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Ask a foolish question, p.1
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       Ask a Foolish Question, p.1

           Robert Sheckley
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Ask a Foolish Question

  Produced by Sankar Viswanathan, Greg Weeks, and the OnlineDistributed Proofreading Team at

  Transcriber's Note:

  This etext was produced Science Fiction Stories 1953. Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.

  _It's well established now that the way you put a question often determines not only the answer you'll get, but the type of answer possible. So ... a mechanical answerer, geared to produce the ultimate revelations in reference to anything you want to know, might have unsuspected limitations._

  _Ask A Foolish Question_


  * * * * *

  Answerer was built to last as long as was necessary--which was quitelong, as some races judge time, and not long at all, according toothers. But to Answerer, it was just long enough.

  As to size, Answerer was large to some and small to others. He couldbe viewed as complex, although some believed that he was really verysimple.

  Answerer knew that he was as he should be. Above and beyond all else,he was The Answerer. He Knew.

  Of the race that built him, the less said the better. They also Knew,and never said whether they found the knowledge pleasant.

  They built Answerer as a service to less-sophisticated races, anddeparted in a unique manner. Where they went only Answerer knows.

  Because Answerer knows everything.

  Upon his planet, circling his sun, Answerer sat. Duration continued,long, as some judge duration, short as others judge it. But as itshould be, to Answerer.

  Within him were the Answers. He knew the nature of things, and whythings are as they are, and what they are, and what it all means.

  Answerer could answer anything, provided it was a legitimate question.And he wanted to! He was eager to!

  How else should an Answerer be?

  What else should an Answerer do?

  So he waited for creatures to come and ask.

  * * * * *

  "How do you feel, sir?" Morran asked, floating gently over to the oldman.

  "Better," Lingman said, trying to smile. No-weight was a vast relief.Even though Morran had expended an enormous amount of fuel, gettinginto space under minimum acceleration, Lingman's feeble heart hadn'tliked it. Lingman's heart had balked and sulked, pounded angrilyagainst the brittle rib-case, hesitated and sped up. It seemed for atime as though Lingman's heart was going to stop, out of sheer pique.

  But no-weight was a vast relief, and the feeble heart was going again.

  Morran had no such problems. His strong body was built for strain andstress. He wouldn't experience them on this trip, not if he expectedold Lingman to live.

  "I'm going to live," Lingman muttered, in answer to the unspokenquestion. "Long enough to find out." Morran touched the controls, andthe ship slipped into sub-space like an eel into oil.

  "We'll find out," Morran murmured. He helped the old man unstraphimself. "We're going to find the Answerer!"

  Lingman nodded at his young partner. They had been reassuringthemselves for years. Originally it had been Lingman's project. ThenMorran, graduating from Cal Tech, had joined him. Together they hadtraced the rumors across the solar system. The legends of an ancienthumanoid race who had known the answer to all things, and who hadbuilt Answerer and departed.

  "Think of it," Morran said. "The answer to everything!" A physicist,Morran had many questions to ask Answerer. The expanding universe; thebinding force of atomic nuclei; novae and supernovae; planetaryformation; red shift, relativity and a thousand others.

  "Yes," Lingman said. He pulled himself to the vision plate and lookedout on the bleak prairie of the illusory sub-space. He was a biologistand an old man. He had two questions.

  What is life?

  What is death?

  * * * * *

  After a particularly-long period of hunting purple, Lek and hisfriends gathered to talk. Purple always ran thin in the neighborhoodof multiple-cluster stars--why, no one knew--so talk was definitely inorder.

  "Do you know," Lek said, "I think I'll hunt up this Answerer." Lekspoke the Ollgrat language now, the language of imminent decision.

  "Why?" Ilm asked him, in the Hvest tongue of light banter. "Why do youwant to know things? Isn't the job of gathering purple enough foryou?"

  "No," Lek said, still speaking the language of imminent decision. "Itis not." The great job of Lek and his kind was the gathering ofpurple. They found purple imbedded in many parts of the fabric ofspace, minute quantities of it. Slowly, they were building a hugemound of it. What the mound was for, no one knew.

  "I suppose you'll ask him what purple is?" Ilm asked, pushing a starout of his way and lying down.

  "I will," Lek said. "We have continued in ignorance too long. We mustknow the true nature of purple, and its meaning in the scheme ofthings. We must know why it governs our lives." For this speech Lekswitched to Ilgret, the language of incipient-knowledge.

  Ilm and the others didn't try to argue, even in the tongue ofarguments. They knew that the knowledge was important. Ever since thedawn of time, Lek, Ilm and the others had gathered purple. Now it wastime to know the ultimate answers to the universe--what purple was,and what the mound was for.

  And of course, there was the Answerer to tell them. Everyone had heardof the Answerer, built by a race not unlike themselves, now longdeparted.

  "Will you ask him anything else?" Ilm asked Lek.

  "I don't know," Lek said. "Perhaps I'll ask about the stars. There'sreally nothing else important." Since Lek and his brothers had livedsince the dawn of time, they didn't consider death. And since theirnumbers were always the same, they didn't consider the question oflife.

  But purple? And the mound?

  "I go!" Lek shouted, in the vernacular of decision-to-fact.

  "Good fortune!" his brothers shouted back, in the jargon ofgreatest-friendship.

  Lek strode off, leaping from star to star.

  * * * * *

  Alone on his little planet, Answerer sat, waiting for the Questioners.Occasionally he mumbled the answers to himself. This was hisprivilege. He Knew.

  But he waited, and the time was neither too long nor too short, forany of the creatures of space to come and ask.

  * * * * *

  There were eighteen of them, gathered in one place.

  "I invoke the rule of eighteen," cried one. And another appeared, whohad never before been, born by the rule of eighteen.

  "We must go to the Answerer," one cried. "Our lives are governed bythe rule of eighteen. Where there are eighteen, there will benineteen. Why is this so?"

  No one could answer.

  "Where am I?" asked the newborn nineteenth. One took him aside forinstruction.

  That left seventeen. A stable number.

  "And we must find out," cried another, "Why all places are different,although there is no distance."

  That was the problem. One is here. Then one is there. Just like that,no movement, no reason. And yet, without moving, one is in anotherplace.

  "The stars are cold," one cried.


  "We must go to the Answerer."

  For they had heard the legends, knew the tales. "Once there was arace, a good deal like us, and they Knew--and they told Answerer. Thenthey departed to where there is no place, but much distance."

  "How do we get there?" the newborn nineteenth cried, filled now withknowledge.

  "We go." And eighteen of the
m vanished. One was left. Moodily hestared at the tremendous spread of an icy star, then he too vanished.

  * * * * *

  "Those old legends are true," Morran gasped. "There it is."

  They had come out of sub-space at the place the legends told of, andbefore them was a star unlike any other star. Morran invented aclassification for it, but it didn't matter. There was no other likeit.

  Swinging around the star was a planet, and this too was unlike anyother planet. Morran invented reasons, but they didn't matter. Thisplanet was the only one.

  "Strap yourself in, sir," Morran said. "I'll land as gently as I can."

  * * * * *

  Lek came to Answerer, striding swiftly from star to star. He liftedAnswerer in his hand and looked at him.

  "So you are Answerer," he said.

  "Yes," Answerer said.

  "Then tell me," Lek said, settling himself comfortably in a gapbetween the stars, "Tell me what I am."

  "A partiality," Answerer said. "An indication."

  "Come now," Lek muttered, his pride hurt. "You can do better thanthat. Now then. The purpose of my kind is to gather purple, and tobuild a mound of it. Can you tell me the real meaning of this?"

  "Your question is without meaning," Answerer said. He knew what purpleactually was, and what the mound was for. But the explanation wasconcealed in a greater explanation. Without this, Lek's question wasinexplicable, and Lek had failed to ask the real question.

  Lek asked other questions, and Answerer was unable to answer them. Lekviewed things through his specialized eyes, extracted a part of thetruth and refused to see more. How to tell a blind man the sensationof green?

  Answerer didn't try. He wasn't supposed to.

  Finally, Lek emitted a scornful laugh. One of his littlestepping-stones flared at the sound, then faded back to its usualintensity.

  Lek departed, striding swiftly across the stars.

  * * * * *

  Answerer knew. But he had to be asked the proper questions first. Hepondered this limitation, gazing at the stars which were neither largenor small, but exactly the right size.

  The proper questions. The race which built Answerer should have takenthat into account, Answerer thought. They should have made someallowance for semantic nonsense, allowed him to attempt anunravelling.

  Answerer contented himself with muttering the answers to himself.

  * * * * *

  Eighteen creatures came to Answerer, neither walking nor flying, butsimply appearing. Shivering in the cold glare of the stars, they gazedup at the massiveness of Answerer.

  "If there is no distance," one asked, "Then how can things be in otherplaces?"

  Answerer knew what distance was, and what places were. But he couldn'tanswer the question. There was distance, but not as these creaturessaw it. And there were places, but in a different fashion from thatwhich the creatures expected.

  "Rephrase the question," Answerer said hopefully.

  "Why are we short here," one asked, "And long over there? Why are wefat over there, and short here? Why are the stars cold?"

  Answerer knew all things. He knew why stars were cold, but he couldn'texplain it in terms of stars or coldness.

  "Why," another asked, "Is there a rule of eighteen? Why, when eighteengather, is another produced?"

  But of course the answer was part of another, greater question, whichhadn't been asked.

  Another was produced by the rule of eighteen, and the nineteencreatures vanished.

  * * * * *

  Answerer mumbled the right questions to himself, and answered them.

  * * * * *

  "We made it," Morran said. "Well, well." He patted Lingman on theshoulder--lightly, because Lingman might fall apart.

  The old biologist was tired. His face was sunken, yellow, lined.Already the mark of the skull was showing in his prominent yellowteeth, his small, flat nose, his exposed cheekbones. The matrix wasshowing through.

  "Let's get on," Lingman said. He didn't want to waste any time. Hedidn't have any time to waste.

  Helmeted, they walked along the little path.

  "Not so fast," Lingman murmured.

  "Right," Morran said. They walked together, along the dark path of theplanet that was different from all other planets, soaring alone arounda sun different from all other suns.

  "Up here," Morran said. The legends were explicit. A path, leading tostone steps. Stone steps to a courtyard. And then--the Answerer!

  To them, Answerer looked like a white screen set in a wall. To theireyes, Answerer was very simple.

  Lingman clasped his shaking hands together. This was the culminationof a lifetime's work, financing, arguing, ferreting bits of legend,ending here, now.

  "Remember," he said to Morran, "We will be shocked. The truth will belike nothing we have imagined."

  "I'm ready," Morran said, his eyes rapturous.

  "Very well. Answerer," Lingman said, in his thin little voice, "Whatis life?"

  A voice spoke in their heads. "The question has no meaning. By 'life,'the Questioner is referring to a partial phenomenon, inexplicableexcept in terms of its whole."

  "Of what is life a part?" Lingman asked.

  "This question, in its present form, admits of no answer. Questioneris still considering 'life,' from his personal, limited bias."

  "Answer it in your own terms, then," Morran said.

  "The Answerer can only answer questions." Answerer thought again ofthe sad limitation imposed by his builders.


  "Is the universe expanding?" Morran asked confidently.

  "'Expansion' is a term inapplicable to the situation. Universe, as theQuestioner views it, is an illusory concept."

  "Can you tell us _anything_?" Morran asked.

  "I can answer any valid question concerning the nature of things."

  * * * * *

  The two men looked at each other.

  "I think I know what he means," Lingman said sadly. "Our basicassumptions are wrong. All of them."

  "They can't be," Morran said. "Physics, biology--"

  "Partial truths," Lingman said, with a great weariness in his voice."At least we've determined that much. We've found out that ourinferences concerning observed phenomena are wrong."

  "But the rule of the simplest hypothesis--"

  "It's only a theory," Lingman said.

  "But life--he certainly could answer what life is?"

  "Look at it this way," Lingman said. "Suppose you were to ask, 'Whywas I born under the constellation Scorpio, in conjunction withSaturn?' I would be unable to answer your question _in terms of thezodiac_, because the zodiac has nothing to do with it."

  "I see," Morran said slowly. "He can't answer questions in terms ofour assumptions."

  "That seems to be the case. And he can't alter our assumptions. He islimited to valid questions--which imply, it would seem, a knowledge wejust don't have."

  "We can't even ask a valid question?" Morran asked. "I don't believethat. We must know some basics." He turned to Answerer. "What isdeath?"

  "I cannot explain an anthropomorphism."

  "Death an anthropomorphism!" Morran said, and Lingman turned quickly."Now we're getting somewhere!"

  "Are anthropomorphisms unreal?" he asked.

  "Anthropomorphisms may be classified, tentatively, as, A, falsetruths, or B, partial truths in terms of a partial situation."

  "Which is applicable here?"


  That was the closest they got. Morran was unable to draw any more fromAnswerer. For hours the two men tried, but truth was slipping fartherand farther away.

  "It's maddening," Morran said, after a while. "This thing has theanswer to the whole universe, and he can't tell us unless we ask theright question. But how are we supposed to know the
right question?"

  Lingman sat down on the ground, leaning against a stone wall. Heclosed his eyes.

  "Savages, that's what we are," Morran said, pacing up and down infront of Answerer. "Imagine a bushman walking up to a physicist andasking him why he can't shoot his arrow into the sun. The scientistcan explain it only in his own terms. What would happen?"

  "The scientist wouldn't even attempt it," Lingman said, in a dimvoice; "he would know the limitations of the questioner."

  "It's fine," Morran said angrily. "How do you explain the earth'srotation to a bushman? Or better, how do you explain relativity tohim--maintaining scientific rigor in your explanation at all times, ofcourse."

  Lingman, eyes closed, didn't answer.

  "We're bushmen. But the gap is much greater here. Worm and super-man,perhaps. The worm desires to know the nature of dirt, and why there'sso much of it. Oh, well."

  "Shall we go, sir?" Morran asked. Lingman's eyes remained closed. Histaloned fingers were clenched, his cheeks sunk further in. The skullwas emerging.

  "Sir! Sir!"

  And Answerer knew that that was not the answer.

  * * * * *

  Alone on his planet, which is neither large nor small, but exactly theright size, Answerer waits. He cannot help the people who come to him,for
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