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´╗┐Title: Ask a Foolish Question
Author: Sheckley, Robert, 1928-2005
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Ask a Foolish Question" ***

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                         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_


                         _by_ ROBERT SHECKLEY

       *       *       *       *       *



[Illustration]

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

As to size, Answerer was large to some and small to others. He could
be viewed as complex, although some believed that he was really very
simple.

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, and
departed 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 it
should be, to Answerer.

Within him were the Answers. He knew the nature of things, and why
things 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 old
man.

"Better," Lingman said, trying to smile. No-weight was a vast relief.
Even though Morran had expended an enormous amount of fuel, getting
into space under minimum acceleration, Lingman's feeble heart hadn't
liked it. Lingman's heart had balked and sulked, pounded angrily
against the brittle rib-case, hesitated and sped up. It seemed for a
time 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 and
stress. He wouldn't experience them on this trip, not if he expected
old Lingman to live.

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

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

Lingman nodded at his young partner. They had been reassuring
themselves for years. Originally it had been Lingman's project. Then
Morran, graduating from Cal Tech, had joined him. Together they had
traced the rumors across the solar system. The legends of an ancient
humanoid race who had known the answer to all things, and who had
built Answerer and departed.

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

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

What is life?

What is death?

       *       *       *       *       *

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ilm and the others didn't try to argue, even in the tongue of
arguments. They knew that the knowledge was important. Ever since the
dawn of time, Lek, Ilm and the others had gathered purple. Now it was
time 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 heard
of the Answerer, built by a race not unlike themselves, now long
departed.

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

"I don't know," Lek said. "Perhaps I'll ask about the stars. There's
really nothing else important." Since Lek and his brothers had lived
since the dawn of time, they didn't consider death. And since their
numbers were always the same, they didn't consider the question of
life.

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 of
greatest-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 his
privilege. He Knew.

But he waited, and the time was neither too long nor too short, for
any 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, who
had never before been, born by the rule of eighteen.

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

No one could answer.

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

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 another
place.

"The stars are cold," one cried.

"Why?"

"We must go to the Answerer."

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

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

"We go." And eighteen of them vanished. One was left. Moodily he
stared 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, and
before them was a star unlike any other star. Morran invented a
classification for it, but it didn't matter. There was no other like
it.

Swinging around the star was a planet, and this too was unlike any
other planet. Morran invented reasons, but they didn't matter. This
planet 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 lifted
Answerer 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 gap
between the stars, "Tell me what I am."

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

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

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

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

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

Finally, Lek emitted a scornful laugh. One of his little
stepping-stones flared at the sound, then faded back to its usual
intensity.

Lek departed, striding swiftly across the stars.

       *       *       *       *       *

Answerer knew. But he had to be asked the proper questions first. He
pondered this limitation, gazing at the stars which were neither large
nor small, but exactly the right size.

The proper questions. The race which built Answerer should have taken
that into account, Answerer thought. They should have made some
allowance for semantic nonsense, allowed him to attempt an
unravelling.

Answerer contented himself with muttering the answers to himself.

       *       *       *       *       *

Eighteen creatures came to Answerer, neither walking nor flying, but
simply appearing. Shivering in the cold glare of the stars, they gazed
up at the massiveness of Answerer.

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

Answerer knew what distance was, and what places were. But he couldn't
answer the question. There was distance, but not as these creatures
saw it. And there were places, but in a different fashion from that
which the creatures expected.

"Rephrase the question," Answerer said hopefully.

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

Answerer knew all things. He knew why stars were cold, but he couldn't
explain it in terms of stars or coldness.

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

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

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

       *       *       *       *       *

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

       *       *       *       *       *

"We made it," Morran said. "Well, well." He patted Lingman on the
shoulder--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 yellow
teeth, his small, flat nose, his exposed cheekbones. The matrix was
showing through.

"Let's get on," Lingman said. He didn't want to waste any time. He
didn'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 the
planet that was different from all other planets, soaring alone around
a sun different from all other suns.

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

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

Lingman clasped his shaking hands together. This was the culmination
of 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 be
like nothing we have imagined."

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

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

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

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

"This question, in its present form, admits of no answer. Questioner
is 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 of
the sad limitation imposed by his builders.

Silence.

"Is the universe expanding?" Morran asked confidently.

"'Expansion' is a term inapplicable to the situation. Universe, as the
Questioner 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 basic
assumptions 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 our
inferences 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, 'Why
was I born under the constellation Scorpio, in conjunction with
Saturn?' I would be unable to answer your question _in terms of the
zodiac_, because the zodiac has nothing to do with it."

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

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

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

"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, false
truths, or B, partial truths in terms of a partial situation."

"Which is applicable here?"

"Both."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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'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 remembers something
his builders knew and forgot.

In order to ask a question you must already know most of the answer.

[Illustration]

       *       *       *       *       *





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