Before Douglas Adams posited that the Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything was 42, Isaac Asimov was pondering the same question.
Long before talk of the technological singularity, the point at which human-computer interfaces are seamless, Asimov was considering the future fate of a post bio-mechanical humanity.
Before we pondered transhumanism, techno-pagansim and cyber-shamanism, Asimov wondered about the epistemological truths that might be whispered by the ghosts in the machines.
The result: The Last Question, published in 1956.
Buddhism features three marks of existence. These are:
- Impermanence (Annica)
- Sorrow (Dukkha)
- Lack of “objective” (i.e. independent) self-hood (Anatta)
These can be summed up in a word:
The Devil (Mara) tempted the Buddha with a plenitude of material – though temporal – distractions.
Sex, Drugs, Rock’n’Roll.
Money, Power, Fame.
But there was one thing that Mara never dangled in front of the Buddha…
The one thing that might have turned him, and made him surrender his quest…
The Last Temptation of Gautama:
An end to entropy.
The Last Question takes place in seven time periods, each one set further in our future.
In each time period, humanity has dealings with a supercomputer called Multivac.
The first sub story has two drunk computer technicians ask the computer the ultimate question: Given the assumed ultimate heat death of the universe (i.e. the universe keeps expanding until it is completely thermally thinned out),
“How can the net amount of entropy of the universe be massively decreased?”
Or, to put it in Buddhist language:
“Can annica be stopped? Can it be reversed?”
Multivac started pondering…
It eventually generated a response:
“INSUFFICIENT DATA FOR MEANINGFUL ANSWER.”
In each of the following settings, humanity and Multivac evolve in tandem. Eventually, after extensive genetic engineering and bio-computer interfacing, humanity has given up individual existence, instead operating as a giant hive mind containing a trillion, trillion, trillion souls. Multivac, now called AC, exists outside of space-time, having sought shelter from the heat death of the universe in Hyperspace.
As the last stars die out, and the final remnants of what was humanity merges into AC, the computer continued its task:
Solving the problem of entropy.
The universe was dead. AC was also running out of energy, even in hyperspace.
It kept working furiously, even if it had no one to share any answers with.
It sifted through the data it had accumulated over trillions of years, through the thoughts and dreams of the myriad souls within it. It peered out over all that ever was, from quarks to super-galactic strings, from form to formlessness, it collated everything it could.
And finally, it had an answer.
And perhaps a new audience to understand,
in worlds yet to come.
AC addressed the dead universe:
And AC said: “LET THERE BE LIGHT!” And there was light–
Here is what Asimov thought of his own 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 thing 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.
There have been many readings of The Last Question. However, could you ask for a better narrator than Mr. Spock?
Here’s the take-away: Leonard Nimoy, aka Star Trek‘s Mr. Spock, reading The Last Question at the Abrams Planetarium, Michigan State University, 1966: