25 August 2016

The Last Question, by Isaac Asimov (Audiobook Review)

One thing I don't review too often on this blog is short stories. In fact, it seems to me that short story is the most unappreciated form of literature, especially on book blogs. Which is kind of sad, considering how rich and diverse it really is. 

So to rectify the situation (sort of), I decided to review a short story by one my favourite authors - Isaac Asimov. It's titled The Last Question and it was first published in an issue of Science Fiction Quarterly in 1956. The reason I chose this story is because it was Asimov's own personal favourite.

In this story, humanity becomes dependant on a super intelligent computer called Multivac. Our friend Multivac has made interstellar travel possible, allowing humanity to leave Earth and spread out across the Universe.

But there is a threat that our fictionalised descendants may eventually come face to face with. And that is the heat death of the Universe. What will happen to our civilisation if and when the Universe will no longer be able to sustain processes that make entropy (and therefore life itself) possible?

It's a question that becomes more crucial with each passing generation, as the human race keeps expanding its domain across the Universe. So the humans ask Multivac: can you reverse entropy?

First of all, if you're going to read this short - and I strongly advise that you do - go with the audio version read by Asimov himself. Sure, the sound quality is not at all what our "surround sound generation" is used to, but Asimov's dramatic reading of his own story makes up for that minor flaw.

The story itself is riddled with every possible "Asimovism" that I can think of. There is that idea-centric style of storytelling that he uses in the original Foundation trilogy. While the story takes place during the course of many millennia, there are no main characters for us follow. Instead, the characters only exist to move the story forward. It's the idea that is essential to the story, not the people.

There's also the idea of the lost origin of the human race, that is central in the later Foundation novels. Sort of a galactic equivalence to the Out of Africa hypothesis.

Most importantly, The Last Question centres around a concept that I think makes Asimov the most farsighted SF author of his time. There is a recurring theme in his fiction, with novels like Nemesis and The Gods Themselves where Asimov is trying to envision a danger to the human kind that will not make itself present for thousands, if not millions of years. Personally, I don't care what happens to the Universe eons from now. But, Asimov seems to care. There is a in-built sense of optimism in his books; the idea that the human race will explore deep space and it will settle other worlds. That we will live long and prosper. That's why it's crucial that we try and solve any problem that our future generations may face now, no matter how distant or irrelevant it may seem to us at the moment.

And I can't end this review without mentioning the "let's build a super computer so that it can answer an important question for us"- trope. Asimov was of course far from the only one to explore it. Although, he may have been one of the first.

I can't say I love this short story, and it's mostly because of its ending which is a little too (how should I put it?) cheesy for me. And like said, I don't really care about the heat death of the Universe, so there's nothing personal for me in this story. But it is so clever, and so well-written. I love it when SF authors are trying to imagine what the human race will look like thousands of years from now. It makes me extra curious about where we're going as a species.

My Rating

Plot: 4 stars
Story: 4 stars
Characters: 3 stars
Writing: 5 stars

Total score: 4 stars

And here's the link to the audiobook on Youtube: Isaac Asimov - The Last Question

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