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Literature / The Feeling of Power

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Graphitics was a startling new idea! So revolutionary, in fact, that it rocked the top army brass. Imagine computing—without a computer!
—Introduction in Worlds of IF

First published in IF (February 1958 issue), by Isaac Asimov, is a Science Fiction Short Story about the Lost Technology of mathematics. Due to society's dependence on computers, the ability of one lowly technician to recreate basic mathematics is seen as a way to break the stalemate in the war against Deneb.

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Technician Aub has a hobby; he likes to figure out how the computers he fixes think. From studying the older models, he's deduced arithmetic and multiplicative calculations. Programmer-first-class Jehan Shuman discovered that talent, and now he's being shown around to Generals and Heads of congressional committees. Nervously, he explains graphitics (calculation without a calculator) to them.

This "hobby" is introduced to world leaders, turned into a top-secret government project, and gone far beyond what the lowly technician ever wanted from it. Project Numbers has people trying to learn enough of the system to pilot missiles and break through the Denebian computerized anti-missile protection. Aub chooses to kill himself rather than support this violent use of graphitics. But it is too late; enough other people can use the same science, and the technology will continue. Shuman reflects that knowing graphitics gives him a feeling of power.

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Outside of the original Pulp Magazine, this story has been reprinted several times, and Isaac Asimov has included it in six of his collections; Nine Tomorrows (1959), Opus 100 (1969), The Edge Of Tomorrow (1985), The Best Science Fiction Of Isaac Asimov (1986), Robot Dreams (1986), and The Complete Stories, Volume 1 (1990).


Examples of tropes within this work:

  • 20 Minutes into the Future: This story is set so far into the future, Faster-Than-Light Travel is an Implied Trope and Earth has lost the ability to do Mathematics without a computer. Computers, when this story was written, were always large, bulky things, but Isaac Asimov predicted people would carry around pocket computers.
  • Book-Ends: The first math problem is given by Programmer Shuman to Technician Aub, who recites nine times seven is sixty-three. The last problem is given by Programmer Shuman to himself, after the death of Technician Aub, and he recites nine times seven is sixty-three.
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  • Central Theme: The premise is a future when people no longer know how to do mathematics without a computer, and what happens when someone figures out how to do it again.
    "A time when people have forgotten arithmetic, and then someone discovers it again." Isaac Asimov, Science Fiction Favorites
  • Driven to Suicide: Technician Aub hates that his little hobby of reinventing the lost skill of Mathematics has become part of the war effort against Deneb.
  • Fanofthe Past: Technician Aub enjoys looking at how the computers work, and he's figured out how they do math, reinventing a skill humans had long ago lost. When his little hobby is turned into part of the war against Deneb, he decides to kill himself.
  • Faster-Than-Light Travel: An Implied Trope due to Earth's system and Deneb's system (around 2600 light years away) being in a stalemated war.
  • Featureless Plane of Disembodied Dialogue: The characters of Aub and Shuman are the only ones to rate a description, even when other characters are the only ones present in a scene. The rooms are all empty of description, although chairs and tables are implied, not textual evidence supports their existence.
  • Forever War: Earth and Deneb are stuck in a stalemate because their computers are equal in computing ability. They precisely counter one another. The idea of using graphitics to control manned missiles might be enough to break the stalemate and defeat their enemy. Isaac Asimov doesn't bother to specify if the Denebian civilization is human or alien, since all that matters is they are equal in technology to Earth's civilization.
  • Goodbye, Cruel World!: Technician Aub leaves behind a suicide note to explain why he was Driven to Suicide.
    "When I began the study of what is now called graphitics, it was no more than a hobby. I saw no more in it than an interesting amusement, an exercise of mind.
    "When Project Number began, I thought that others were wiser than I; that graphitics might be put to practical use as a benefit to mankind, to aid in the production of really practical mass-transference devices perhaps. But now I see it is to be used only for death and destruction.
    "I cannot face the responsibility involved in having invented graphitics."
  • Ray Gun: Technician Aub uses a protein-depolarizer on himself to commit suicide. The results aren't given in detail.
  • Terminally Dependent Society: Earth is so dependant on computers that the science of Mathematics has been entirely lost. Instead of paper and pencil, people use their pocket calculators to do even simple maths like single-digit multiplication. The story is driven by the recreation of Mathematics by Technician Aub.
  • Title Drop: The story ends with Programmer Shuman declaring to himself that knowing graphitics gave him a wonderful feeling of power.
    And it was amazing the feeling of power that gave him.

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