SF AGE: “The Last Robot” by Adam-Troy Castro

When I first began subscribing to SCIENCE FICTION AGE back in the winter of 2003, I had read almost nothing by Isaac Asimov. Other science fiction writers, yes, but I shied away from Asimov. I knew he wrote about robots and I didn’t think that was interesting. It is one of my real regrets that I didn’t learn more about Asimov sooner. In my senior year in college, I read “Nightfall”. Later that year, I. Asimov was released and I bought it–and absolutely loved it. From the moment I read that memoir, I became an Isaac Asimov fan. I remember crying while reading Janet Asimov’s epilogue; I had not known that Asimov was dead, and I felt it was a terrible loss. Eventually, I got hold of the two volumes of his autobiography and read through those; they made me an even bigger Asimov fan. I re-read all three volumes every April, the month Isaac died, and I must have read those books 10 times now; I never tire of them. In the 14 years since I “discovered” Asimov, I have collected more than 200 of his books. I’ve read every F&SF science article he ever wrote with sheer delight. I think Forward the Foundation is one of the greatest science fiction books of all time. I’ve read Isaac’s histories, joke books, miscellaneous essays, even his annotated poems. In short, Isaac Asimov became my favorite science fiction writer.

I preface with this to provide context to the story, “The Last Robot” by Adam-Troy Castro, which was the lead story for the premier issue of SCIENCE FICTION AGE, dated November 1992. Isaac Asimov died in April 1992 and this story was written as an homage to the Good Doctor. I have read the story twice. The first time was sometime in 1995, I think. The second time was today. The first time I read the story, I knew almost nothing about Isaac Asimov. The second time, I often feel like I know the man through he vast, often personal writings. It is in the latter context that I want to comment on the story.

I wouldn’t have noticed this the first time I read the story, but reading it while taking train home from work today, it dawned on me that in some ways, “The Last Robot” was a retelling of Isaac Asimov’s personal favorite story of his own, “The Last Question”. (Even now, as I write this, I notice the similarity in title.) Certainly this was intentional and the fact that I didn’t see this the first time I read the story was simply because I was unfamiliar with Isaac’s work.

Much like “The Last Question”, the main character of the story is not human but a machine; in Isaac’s story, it was a computer, Multivac; in Adam’s story, it is robot, PHP-321. Just as in “The Last Question”, the sequences of the story accelerate through greater and greater spans of time. At one point, when PHP-321 is asked a question, it even responds in a similar fashion to Multivac: “There is insufficient data for a meaningful answer.” Isaac’s story was all about the last line, which I won’t give away here for those who haven’t read it. Adam’s story, however, was all about Isaac. The robot protagonist programs itself to watch over the gravesite of a nameless person, who at one point, we find out, wrote stories. Isaac Asimov was an atheist and didn’t believe in an afterlife, but I think the metaphor here is that the PHP-321 is safeguarding Isaac’s memory. Authors are immortal if even one person remembers their work. PHP-321 acted as that one person, even as the Universe around him died.

To me, the story feelslike a story that Isaac might have written about himself. I won’t give away the ending, but I will say that it moved me to the brink of tears–which on a train full of commuters can be awkward. The story was published half a year after Isaac’s death, but I think Adam did a terrific job at capturing just the right tone, just the right setting, just the right character to pay homage to the man who inspired so many science fiction writers and so many scientists. I loved the story.