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Ask a Foolish Question

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Author: Robert Sheckley
Published: 1953
Language: English
Wordcount: 3,806 / 19 pg
Flesch-Kincaid Reading Ease: 65.5
LoC Category: PS
Downloads: 5,728
Added to site: 2010.10.11 29239

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.

Show Excerpt

n, 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's so much of it. Oh, well."

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

"Sir! Sir!"

And Answerer knew that that was not the answer.

* * * * *

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

He can answer only valid questions.

Universe? Life? Death? Purple? Eighteen?

Partial truths, half-truths, little bits of the great question.

But Answerer, alone, mumbles the questions to himself, the true questions, which no one can understand.

How could they understand the true answers?

The questions will never be asked, and Answerer remem

Reader Reviews

Average Rating of 3.3 from 6 reviews: ****
Sardo Weems

Just an okay story, short enough not to be a waste of time. A couple of glaring questions pop up at the end. (Why would anyone bother to consult a machine that never manages a helpful answer? Why wouldn't a race that built a machine that knew everthing anticipate its limitations and allow for them?)


The "Answerer" will answer any question. So why do pilgrims to the great machine depart in disappointment? Interesting story, very short and worth a read.

Mahesh Chitrao

This story is actually a very profound epistemological comment on what is knowable and what is not. It puts in question everything we (human beings) believe as absolute truth. At least to me, it made me rethink my whole belief system.

Andrew Ives

Quite a clever sci-fi story, but not one I enjoyed much as it was rather too crazy for my liking.

Jack Meogh

Consider the premise that you could ask a super-being any question and get an answer. Wouldn't the answer depend on your understanding? If you ask, "What is the meaning of life?" how would you come to understand the answer?

Remember that, "Learning occurs at the edge of knowledge." The Answerer can not "leap" you forward over what you don't know. And it can't help you "unlearn" incorrect assumptions. The Answerer even appears differently to each species that approaches it.

Very entertaining and thought-provoking. I recommend it.


Many different types of aliens travel to the Answerer, a machine which can answer any question. A good short story.



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