I am trying to find a short story that I read about ten years ago in a science fiction anthology. The story itself was much older - I'd estimate it was from the 1950s. Unfortunately I don't remember any details of the book's cover or title.

The story concerned an alien artifact, left behind by a race of unimaginably advanced, but now extinct aliens. It was a computer/AI which was reputed to be able to answer any question. In the story various different alien races, including humans, search for the machine, eventually locate it, and ask their questions.

The humans ask things like, "Is there a god?", "What is the meaning of life?" and so on. But to each reply they get an answer like "Question improperly formatted, syntax incorrect." So although the machine could understand any language, it was only programmed to respond if the question was formulated in a very precise way.

There was an element of sentiency about the machine. I remember it being described as completely understanding the true question that the people wanted to ask, and longing to give the answer, but being prevented by its programming.

One of the alien races lived in the atmosphere of stars, and I think that their big question was "Why do we gather purple?", that being the overriding task of their race. They were also unsuccessful in obtaining a reply, because of incorrect formatting of the query.


1 Answer 1


Ask a Foolish Question by Robert Sheckley appears to tick most of your boxes. It's also an (unaccepted) answer to this question. It can be found and read it at Project Gutenberg (thanks to user14111 for the link), and on the Internet Archive. It has humans and aliens searching for an entity that knows the answer to every question but every question asked of him is not valid.

Originally published in Science Fiction Stories, #1 1953, the story opens describing the Answerer, who is ancient and was created by a race who "Knew".

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.


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.

It contains humans searching for the Answerer, and one of the men searching is wanting to ask about life and death:

“We’ll find out,” Morran murmured. He helped the old man unstrap himself; “We’re going to find the Answerer!


“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?

There is also a group aliens who are are "hunting purple". Apparently they have no idea why they are collecting purple:

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.

The alien Lek says he's going to ask the Answerer why they are gathering purple:

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.

Lek does get to ask his question to the Answerer, but the Answerer cannot answer because Lek failed to ask the real question. The following passage also indicates that the Answerer does know the answer, but cannot answer due to "a greater explanation". It also hints at the possibility he's sentient, as he mulls over the answers he's not allowed to give:

“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.


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.

At the end of the story the requirements to asking the "right question" are revealed. In order to ask a question you must

already know most of the answer.

  • 1
    Found with the query short story alien machine answer question "gather purple"
    – fez
    Commented Jun 4, 2022 at 13:45
  • 1
    Yes that's definitely it! I tried searching for "gather purple" too, but never found anything useful :( Commented Jun 4, 2022 at 14:22
  • And the answer is . . ."Death is an anthropomorphism."
    – FlaStorm32
    Commented Jun 5, 2022 at 3:03
  • 4
    @ClaraDiazSanchez Well, you must remember most of the story in order to ask the right question to find it ;-). Commented Jun 5, 2022 at 21:27
  • 1
    Actually that old question does have an accepted answer. The OP did not accept or comment on my answer, but posted the correct answer himself or herself, as a comment to the question, just before I posted my answer. Accordingly I've closed the old question as a duplicate of this one, which has more story details and a clearly accepted answer.
    – user14111
    Commented Jun 6, 2022 at 4:36

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