As everyone who's ever read The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy knows, the Answer is forty-two. It didn't occur to me until last night that this is, in fact, a parody of one very particular story.
Isaac Asimov needs no introduction to the SF reader. His novels and short stories are regarded as some of the best ever written in the genre. His intelligence comes through in each of these - and what an intelligence it was. Asimov was a professor of biochemistry in his lifetime, holding a PhD in the same. But his intelligence is never overbearing, and he wrote with a warmth and wit of a kind rarely seen in modern writings.
At the time of writing, I've read only two of his novels, and have just started on a third. But I have read some 30 of his short stories, the most recent of which blew my mind. SF fans will probably have guessed already that I'm talking about The Last Question.
In it, a question is asked of a supercomputer, not once, but several times over the course of trillions of years. Each time, the answer comes back that there is insufficient data to give a meaningful answer. The question asked is, ultimately, can mankind stop the end of the universe?
Being parodied by the aforementioned Guide should say it all about the esteem in which it is held. And I won't hesitate to add my voice to the mass of those already describing it as the best short story (in my experience) ever written. Asimov himself called it his favourite. But what makes it so exciting?
Maybe it's the suspense in which we're held throughout. What is the answer to the last question? Each time it builds up and we're let down, only to be built up again for the next time the question is asked. And when the answer arrives, it's so stunning that the reader has to sit back and admire the elegant brilliance.
Then there's the sense of helplessness. The universe will end up atrophying to a state of death, existing only as space, where stars are, at best, superheavy neutron stars with negative energy. Nothing will live. And there's always this sense that there's nothing we can do about it. It reminds us that, as powerful as we may become, there's something we can't fight and beat.
My bottom line to you is this: read The Last Question. You may find yourself surprised by it.