Tuesday, August 15, 2006

The Last Question

My all-time favorite short-story by Isaac Asimov is called "The Last Question"*. It's an amazingly well told, brilliant story. The way the story develops, you'll never guess what Asimov is leading up to, until the very last line. And then it's almost as if the whole Big Bang was repeated in front of you.

How did he manage to write such a story? I cannot begin to imagine.

If you ever get some time read it, it's available online. Hopefully I didn't raise your expectation too much and spoil it for you. I just read it, and I felt exactly the same way I did the first time I read it. Absolute awe at the very idea. And of the mind that produced such an idea.

If you want to maintain the suspense in the story, do not read further.

The idea that the universe is cyclical in nature, and that God is nothing but a universal computer is of course quite astonishing. The idea simultaneously feeds on the eternal curiosity of every human being to resolve the question of life, the universe and everything, our desire to exist forever, and our desire to be at the center of the universe.

The power of the story is something that I cannot explain quite clearly when I try to think about it. Perhaps some of it is the sheer audacity of the tale.

Asimov himself described it as the favorite of all his writings, also describing it as possibly the best science fiction yet written. He describes why he likes it, with a fascinating tale of how people remember the story, but not the title, or even the author - something that I experienced a few months after I first read the story.
Why is it my favorite? For one thing I got the idea all at once and didn't have to fiddle with it; and I wrote it in white-heat and scarcely had to change a word. This sort of things endears any story to any writer.

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.
The idea that the universe is a quantum computer is being studied now, and is described in an interview with a quantum mechanic - Seth Lloyd. His proposal is that every atomic action and reaction is actually a quantum computation. This could lead to the Universe being thought of as one rather large mind, with its thoughts consisting of, among other things, you, me, and the thoughts of Asimov of the universe as a large mind. How's that for a loop?

How would we ever find out if the universe we seem to exist in is actually the fleeting thought of the Universe itself? And why's 42, the answer to the question of life, the universe, and everything?

fReaK ouT!

* Its popularity can be gauged by the fact that it has its own Wikipedia page!