Asimov on ‘The Last Question’
I like tracking down quotes, but find it terribly hard to track down quotes by Asimov about his writing: there are so many anthologies, and so many comments he has made about a single story in different places. Here, for example, are two comments I remember having read about what is definitely one of his two most famous stories, The Last Question:
- The first was easier to track down; it’s on Wikipedia with a date. In The Best of Isaac Asimov, published in 1973, he says:
‘The Last Question’ is my personal favorite, the one story I made sure would not be omitted from this collection.
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 write 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.
No other story I have written has anything like this effect on my readers—producing at once an unshakeable memory of the plot and an unshakeable forgettery of the title and even author. I think it may be that the story fills them so frighteningly full, that they can retain none of the side-issues.
- The second one is quoted on the “Multivax” site itself, but I haven’t been able to find the source (please help).
This is by far my favorite story of all those I have written.
After all, I undertook to tell several trillion years of human history in the space of a short story and I leave it to you as to how well I succeeded. I also undertook another task, but I won’t tell you what that was lest l spoil the story for you.
It is a curious fact that innumerable readers have asked me if I wrote this story. They seem never to remember the title of the story or (for sure) the author, except for the vague thought it might be me. But, of course, they never forget the story itself especially the ending. The idea seems to drown out everything — and I’m satisfied that it should.
Now, this story has been anthologized in at least two dozen places, but restricting my attention to the eight collections of Asimov stories themselves (since that’s where the comment is likely to come from, although it might even be in a book or article that doesn’t contain the story at all!), I have so far found that it is not in The Best of Isaac Asimov, not in Nine Tomorrows (which seems to have no commentary at all), Robot Dreams (it does have some commentary about the satisfaction of one’s predictions coming true), or The Complete Stories, Volume 1 (which only says ‘In particular, there is “The Last Question,” which, of all the stories I have written, is my absolute favorite.’), and I haven’t been able to look in Opus 100, The Edge of Tomorrow, The Best Science Fiction of Isaac Asimov, or The Asimov Chronicles.
And the other of his two most famous stories — Nightfall — he didn’t really like all that much. In The Best of Isaac Asimov, he says
‘Nightfall’, written two and a half years [after the very first story I ever published], was the thirty-second story I had written (what else did I have to do in those days except work in my father’s candy store and study for my college degrees) and perhaps the fourteenth story published.
Yet within less than three years of the start of my career it turned out that I had written the best of Asimov. At least, ‘Nightfall’ has been frequently reprinted, is commonly referred to as a ‘classic’, and when some magazine, or fan organization, conducts a vote on short stories, it frequently ends up on the top of the list–not only of my stories but of anybody’s. One of its advantages is that it has a unique plot. There was nothing resembling it ever published before (as far as I know) and of course, it is now so well known that nothing like it can be published again. It’s nice to have one story like that, anyway.
Yet I was only twenty-one when I wrote it and was still feeling my way. It isn’t my favorite. Later on, I’ll tell you what my favorite is and you can then judge for yourself.
and in The Complete Stories, Volume 1, he says
[…] “Nightfall,” a story that many readers and the Science Fiction Writers of America have voted the best science fiction story ever written (I don’t think so, but it would be impolite to argue).
Update: I looked in Opus 100, and he says something similar about The Last Question again:
And here we come to an advantage science fiction holds over straightforward science exposition. When it comes to really far-out ideas, much more can be done in a fictional frame. Several years before I wrote the above passage, I had written a story called “The Last Question”.
This story has a rather curious aftermath. More people have written me to ask if I were the author of this particular story than of any other story I have ever written. They not only can’t remember for sure that I am the author; they also can’t remember where they read it; and, invariably, they can’t remember the title.
Perhaps this is because it is a bad title, but I don’t think so. I think that the content of the story attracts them, yet frightens them, too. Unconsciously, they try to forget and don’t quite succeed.
It is also the only story of mine that (as far as I know) was the subject of a sermon. It was read from the pulpit in a Unitarian church at Bedford, Massachusetts, while I sat quietly in the back row (I didn’t tell them I was coming) and listened.
Anyway, it is one of the three or four stories I am most pleased with having written. It represents my ultimate thinking on the matter of computers/robots and so I am presenting it here, in full: