It is always a joy to find a science-fiction story which utterly transcends the era of its composition and expresses concepts and concerns that few writers in the field were to address again for half a century or more. I first encountered this tale in a John W. Campbell anthology published during the 1970's, and was pleased to find it again online.
The plot is essentially simple. An (at first) un-named narrator describes how the Earth of A.D. 2538, which contained only a couple of million human beings served by billions of faithful robots who had colonized and were exploiting the resources of the Solar System for them, came under attack by the Outsiders, interstellar aliens who attacked without cause or mercy. The Outsiders possessed power from the complete disintegration of matter, and used a variety of weapons, including a death ray which instantaneously stopped organic neural processes and which neither humanity nor its robot servitors knew how to stop.
Though the Outsiders at first enjoyed a considerable technological advantage, two brilliant human scientists, Roal and Trest, aided by the sapient machines, manage to reverse-engineer and ultimately surpass the alien science. But they figure it out a bit too late: ten thousand half-mile long Outsider spaceships attack the Earth and are able to bathe the planet in a sufficiently-heavy bombardment of death-rays to annihilate all Mankind (which had chosen to remain planetbound because the machines were more efficient at colonizing other worlds).
This is however not the end of the cause of Earth. The sapient machines continue fighting on behalf of their murdered masters. F-2, the greatest of the robot scientists, develops a machine of pure energy, embedded in the very matrix of spacetime, which in turn develops intellectual and physical powers beyond the comprehension of any material machine. The Being of Force easily defeats the Outsiders, making such a demonstration of might that they flee back to their home system. The Being of Force causes others of its kind to be created, and they stride forth to rule the Solar System and beyond.
It is revealed that the narrator is none other than F-2, the greatest and last of the sapient robots. 625 thousand years have passed since then, and F-2 has made the record which is the story, and will have the Beings of Force cast it back through time to be published as fiction in 1932.
And so my task being done, I, F-2, like Roal and Trest, shall follow the others of my kind into eternal oblivion, for my kind is now, and theirs was, poor and inefficient. Time has worn me, and oxidation attacked me, but they of Force are eternal, and omniscient.
This I have treated as fictitious. Better so—for man is an animal to whom hope is as necessary as food and air. Yet this which is made of excerpts from certain records on thin sheets of metal is no fiction, and it seems I must so say.
It seems now, when I know this that is to be, that it must be so, for machines are indeed better than man, whether being of Metal, or being of Force.
So, you who have read, believe as you will. Then think—and maybe, you will change your belief.
Like most early Campbell stories, this is not a story of character, and it is only secondarily about setting or plot. It is entirely centered around an idea, and this is a theme of such mighty scope and import that it renders the lack of characterization and the rather simple setting and plot irrelevant before its force.
The theme is that of The Singularity, as it would be named by Von Neumann in the mid-1950's (over 20 years after this story was written) and popularized by Vernor Vinge in the 1980's (half a century after the first publication of "The Last Evolution."). Campbell's point is that sapient robots are theoretically capable of more rapid physical and mental evolution than sapient organic life; and futhermore that sapient robots made of pure energy rather than matter (what the writers of the 1990's and beyond would term "computronium") would be theoretically-capable of even more rapid physical and mental evolution. Hence, sapient robots would be more evolutionarily-fit than ourselves, and in turn sapient energy would be more evolutionarily-fit than sapient robots.
What's interesting about the portrayal of this concept in "The Last Evolution" is that this evolution occurs in a friendly fashion: the higher life-forms are not hostile to their lower predecessors. Though the pace of this evolution is speeded by the pressure of the utterly-malevolent Outsiders, it is clear that it would have happened in any case. Mankind was a dying race already in the early 26th century, having by 2538 dropped in numbers to about one-1000th those it had attained around 1930 and to about one-5000th the numbers it attained by around 2100 (in passing I notice that Campbell's figure for maximum probable Earthly human population accords well with present-day projections). What's even more significant (and proves fatal to humanity in the tale), Man failed to make the demographic leap to the other Solar planets, thus presenting the Outsiders with a concentrated target.
The sapient robots -- who have met the evolutionary challenges of expanding their population and spreading it to other worlds -- do not turn on a now-vulnerable humanity. Instead, they fight heroically to protect Mankind from the Outsiders. They fail -- but they succeed in surviving themselves, and they succeed in generating their own heirs, the Beings of Force, who utterly transcend the power of the Outsiders and sweep them out of the Solar System with contemptuous ease.
The sapient robots, from the textual evidence, long survive the appearance of the Beings of Force, and the implied relationship between F-2 and the force beings is friendly. But they recognize that they are outclassed, and they too dwindle, until F-2 itself is the last of its kind.
The second interesting thing is that John W. Campbell, Jr. thinks beyond the obvious notion of sapient robots out-competing their creators, to consider the question of what would then emerge to out-compete the sapient robots.
And the third interesting thing is the speed with which it all happens. This is the Singularity -- force-driven by the demands of an interstellar war -- and once it happens the Beings of Force move utterly beyond F-2's comprehension. F-2 was smarter at mathematical reasoning than the smartest humans (though he was not as creative as them): the Beings of Force are both smarter than the robots and more creative than the humans. They are true Transcendents, compared to ourselves as superior as are humans to worms.
But they are our heirs. So in a sense Mankind has not failed, since the children of Man are expanding to rule the Universe.
I noticed just how much Campbell's future of 2538 resembles that of much modern science-fiction which chooses to be pessimistic about the human colonization of other worlds. Information technology had advanced, dramatically, to the point of sapient machinery. Most humans spend their time playing games
Most of mankind were quite useless, for they lived in a world where no productive work was necessary. But games, athletic contests, adventure—these were the things they sought for their pleasure. Some of the poorer types of man gave themselves up wholly to pleasure and idleness—and to emotions.
as in any cyber-utopia, though a few -- such as Roal and Trest -- remain productive by venturing into areas of science too speculative for the relatively-inflexible robot brains.
It is clear, given the displayed level of technology (nuclear fission and or fusion powered automated factories able to build fleets of transport spacecraft, and flexible enough to rapidly retool for military spacecraft) that Mankind could have colonized the other Solar planets. (And it's explicitly stated that some humans explore them for pleasure, essentially space tourism). It's just that not enough humans apparently want to colonize other worlds, since the robots provide them their resources much more efficiently, to support any real interplanetary colonization.
Which seems reasonable, until a horde of genocidal aliens descend upon the Earth. And then, of course, it's too late for the human race.
In this story, Campbell went places that only the most daring science-fiction writers would go for decades to come. It wasn't until the science-fiction of the 1980's and 1990's that such ideas became at all normal, and indeed most science-fiction still hasn't yet gotten there.
Truly, Campbell was a giant of our field, as this story demonstrates.