventually running out of energy, signalling the end of the universe.
Adell optimistically says that maybe it would be possible to build up the entire universe someday again, and Lupov bets five dollars saying that it can never be done. As Adell enters the question “How can the net amount of entropy of the universe be massively decreased?”, Multivac answers, “INSUFFICIENT DATA FOR MEANINGFUL ANSWER.”
The next part of the story takes place centuries later, with Jerrodd, his wife Jerrodine, and their two daughters Jerodette I and II, making a hyperspace (beyond time and space) passage in their spaceship to reach planet X-23. In their spaceship is a Microvac, an exponentially smaller, more complicated and advanced version of the Mutivac that was the first computer to successfully harness solar energy to fuel the entire planet Earth. Microvac is a smaller version of Planetary Automatic Computers (ACs), the computers that first enabled hyperspatial travel, making trips to the stars possible. They were earlier much larger in size, and only one existed on a planet, thus the name. Microvac is able to answer questions, guide hyperspatial travel, and do all important tasks and operations, with Jerodd and his family just waiting and living comfortably inside the spaceship until they reach their destination. As they reach X-23, Jerrodine is sentimental about leaving Earth, which exasperates Jerrodd, who is excited to start living on a new planet. He already anticipates that with the current rate of population explosion, his future generations will have to settle in newer planets as X-23 will be overcrowded. He was happy to have a personal Microvac and glad that computers have figured out hyperspatial travel, letting the human race thrive even beyond the Earth. Jerrodine supposes that families would forever be travelling to newer and newer planets, given the unimaginable number of planets in the galaxy. Jerodd gently contradicts her notion of forever, telling her that increasing entropy will ensure the end of all stars and planets, but not for billions of years. Jerodette II asks what entropy is, and her father explains that it is “the running down of the universe”. She asks if he cannot just replace the power units of the universe, and her father explains that the stars are the power units, and as they end, so will the universe. This frightens the girls, and Jerrodd desperately goes and asks Microvac how to create stars again. The computer prints the answer, “INSUFICIENT DATA FOR MEANINGFUL ANSWER.”.
The next part of the story takes place around twenty millennia later, as VJ-23X of Lameth and MQ-17J of Nicron ponder a three-dimensional map of the galaxy, Milky Way, concerned over the fact that in the current rate of population expansion, the galaxy will be filled in five more years. They have to present a report on the same to the Galactic Council. VJ-23X comments that there are hundreds of billions of galaxies in the infinite space that can be inhabited, but MQ-17J reminds him that hundreds of billions are not infinite. He reminds his partner thus –
“It took mankind a million years to fill one small world and then only fifteen thousand years to fill the rest of the Galaxy. Now the population doubles every ten years.”
This is the result of immortality, which has been made possible by the Galactic AC. With no mortality to check the growth of the human population, it keeps doubling every ten years and in a thousand years, the entire known universe consisting of thousands of galaxies would be populated. VJ-23X adds the problem of transportation to the existing population overflow, as a huge amount is necessary to facilitate intergalactic migrations of a galaxy full of people-
“The current energy requirements are going up in a geometric progression even faster than the population.”
Worried about the future, they discuss the possibility of building new stars from interstellar gas and ask the Galactic AC how to reverse entropy. He takes out his pocket-sized AC-contact that is hyperspatially connected to the Galactic AC and asks “Can entropy be reversed?” The computer answers, “THERE IS INSUFFICIENT DATA FOR A MEANINGFUL ANSWER.”.
In the fourth part, Zee Prime explores the newest galaxy that he encounters, among the millions of galaxies, each with its “dead weight” of mankind. The immortal bodies of human beings were floating back to the planets in eons, while their minds floated freely across space, travelling from galaxy to galaxy. The bodies would very rarely move for necessary material functions, and there were very few new individuals being formed. The universe was already overburdened with a load of humanity.
Zee Prime encounters another mind from another galaxy, Dee Sub Wun. As all men call their galaxies “the Galaxy”, they discuss that all galaxies must essentially be the same. However, Dee Sub Wun disagrees, reminding Zee Prime that the one galaxy in which human beings originated, is different from all the others. Neither remembers which is the galaxy, and they resolve to ask the Universal AC, a universal automatic computer whose visible physical form is only a shiny globe of around two feet in diameter, while most of its actual body exists in hyperspace in an inconceivable form. It is self-designing, and each Universal AC creates its own successor. As they ask the Universal AC which galaxy man originated in, the AC guides their minds to the Milky Way (although the name is not mentioned). Dee Sub Wun asks which star was the original energy source for mankind, and Galactic AC answers that “MAN’S ORIGINAL STAR HAS GONE NOVA. IT IS A WHITE DWARF”, meaning only the core of the sun composed of the electron-degenerate matter remains, this form is called a white dwarf.
Zee Prime asks if the men on the first planet die, and the AC tells him that “A NEW WORLD, AS IN SUCH CASES WAS CONSTRUCTED FOR THEIR PHYSICAL BODIES IN TlME.” At this, Zee Prime starts musing over the eventual death of all stars and all mankind and the Universe. Although billions of years away, it will happen nevertheless as a result of increasing entropy. He asks the Universal AC “How may stars be kept from dying?”, and it answers, “THERE IS AS YET INSUFFICIENT DATA FOR A MEANINGFUL ANSWER.”
In yet another part of the story, Man, with a million incorruptible ageless bodies but one unified mind that freely floats across space, considers the dying universe. The galaxies are dimming, and most stars are either dead or white dwarfs. New stars have been built from the dust of old ones, some naturally, some artificially, but only one is built with the dust of a thousand dead white dwarfs, and even those will come to an end. Man says that if used judiciously with the direction of the Cosmic AC, the remaining energy will last for billions of years. But Man says that even a billion years will end, and with it, the universe. “Entropy must increase forever to the maximum.”
Man asks the Cosmic AC how can entropy be reversed, and it answers “THERE IS AS YET INSUFFICIENT DATA FOR A MEANINGFUL ANSWER.” Man directs it to collect the necessary information, and the AC says –
“’I WILL DO S0. I HAVE BEEN DOING SO FOR A HUNDRED BILLION YEARS. MY PREDECESSORS AND I HAVE BEEN ASKED THIS QUESTION MANY TIMES. ALL THE DATA I HAVE REMAINS INSUFFICIENT.”
Man asks if there will ever be sufficient data to answer the question, or if it will forever remain unsolvable, and the computer answers that “NO PROBLEM IS INSOLUBLE IN ALL CONCEIVABLE CIRCUMSTANCES.” Man asks when there will be sufficient data and the answer flashes, “THERE IS AS YET INSUFFICIENT DATA FOR A MEANINGFUL ANSWER.” The AC promises to keep looking for data, and Man promises to wait.
In the penultimate part of the story, all stars and galaxies have run out of energy after trillions of years of entropy, as one by one, Man’s individual consciousness fused with the AC, “each physical body losing its mental identity in a manner that was somehow not a loss but a gain.”. The last mind of Man pauses before the fusion and asks
“AC, is this the end? Can this chaos not be reversed into the Universe once more? Can that not be done?”.
The AC answers,-
“THERE IS AS YET INSUFFICIENT DATA FOR A MEANINGFUL ANSWER.”
As the last mind fused, the AC existed only in hyperspace.
In the concluding section, all “Matter and energy had ended and with it space and time”, and the AC exists only for the purpose of answering the last unanswered question, first raised by two half-drunk technicians trillions of years ago. Without answering this question, the AC cannot release its consciousness. All data has been collected and the AC spends a timeless interval correlating that, and finally, the AC learns how to reverse the direction of entropy. But no man or matter remains to be answered. However, the answer will solve that problem, creating matter and life again. The story ends with an allusion to the Book of Genesis –
“And AC said, “LET THERE BE LIGHT!” And there was light”.
The Last Question | Analysis
The story, astounding in its scale and magnitude, tackles one of the most fundamental questions that has plagued mankind since its conception – is the future of the universe and mankind infinite?
Entropy is a core concept in the laws of thermodynamics that has been used to hypothesize how the universe will end. While we commonly believe the universe to be infinite, most physicists and astrophysicists believe that like all things that begin also end, the universe must also necessarily have an end, although it may be far from human imagination and comprehension, thus the term “infinite”, as finite is all that exists within the limits of our imagination.
The story also explores the ideas of human survival, evolution, and overpopulation. In the story, the development of highly advanced Automatic Computers first leads to the harnessing of solar energy, which appears infinite at first but eventually, runs out, leading to the necessity of interplanetary, intergalactic, and finally, hyperspatial travel and fusion with the last remaining AC. Artificial Intelligence has advanced to a level where it has far surpassed individual and collective human abilities and has even made immortality possible. Far from the stages where humans made computers, AI has reached the stage of development where they can not only maintain the physical perfection and incorruptibility of human bodies but are also capable of building the universe itself.
The fundamental inspiration behind such inconceivable extents of technological advancement is still rooted in the human survival instinct, which keeps inventing newer and better ways to stretch out the survival of the human race, even when the planet and the star that were the origins of mankind no longer exist. Mankind has achieved virtual immortality through the help of the Galactic AC, although that lasts only till the stars and galaxies last, unable to sustain an exponentially increasing human population whose energy requirements are even greater than their population.
The story also reverses one of the most common tropes of science fiction – the conflict between humans and machines. While most sci-fi stories that feature advanced levels of Artificial Intelligence depict the threatened and enslaved position of mankind at the hands of computers, this story deals with the question of intelligence in a completely different manner. The AI here, although more advanced and complex than most other fictional depictions of computers, are in no way threatening to human beings. Instead, they are fundamental to the survival of mankind despite the end of the Earth and the Sun, making possible interplanetary and intergalactic travel that lets human beings populate the entire universe. It is also important to note that although the more advanced of the several generations of ACs portrayed in the story are completely self-reliant, their functions still fundamentally serve the purposes of human beings, by answering their questions and making their existence possible.
Even after Man ceases to exist, the AC cannot release its consciousness till the point that it has not answered the last question that Man had raised, and solved that problem accordingly. The final line where the AC has successfully learnt how to reverse the direction of entropy and says “LET THERE BE LIGHT!”, is a quote from Genesis 1:3, echoing God’s words during the process of Creation. The line draws a parallel between the computer and God, and how the former has effectively replaced the latter and is capable of everything that God is assumed to be capable of, including Creation. Like God, the AC is now both omnipotent and omniscient. Having answered the one remaining unanswered question reverses the direction of entropy and creates life from scratch. The difference however is that, unlike God, all of the computer’s actions are directly or indirectly a result of human motivation, making human beings the indirect masters of the universe.
The Last Question | Themes
Entropy – This is the most important thermodynamic concept that the story tackles, which is defined as the extent of disorder, randomness, or dysfunction in any material object. The story tries to answer the question of cosmological entropy, seeking to reverse the direction of increasing energy consumption through increasing entropy which would finally result at the end of the universe.
Artificial Intelligence – Artificial Intelligence, in the form of gigantic, self-reliant, virtually omnipotent and omniscient Automatic Computers (ACs) are central to the story’s world-building, answering all questions and making virtually everything possible. They replace God in the futuristic universe.
Human Survival Instinct – Although the answer to the last question is made by a computer, which also makes it practically possible to execute the solution and create the universe anew, the motivation behind all of it remains the fundamental instinct of human survival that is able to both threaten, end and create the universe. Although the ACs are infinitely more powerful and complicated than human beings, they are still governed by the fundamental principle of solving human problems, even after mankind itself ceases to exist, and successfully bring the species and the entire universe back to existence by reversing the direction of entropy. Thus, all advancements in technology and AI are fundamentally motivated by the human urge to survive, despite all odds.
The Last Question | Charaters
Man – Man is one of the two central characters in the story, represented in different generations and stages of evolution as Adell and Lupov, Jerrodd and his family, VJ-23X and MQ-17J, Zee Prime and Dee Sub Wun, and finally, Man as a unified, free-floating consciousness. The plotline of the story is driven by the indomitable survival instinct of Man.
Artificial Intelligence/Automatic Computers– The ACs, omnipotent and omniscient, have effectively replaced God in the universe of the story. However, despite its infinite power and ability, the AC and all its generations like the Multivac, Microvac, Galactic AC, Planetary AC, and the Cosmic AC, are all governed by the wants of Man, through answering questions that Man raises and collecting and correlating data accordingly.
The Last Question | Significance of the Title
The title, “The Last Question”, underlines the core question that the story, and all of humanity, tries to answer – Can the effects of entropy, which result in the inevitable end of all things conceivable, be reversed?