It is the future, and modern society depends on computers to keep functioning. (Imagine that.) But understanding how computers work and programming them is an complicated, arcane practice incomprehensible to most (imagine that), and requires people with minds that can understand how to do it. These people are called "Grand Masters", comparing the work to complex chess strategies.
But having the mind to understand machines can come at the cost of being good with people, and Grand Master Noel Meyerhof is a master of telling jokes in order to connect with others. Being a curious person, he's currently working on a personal project where he will ask the superintelligent Multivac two questions.
Timothy Whistler, computer analyst, and Abram Trask, the public official in charge of their Department in Multivac, discover Grand Master Meyerhof has been telling jokes to Multivac. Concerned that their vital Insufferable Genius may be broken, the two of them conspire together to find out what Meyerhof's project is.
Annoyed with the intrusion into his project, Meyerhof willingly shares the information, and the three characters discover "Where do all these jokes come from?" and "What will be the effect on the human race of discovering the answer to [the] first question?"
This story has been reprinted over a dozen times, and Isaac Asimov would include it in nine of his collections, such as Earth is Room Enough (1957), Science Fiction Verhalen 3 (1964), Science Fiction Favorites (1975), The Far Ends Of Time And Earth (1979), Meine Freunde Die Roboter (1982), The Best Science Fiction Of Isaac Asimov (1986), Robot Dreams (1986), and The Complete Stories, Volume 1 (1990).
Examples of tropes within this work:
- Absent-Minded Professor: Grand Master Meyerhof had forgotten to turn on the "do not disturb" sign at the start of this story, so Whistler walks in when he's telling jokes to the superintelligent Multivac.
- Black Comedy: Most of the jokes told by Meyerhof have some sort of insulting/tragic influence behind them. Usually death. (The general Awful Wedded Life nature of many of them may simply be Values Dissonance from Asimov's time.)
- Johnson came home unexpectedly from a business trip to find his wife in the arms of his best friend. He staggered back and said, 'Max! I'm married to the lady so I have to. But why you?'
- The ship's steward stopped at the rail of the ship during a particularly rough ocean crossing and gazed compassionately at the man whose slumped position over the rail and whose intensity of gaze toward the depths betokened all too well the ravages of seasickness.
Gently, the steward patted the man's shoulder. 'Cheer up, sir,' he murmured. 'I know it seems bad, but really, you know, nobody ever dies of seasickness.'
The afflicted gentleman lifted his greenish, tortured face to his comforter and gasped in hoarse accents, 'Don't say that, man. For Heaven's sake, don't say that. It's only the hope of dying that's keeping me alive.'
- The ardent swain, picking a bouquet of wildflowers for his loved one, was disconcerted to find himself, suddenly, in the same field with a large bull of unfriendly appearance which, gazing at him steadily, pawed the ground in a threatening manner. The young man, spying a farmer on the other side of a fairly distant fence, shouted, 'Hey, mister, is that bull safe?'
The farmer surveyed the situation with critical eye, spat to one side and called back, 'He's safe as anything.' He spat again, and added, 'Can't say the same about you, though.'
- Mrs. Jones stared at the fortune card that had emerged from the weighing machine in response to her husband's penny. She said, 'It says here, George, that you're suave, intelligent, farseeing, industrious and attractive to women.' With that, she turned the card over and added, 'And they have your weight wrong, too.'
- Abner was seated at his wife's sickbed, weeping uncontrollably, when his wife, mustering the dregs of her strength, drew herself up to one elbow.
'Abner,' she whispered, 'Abner, I cannot go to my Maker without confessing my misdeed.'
'Not now,' muttered the stricken husband. 'Not now, my dear. Lie back and rest.'
'I cannot,' she cried. 'I must tell, or my soul will never know peace. I have been unfaithful to you, Abner. In this very house, not one month ago-'
'Hush, dear,' soothed Abner. 'I know all about it. Why else have I poisoned you?'
- Ug, the caveman, observed his mate running to him in tears, her leopard-skin skirt in disorder. 'Ug,' she cried, distraught, 'do something quickly. A saber-toothed tiger has entered Mother's cave. Do something!' Ug grunted, picked up his well-gnawed buffalo bone and said, 'Why do anything? Who the hell cares what happens to a saber-toothed tiger?'note
- The Chosen Many: Grand Masters like Meyerhoff are a rare breed of people, known for making entirely correct yet intuitive leaps of logic, and are the only way that humankind can stay ahead of super intelligent machines like Multivac. They're held in high esteem and rarely produced more than one in a generation.
- Cosmic Horror Story: A subtle but inarguable example. Some unknown alien power has monitored humanity for unknowable ages, and has the power to introduce (and remove) concepts in the minds of every human being. The story ends with the characters realizing this, and feeling a sense of impossible oppression.
- Featureless Plane of Disembodied Dialogue: Most of the story takes place within the rooms of Multivac, the massive computer system, and is sparsely described to minimize the potential for getting future computer design obviously wrong. The characters themselves have even less description, as Dr Asimov focuses on character dynamics instead.
- In-Series Nickname: Grand Master Meyerhof is called a "Jokester" by the people he socializes with, because he's the best at telling jokes. This nickname starts to bother him when he realizes that he's never invented a joke, merely repeated them.
- Insufferable Genius: Grand Master Meyerhof thinks of himself as being rather friendly because he doesn't hold everyone else at the "proper social distance", but speaks of them as fools and creatures. Because of the special role all Grand Masters play in making Multivac improve the world, everyone is too afraid of making one angry to object.
- Intelligence Equals Isolation: All Grand Masters, the people who make intuitive leaps of reason to arrive at correct answers. They are universally recognized as having the ability to make great leaps of logic and reason, something that sets them apart from everyday people. Meyerhof uses jokes to be able to socialize with people that aren't super-smart.
- Master Computer: Grand Master Meyerhof and the others work in/for Multivac, a vast computer, ten miles long. The obvious scientific questions have been asked, so people like Meyerhof are named Grand Master because they're able to "look ahead" like a chess-playing grandmaster and identify the sort of data Multivac needs to answer philosophical questions.
- The Namesake: Meyerhof's methods of socializing is to share jokes with other people, earning the nickname of "Jokester".
- Perspective Reversal: Whistler is initially concerned about Grand Master Meyerhof, seeing his obsession with telling Multivac jokes as a sign of instability (something they cannot afford in Grand Masters). Trask, on the other hand, has no issue with what Meyerhof wants to do, thinking it is a harmless quirk or eccentricity. After Meyerhof's first question is asked, Trask notices how odd it is when he realizes that he finds the line of questioning insane and Whistler has no problem with it.
- People Zoo: This story builds up to The Reveal that Earth is a laboratory experiment by Sufficiently Advanced Aliens, using humour as a psychological tool to test our reactions. Now that we've figured it out, humour must be removed; no more jokes, ever!
- Meyerhof is named "Grand Master" as a reference to Chess players who look millions of moves ahead. The comparison is explicitly made.
- This story compares Multivac to the Oracle of Delphi priestess who spoke nonsense that predicted the future. The computer analysts are compared to the priests that interpreted the prophetic babbling.
- Smart People Play Chess: Meyerhof is named "Grand Master" because all of the obvious questions has been asked of Multivac, and now society needs the sort of people who can look millions of Chess moves ahead to look millions of questions ahead and figure out what questions to ask Multivac.
- Sufficiently Advanced Alien: The human sense of humour is found to be an experiment imposed on us by aliens. Tragically, once this experiment is discovered, it is no longer of any use for the aliens and the capacity for finding something funny is immediately removed.
- Tech Marches On: Besides the nature of Multivac, obviously, coding in reality is not the province of a super-intelligent elite and professionals in the field will freely admit that some crucial and widely used technology runs on code better described as "seems to work for now, until it needs patching up again" and is thought of as "hacking", more than "surgery".
- These Are Things Man Was Not Meant to Know: One man, with access to a super computer that can tell you anything if you know the right questions to ask, tries to discover the source of humor. He tries because he himself is a wonderful, though nonprofessional, comedian. Eventually it turns out the sense of humor was an alien experiment that would be halted as soon as anyone figured out that it was so, meaning he destroyed everyone's sense of humor. Plus, the aliens will now replace humor with something else. Who knows what?