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Literature / Profession

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Some people can't be taught, no matter what method you use. Even the Education Tape machine failed on some abnormal individuals...
—Introduction in Astounding Science Fiction

First published in Astounding Science Fiction (July 1957 issue), it was reprinted in the UK edition for the November 1957 issue. This Science Fiction Novella by Isaac Asimov takes place in The Future where everyone is educated with computer tapes recorded directly into your brain. However, there exists a class of people who cannot be educated this way. They are instead kept apart from the rest of society and kept as wards of the government.

George Platen is a resident of "A House for the Feeble-minded". He and his roommate Hali Omani are incapable of becoming educated, so they're held as wards of the government. Olympics Day approaches, and this starts another argument between the two of them.

George's introspection leads to a Flashback to when he and Armand Trevelyan (Stubby to his friends) were eight years old, on Reading Day. Reading Day is when children get the ability to read and write imprinted into their heads. While there, the children are tested for potential aptitudes, but this is hidden from them.

Next, the story jumps forward to Education Day, where eighteen-year-old George and Trevelyan take their aptitude test and assignment to the job that best fits their abilities. According to the test, however, George cannot be taught by the computer. So he is sent to a House for the Feeble-minded.

Finally catching up to the start of the story, George decides to escape, and confront the doctor that assigned him to the Home for the Feeble-minded instead of a Profession. No locks hold him with the building, no police are sent to retrieve them, he's able to cross the country to San Francisco to look for the doctor that sent him to the House instead of assigning him to Computer Programmer.

Distracted by the announcement that his friend Trevelyn is competing in the Olympics, George goes to watch. After Trevelyn's poor showing, George tries to console him, when Trev's anger and frustration turn on George, demanding what sort of Profession he was given. The police come to break up the altercation before any violence happens, but George's identity as a "feeble-minded" is about to be revealed.

Luckily, a stranger rescues George from the police and offers to host George for awhile. He turns out to be Ladislas Ingenescu, Registered Historian, and George notices by the way the police defer to him that he must be important. So George shares dinner with him and convinces Ingenescu to contact a Novian official. Although the interview itself goes poorly, the Secret Test has been passed, and George returns to the Home and Omani for the Dénouement.

Outside of the original Pulp Magazine, this story has been reprinted several times; Nine Tomorrows (1959), Valence and Vision: A Reader in Psychology (1974), Other Worlds Of Isaac Asimov (1987), The Asimov Chronicles Fifty Years Of Isaac Asimov (1989), Astounding Stories The60th Anniversary Collection (1990), The Complete Stories, Volume 1 (1990), and Die Asimov Chronik Die Vierte Generation (1991).

Examples of tropes within this work:

  • 20 Minutes into the Future: This story explores the idea of a society at least four thousand years in the future, where Neural Implanting has replaced mainstream schooling and Faster-Than-Light Travel has been used to colonize multiple worlds. The most precious resource isn't metals or living space; it is the creative drive to invent and innovate.
  • Affectionate Nickname:
    • When they were eight, Trevelyan would call George "Jaw-jee".
    • When they were eight, George would call Armand Trevelyan "Stubby", which changed to "Trev" when Trevelyan decided that it was too childish.
  • Artifact Name: At the end of the story, George asks about an In-Universe example; Olympics Day. The Olympic Games referred to the Greek city of Olympus, but they're now held yearly and involve demonstrations of Professional skills. Trevelyn and others on Earth use the Olympics to get companies/planets to notice their skills and get more prestigious hiring offers.
  • Brick Joke: While George is waiting to join the crowds of people watching the Olympics, he has a Flashback to being eight again, asking why they had that name. At the end of the story, George once again demands to know why they're named the Olympic Games.
  • Deflector Shields: Far in the future, cities like San Francisco will be able to enact city-wide shields that keep out the bad weather, and allow news headlines to be broadcast as though the whole thing doubled as an Holographic Terminal.
  • Dénouement: After George passes the Secret Test by trying to convince the Novian official to essentially start a "Home for the Feeble-minded" off Earth, he returns to his room and talks about the events since his escape. The test is explained to him (and the audience), and the story ends on a Brick Joke.
  • Embarrassing First Name: Tevelyn's first name is Armand, but he never uses it. When he was eight, he went by "Stubby", discarding that as he grew up and forcing his friends to be on a Last-Name Basis with him.
  • Fantastic Caste System: There's a vast and complicated social structure in this future, which includes multiple planets (the planets themselves are graded, implying classism of birth planets). At the very bottom, George learns, are a class of people who cannot be taught by computer downloads. They are instead kept as wards of the government and separate from the rest of society. What he doesn't realize until later is they're actually the highest class of society. People like him who can learn on their own are able to arrange meetings with foreign diplomats and VIP tickets. People who create the computer downloads inadvertently direct society.
  • Funetik Aksent: George's eight-year-old nickname, "Jaw-jee", is a phonetic spelling of the typical "Georgie".
  • How We Got Here: After establishing George Platen's situation (living in a Home for the Feeble-minded), the narration moves back in time to reflect on what happened during his Reading Day (when he was eight) and Education Day (when he was eighteen), providing Exposition based on what George/"everyone" knows about society. Returning to his present, George escapes the Home and watches his childhood friend compete in Olympics Day.
  • Inept Aptitude Test: Eight-year-olds go to Reading Day; after they learn how to read, their brains are tested for aptitude, but it doesn't affect much. Ten years later, eighteen-year-olds are tested again; based on their neurological responses, they're assigned a profession. George's scan reveals that he cannot be taught by computer, so instead of having a profession assigned, he is sent to a government home for "feeble-minded people". George insists that they got it wrong and he should be a computer programmer, not "feeble-minded". This place is a Secret Test to discover if he is merely someone capable of learning on his own, or if he is capable of truly original thought; the only variable they can't fully quantify or implant. The tapes are made by other people like him.
  • Internalized Categorism: When the Inept Aptitude Test says that George cannot learn by computer, he's sent to "A Home for the Feeble-minded". George's struggle against this categorization drives the plot. Even after a year, he continues to rail against the idea that he can't learn. Turns out, the whole thing is part of a Secret Test to see if George has a creative drive or if he's just a good learner. The best method their society has for finding creative talents is to insult/patronize them until they throw off the categorization and declare that they are Creators.
  • Last-Name Basis: Trevelyan's full name is Armand Trevelyan, but Trevelyan preferred Stubby as a child, and still dislikes his given name. His best friend (and the narration) calls him Trevelyan or Trev.
  • Neural Implanting: Everyone in The Future learns reading when they're eight, and this is called Reading Day. After taking a neurological aptitude test, their skills are downloaded into the brain. Naturally, your skills are only as good as the quality of the tapes because learning without tapes is now unthinkable.
  • Outgrowing the Childish Name: George and Trevelyan both had nicknames when they were eight, and they're shown to grow up by discarding their nicknames by the time they're eighteen.
  • Secret Test: The story begins with George living in "A House for the Feeble-minded" despite a future where everyone is assigned a job and Educated (that is, their minds are filled with information from a computer) except for the "feeble-minded". It was really a test — if he protested being labelled feeble-minded and continued to learn and create on his own, it proved he was gifted with the ability of original thought and therefore a cornerstone of human society.