“The Last Question” by Isaac Asimov – 2nd Review – Classics of Science Fiction

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“The Last Question” was first published in Science Fiction Quarterly, November 1956. You can read it on Archive.org. It is story #17 of 22 for The Best SF Stories of 1956 group read. “The Last Question” was a selection for Asimov/Greenberg anthology devoted to the best SF of1956 — but I’ve got to wonder, if it was at Asimov’s request? He’s often said “The Last Question” is his favorite among his own stories. I’ve reviewed the story before, for when the group read The Big Book of Science Fiction.

We’ve had two Isaac Asimov stories from 1956 – “The Last Question” and “The Dead Past.” I thought “The Dead Past” was flawed but I was impressed with Asimov’s ambition to write an emotional story. I know other people who consider it Asimov’s best short story. Neither are my favorites.

On one hand, “The Last Question” is a famous, often loved, science fiction story. On the other hand, it’s a gimmick story without traditional story elements. It’s more of an essay disguised as a short story. I’ve gotten tired of reading gimmick stories, and I’ve gotten tired of reading “The Last Question.” Once you know it, it’s not much fun to reread. I like stories where I get behind a character who is struggling to overcome an emotional problem. And I like stories that get better on rereading. “The Last Question” isn’t that kind of story. I’m thinking that Asimov wasn’t big on writing that kind of story either. However, I need to reread “The Ugly Little Boy.” If I remember right, it does have character development and an emotional punch to the gut.

This morning, I got a text from my friend Mike about the story, he wasn’t too kind:

I think that “The Last Question” is a gimmick story with cardboard characters. But this story is beloved, so I guess that leaves me out in the cold. I don’t really want to dump on Asimov, but I don’t think much of his favorite story.

It has the repetitive plot and thin characters of “Compounded Interest.” I’ve never been a fan of gimmick stories. I need characters that I care about.

I have to say I completely agree with Mike. “The Last Question” is a gem of a story for a gimmick story, but a letdown for when you’re wanting a vicarious emotional experience. I had the same problem with “Compounded Interest” by Mack Reynolds. However, as I mentioned in my review, I found another Mack Reynolds story from 1956 that had all the elements I love in a good dramatic short story. Read: “After Some Tomorrow.”

The genre has room for all kinds of stories, but I’m getting old and sappy, and want to be moved by what I read. I must wonder if the twenty-two stories we’ve selected to read from 1956 are mostly remembered because of their ideas and gimmicks. I wonder if there are loads of emotional stories that weren’t well remembered because they had ordinary science fictional ideas, but ones I would like better for their emotional and dramatic qualities — that is, if I could find them, like I did with “After Some Tomorrow.”

James Wallace Harris, 1/4/24

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