The Last Question

By Isaac Asimov

(longer version)


 

The story begins in the year 2061, when a colossal computer has solved the earth's energy problems by designing a massive solar satellite in space that can beam the sun's energy back to earth. The AC (analog computer) is so large and advanced that its technicians have only the vaguest idea of how it operates. On a $5 bet, two drunken technicians ask the computer whether the sun's eventual death can be avoided or, for that matter, whether the universe must inevitably die. After quietly mulling over this question, the AC responds:

"INSUFFICIENT DATA FOR A MEANINGFUL ANSWER."

Centuries into the future, the AC has solved the problem of hyperspace travel, and humans begin colonizing thousands of star systems. The AC is so large that it occupies several hundred square miles on each planet and so complex that it maintains and services itself. A young family is rocketing through hyperspace, unerringly guided by the AC, in search of a new star system to colonize. When the father casually mentions that the stars must eventually die, the children become hysterical. "Don't let the stars die," plead the children. To calm the children, he asks the AC if entropy can be reversed. "See," reassures the father, reading the AC's response, "the AC can solve everything." He comforts them by saying, "It will take care of everything when the time comes, so don't worry." He never tells the children that the AC actually prints out:

"INSUFFICIENT DATA FOR A MEANINGFUL ANSWER."

Thousands of years into the future, the Galaxy itself has been colonized. The AC has solved the problem of immortality and harnesses the energy of the Galaxy, but must find new galaxies for colonization. The AC is so complex that it is long past the point where anyone understands how it works. It continually redesigns and improves its own circuits. Two members of the Galactic Council, each hundreds of years old, debate the urgent question of finding new galactic energy sources, and wonder if the universe itself is running down. Can entropy be reversed? They ask. The AC responds:

"INSUFFICIENT DATA FOR A MEANINGFUL ANSWER."

Millions of years into the future, humanity has spread across the uncountable galaxies of the universe. The AC has solved the problem of releasing the mind from the body, and human minds are free to explore the vastness of millions of galaxies, with their bodies safely stored on some long forgotten planet. Two minds accidentally meet each other in outer space, and casually wonder where among the uncountable galaxies humans originated. The AC, which is now so large that most of it has to be housed in hyperspace, responds by instantly transporting them to an obscure galaxy. They are disappointed. The galaxy is so ordinary, like millions of other galaxies, and the original star has long since died. The two minds become anxious because billions of stars in the heavens are slowly meeting the same fate. The two minds ask, can the death of the universe itself be avoided? From Hyperspace, the AC responds:

"INSUFFICIENT DATA FOR A MEANINGFUL ANSWER."

Billions of years into the future, humanity consists of a trillion, trillion, trillion immortal bodies, each cared for by automatons. Humanity's collective mind, which is free to roam anywhere in the universe at will, eventually fuses into a single mind, which in turn fuses with the AC itself. It no longer makes sense to ask what the AC is made of, or where in hyperspace it really is. "The universe is dying," thinks Man, collectively. One by one, as the stars and galaxies cease to generate energy, temperatures throughout the universe approach absolute zero. Man desperately asks if the cold and darkness slowly engulfing the galaxies mean its eventual death. From hyperspace, the AC answers:

"INSUFFICIENT DATA FOR A MEANINGFUL ANSWER."

When man asks the AC to collect the necessary data, it responds:

"I WILL DO SO. I HAVE BEEN DOING SO FOR A HUNDRED BILLION YEARS. MY PREDECESSORS HAVE BEEN ASKED THIS QUESTION MANY TIMES. ALL THE DATA I HAVE REMAINS INSUFFICIENT."

A timeless interval passes, and the universe has finally reached its ultimate death. From hyperspace, the AC spends an eternity collecting data and contemplating the final question. At last, the AC discovers the solution, even though there is no longer anyone to give the answer. The AC carefully formulates a program, and then begins the process of reversing Chaos. It collects cold, interstellar gas, brings together the dead stars, until a gigantic ball is created. Then, when its labors are done, from hyperspace the AC thunders:

"LET THERE BE LIGHT!"

And there was light --

And on the seventh day, He rested.

 


(longer version)

Go to top

Home

This page was last modified on 01/12/2010.