The Last Question

By: Isaac Asimov - Read: December 18, 2022 - Rating: 9/10

Isaac Asimov said this was his favorite of his own writing, which made me curious to read it.

I don't want to spoil anything, but you should read it right now and then come back. It takes less than 30 minutes to finish. You can find it here. It's worth it. You can click into my notes after.

My Notes

Spoiler alert: there's going to be spoilers here so please don't read this if you haven't read the short story yet - you would be robbing yourself of reading it for the first time with no idea what's going to happen. Come back after you've read.

More observations and thoughts rather than notes, given that this is a short story.

From the start, the storytelling is great. Every scene is pretty short and highly readable, and Asimov does a good job of building up the question "is there any way to reverse entropy?".

In each different vignette, humanity has gotten progressively more advanced (exponentially more than each previous section, characteristic of the rates of technological progress we've seen over the past few decades) - and yet Multivac still seems to always have insufficient information to answer the question.

Even while reading through the beginning, I had a few observations:

  • In some sense, good sci-fi always involves some plausible prediction of the future, rather than just imagination.
  • In this story, we see predictions for the future of humanity very in line with how SF techno-optimists think - humans develop AI systems far more intelligent than themselves, are somehow able to control these systems, then eventually they merge with the machines, and become a multiplanetary species.
  • Also very remiscent of the predictions of Ray Kurzweil. I thought it was interesting to see a vivid depiction of what the world would be like if you played out the techno-optimist future over several thousand years.
  • Another specific prediction and central element to the story was the element of transhumanism - given that after a certain point, humanity in the story apparently merges into machines and gets rid of their biological bodies - yet again, interesting to see how this concept was portrayed.

But at this point, I almost thought that I could see where it was going.

I thought that the story was going to end with something predictable, like the question remaining unanswered, in the sense that Multivac would get all the information in the Universe, and would say that there's no way to reverse entropy.

In that case, the message would be something about how no matter how hard we try, there's no way around the fact that humanity is going to all die out eventually, and it would be a poignant reminder of our mortality, regardless of how advanced we become.

I basically had this expectation all through reading, right up until I read the last line.

And then my mind was completely blown by the last line. I actually smiled and laughed out loud (which briefly confused my brother who I was sitting across from) when I read it, cause of how crazy it was, and my eyes even watered a little bit.

I think there were a combination of elements, that all together made the ending so incredible to me:

The question of "how can you reverse entropy?" is an interesting one, which I of course was thinking about throughout the short story.

It's interesting because, again - I thought it was pointing toward our inevitable mortality, and that's because having gone through high school and college physics, the immediate thing that jumped into my head was the second law of thermodynamics, which says that the total entropy in a system can never be reversed.

So I was pretty deadset on the conclusion that there could be no possible answer for how to reverse entropy (at least a reasonable one that wasn't imaginary or made up).

But then, I read the last line, where Multivac said "LET THERE BE LIGHT." An then it took me a second to process. And then I realized - holy shit wait, there is clearly at least one way where entropy reversal could plausibly occur - the Big Bang. Although modern science doesn't necessarily agree with that statement, it's still the most interesting path to add a reasonable speculation.

The Big Bang is the most famous example of a reversal (or at least increase) of entropy, where in a single moment, a massive (infinite?) amount of entropy is created (or comes from somewhere, relative to our universe, at least).

So the first thing that made the ending great was the fact that I was thinking the whole time that there would be no way to come up with a good answer to the question, an then Multivac did end up coming up with one that I completely missed.

Then also, the lead up to the last line was great - showing the slow an painful burnout of all of humanity, then all the stars in the Universe, and then basically the entire Universe itself. This was a beautiful image - the idea of the Universe slowly dying - and this part also reminded me of Timelapse of the Future, which is also fire.

Then the other big factor was the delivery of the answer. If Multivac said something more direct like "I'm going to recreate the Big Bang," it obviously wouldn't have the same effect.

But instead, Asimov used the Biblical reference to the creation of the universe, basically equating the super advanced artificial intelligence system to a God (or even commenting that it basically is a God at that point), and also creating an infinite loop for our universe, which itself is an interesting concept and commentary, considering that in this techno-optimist future, its hard to differentiate between a powerful computational system and a God.

So combining all of these elements together, I thought it was the perfect end to the story, and a wild level of creativity on Asimov's part.

I hate to attempt to explain beauty, but there's my attempt at explaining why I loved the ending so much.

But that's why I would consider this one of the best science fiction piece I've read.