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I read a story when I was a child in the 70's that I cannot forget. It may have been from fiction written between 1950 - 1975. My older brother subscribed to several short fiction scifi magazines.

The story is of a young man who lived in a village. When villagers turned 16 their brains were measured as to what they could best hold. At age 18, a specialized program was uploaded to their brains to make them the best possible specialist they could be, as needed by the society. One person would become the best keymaker, the best tailor, etc. Each persons identity in the social structure was based on optimizing the brain for their best possible application. The citizens were very proud of their occupations.

The young man was identified as imbecile and untrainable. He was sequestered to a prison. He read books and questioned his detainment - eventually breaking out. He goes on a journey to find out why he was imprisoned since he has demonstrated he is intelligent by learning so much while in prison. I will refrain from saying the ending...

Please help me identify this!

  • Good question. I feel like I've seen this here somewhere but can't find it. Good luck! – Möoz May 5 '16 at 3:03
  • You can use spoiler text (">! " at the beginning of a paragraph) to hide the ending if you want, but it may be very useful. – FuzzyBoots May 5 '16 at 3:38
  • @Jonah That question doesn't mention a prison or breaking out of it. They don't sound too similar to me. Let's see what Dr. Bunsella has to say. I'm not VTCing. – Meat Trademark May 5 '16 at 5:25
  • @Jonah Dang it! The answer didn't show on the VTC Review. I usually open the question in a new tab to check. I sure didn't this time. You are, of course, correct. – Meat Trademark May 5 '16 at 14:48
  • 1
    @Dr.Bunsella If user32390's answer below is correct, please accept it by clicking on the green check mark. – b_jonas Jul 14 '17 at 22:38
12

Profession, by Isaac Asimov

This was first published in the July 1957 issue of Astounding Science Fiction and has since been reprinted multiple times. It can be read online here.

Previously identified as the answers to this question, this question and this question.


The story is of a young man who lived in a village.

For most of the first eighteen years of his life, George Platen had headed firmly in one direction, that of Registered Computer Programmer. There were those in his crowd who spoke wisely of Spationautics, Refrigeration Technology, Transportation Control, and even Administration. But George held firm.

When villagers turned 16 their brains were measured as to what they could best hold.

You may be remembering this detail incorrectly; at age eight, children were taught to read by information being integrated directly into their brains, however for George, there is an additional step.

Of course, Reading Day had been different. Partly, there was the simple fact of childhood. A boy of eight takes many extraordinary things in stride. One day you can’t read and the next day you can. That’s just the way things are. Like the sun shining.

[...]

George had never believed them but he had had nightmares, and now he closed his eyes and felt pure terror.

He didn’t feel the wires at his temple. The buzz was a distant thing, and there was the sound of his own blood in his ears, ringing hollowly as though it and he were in a large cave. Slowly he chanced opening his eyes.

The doctor had his back to him. From one of the instruments a strip of paper unwound and was covered with a thin, wavy purple line. The doctor tore off pieces and put them into a slot in another machine. He did it over and over again. Each time a little piece of film came out which the doctor looked at. Finally, he turned toward George with a queer frown between his eyes.

The buzzing stopped.

George said breathlessly, “Is it over?”

The doctor said, “Yes,” but he was still frowning.

“Can I read now?’ asked George. He felt no different.

The doctor said, “What?” then smiled very suddenly and briefly. He said, “It works fine, George. You’ll be reading in fifteen minutes. Now we’re going to use another machine this time and it will take longer. I’m going to cover your whole head, and when I turn it on you won’t be able to see or hear anything for a while, but it won’t hurt. Just to make sure I’m going to give you a little switch to hold in your hand. If anything hurts, you press the little button and everything shuts off. All right?”

At age 18, a specialized program was uploaded to their brains to make them the best possible specialist they could be, as needed by the society. One person would become the best keymaker, the best tailor, etc.

He argued relative merits as vigorously as any of them, and why not? Education Day loomed ahead of them and was the great fact of their existence. It approached steadily, as fixed and certain as the calendar – the first day of November of the year following one’s eighteenth birthday. After that day, there were other topics of conversation.

One could discuss with others some detail of the profession, or the virtues of one’s wife and children, or the fate of one’s space-polo team, or one’s experiences in the Olympics. Before Education Day, however, there was only one topic that unfailingly and unwearyingly held everyone’s interest, and that was Education Day.

“What are you going for? Think you’ll make it? Heck, that’s no good. Look at the records; quota’s been cut. Logistics now – ”

Or Hypermechanics now – Or Communications now – Or Gravitics now –

Especially Gravitics at the moment. Everyone had been talking about Gravitics in the few years just before George’s Education Day because of the development of the Gravitic power engine.

Any world within ten light-years of a dwarf star, everyone said, would give its eyeteeth for any kind of Registered Gravitics Engineer.

The young man was identified as imbecile and untrainable.

George was conscious of his slight build. He said, “But I’ve never heard of anyone without a profession.”

“There aren’t many,” conceded Ellenford. “And we protect them.”

“Protect them?” George felt confusion and fright grow higher inside him.

“You’re a ward of the planet, George. From the time you walked through that door, we’ve been in charge of you.” And he smiled.

It was a fond smile. To George it seemed the smile of ownership; the smile of a grown man for a helpless child.

He said, “You mean, I’m going to be in prison?”

“Of course not. You will simply be with others of your kind.”

Your kind. The words made a kind of thunder in George’s ear.

Ellenford said, “You need special treatment. We’ll take care of you.”

He was sequestered to a prison. He read books and questioned his detainment - eventually breaking out.

It was not actually a prison, it was a House... and George was free to leave at any time.

Omani gazed fixedly at George and said distinctly, “A House for the Feeble-minded.”

George Platen flushed. Feeble-minded!

He rejected it desperately. He said in a monotone, “I’m leaving.” He said it on impulse. His conscious mind learned it first from the statement as he uttered it.

Omani, who had returned to his book, looked up. “What?”

George knew what he was saying now. He said it fiercely, “I’m leaving.”

He goes on a journey to find out why he was imprisoned since he has demonstrated he is intelligent by learning so much while in prison.

And he realises why he had been classified as untrainable:

George opened his eyes to the whiteness of a ceiling. He remembered what had happened. He remembered it distantly as though it had happened to somebody else. He stared at the ceiling till the whiteness filled his eyes and washed his brain clean, leaving room, it seemed, for new thought and new ways of thinking.

He didn’t know how long he lay there so, listening to the drift of his own thinking.

There was a voice in his ear. “Are you awake?”

And George heard his own moaning for the first time. Had he been moaning? He tried to turn his head.

The voice said, “Are you in pain, George?”

George whispered, “Funny. I was so anxious to leave Earth. I didn’t understand.”

“Do you know where you are?”

“Back in the – the House.” George managed to turn. The voice belonged to Omani.

George said, “It’s funny I didn’t understand.”

The ending, of course, explains why:

“You can’t be told. That’s exactly it. It’s the final test. Even after we’ve thinned out the possibilities on Education Day, nine out of ten of those who come here are not quite the material of creative genius, and there’s no way we can distinguish those nine from the tenth that we want by any form of machinery. The tenth one must tell us himself.”
“How?”
“We bring you here to a House for the Feeble-minded and the man who won’t accept that is the man we want. It’s a method that can be cruel but it works. It won’t do to say to a man, ‘You can create. Do so.’ It is much safer to wait for a man to say, ‘I can create, and I will do so whether you wish it or not.’ There are ten thousand men like you, George, who support the advancing technology of fifteen hundred worlds. We can’t allow ourselves to miss one recruit to that number or waste our efforts on one member who doesn’t measure up.”

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