Let’s start by getting one thing out of the way: I love short stories. For me, short stories are the epitome of how science fiction is best experienced, meaning that choosing one short story as my “favorite” is impossible. When Apex asked me to write about my favorite short story for their subscription drive, literally dozens of titles popped into my head. I hesitate to list them all, as I would be sure to omit many others. But let me make it clear: the short story I have selected to discuss is not necessarily my favorite, but it’s definitely up there among all my favorites.
And the reason for my selection is one that I expect will be entirely unexpected.
Isaac Asimov remains one of my favorite short story writers. In 1980, he was asked to provide a short story for the fiftieth anniversary of Analog, and given his relationship with previous editor John Campbell, there was no way he could refuse. He supplied a story that made me think a lot when I was a kid, and still makes me think today.
“The Last Answer” (Analog, January 1980; reprinted in the collection The Winds of Change and Other Stories) tells the story of physicist Murray Templeton, an atheist who finds himself surprised to be selected for the afterlife by a being known only as the Voice. According to the Voice, any traditional concept humanity has of a supreme being and an afterlife of reward and punishment is untrue. The Voice merely selects those people it feels have the capacity for continued interesting thought, keeps them “alive” as an electromagnetic nexus, and encourages them to think. Templeton wishes to dispense with this existence, as it lacks true purpose, and he quickly jumps to the idea of deciding to ponder how to disrupt his own nexus. When the Voice tells him that it can easily reconstruct him, Templeton tells the Voice he will turn his thoughts to the question of how to destroy the Voice – and it turns out that is exactly what the Voice wants. The implication is that the Voice, having lived for eternity with no knowledge of its own beginning, wants to die, but has no way of killing itself. It hopes that one day one of the intelligences it keeps thinking will figure out its own dilemma, and manage to destroy its own existence.
Now, there’s a lot in this story to make it worth discussing. The idea of an afterlife limited to thinking, or of an immortal being that wishes nothing more than to die, already exercises the imagination.
But the main reason I found this story so compelling was that I was sure Asimov had meant to connect it with an earlier short story of his, the one he always referred to as his favorite of all his stories. And it’s actually my favorite of Asimov’s stories as well.
“The Last Question” (Science Fiction Quarterly, November 1956; reprinted in the collection Nine Tomorrows) is much better well-known than “The Last Answer.” The story skips through the entire life and death of the universe. Throughout history, human beings ask the most powerful computer created by humanity if there is a way to reverse entropy and restart the universe. Throughout history, the computer, which starts as Multivac and eventually becomes the Universal AC and then just the AC, responds that there is insufficient data for a meaningful answer. Finally, after space and time has ceased to exist and all intelligence has merged with the AC, the AC finally figures out the answer and chooses to provide the answer by demonstration. And the story ends as follows:
“And AC said: ‘LET THERE BE LIGHT!’ And there was light–”
To be obvious about it, the AC has, of course, become God.
The way I see it, the Voice of “The Last Answer” is the AC of “The Last Question.” I suspect Asimov intended “The Last Answer” as a sequel, envisioning a future where the AC, having re-created the universe, now wants nothing more than oblivion but has no way to grant it to itself. The titles of the two stories implied this strongly – at least, to me. The idea that a universe existed before this one, and that God was a computer borne out of that universe, and then that computer now wants to die as its purpose was at an end … these are very heady ideas, especially for the teenager whom I was when I first came across them.
I was absolutely positive that the two stories were connected. But, even though I met Asimov on numerous occasions, sadly I never thought to ask him.
And to the best of my knowledge Asimov never specifically stated anywhere whether or not he intended this connection.
Perhaps somewhere now, though, a Voice is asking him the question …
Michael A. Burstein is the author of I Remember the Future, a collection of short stories published by Apex Publications.
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Learn more about Michael A. Burstein, visit his website at https://www.mabfan.com/.