If I didn’t know that Profession is an Isaac Asimov story, I would be inclined to say that it resembles very much an Isaac Asimov story. It is a textbook example of the kind of basic, fundamental social science fiction that Asimov made so popular and that had such an influence on the field at large. Asimov takes a single idea—that we could educate people by downloading the knowledge into their brain instead of devoting hours of arduous teaching to them—and builds a possible society around this idea. Then, he uses it to explore the more serious ramifications—namely, if everyone’s knowledge is programmed, who finds new knowledge?
At the beginning, Profession seems to read like a cautionary tale. Sinister hints of dystopia slip through the cracks between sentences: this is a society where you are told what your profession will be based on the suitability of your brain chemistry. Individual freedom, it seems, has been replaced by a collectivist mentality in which one’s labours are allocated to those areas in greatest need. Asimov highlights this situation through the plight of George, who really, really wants to be a Registered Computer Programmer, only to find out that he isn’t suitable for education at all.
From this point, the story follows George’s ardent refusal to accept his fate as a ward of the state. He rebels, becoming a fugitive of sorts, attempting to find a new place in the world—but ultimately failing and ending up back at his starting point. It’s then, and only then, that Asimov drops his bombshell on us: the people who aren’t suitable for education are the people who make up the education in the first place. George isn’t one of the unlucky ones; he is one of the lucky ones who is creative enough to invent new things, come up with new ideas, to learn.
It seems a little trite and moralistic from a contemporary point of view, but this was the 1950s, and of all Asimov’s wonderful talents, I wouldn’t say that subtlety is one of them.
Asimov casually throws out that this story takes place some four or five thousand years into the future. Humanity has since mastered interstellar flight, and the colonization of habitable worlds is apparently a result of our ability to flash-educate people. This has been going on for nearly twice the length of recorded civilization, yet the world that Asimov depicts here is not all that different from our own. Aside from space travel and education machines, people still read paper books and use televisions, and the money is presumably still paper as well, if George is storing it in a jar in a cupboard. I’m always disappointed when a story hits it out of the park in terms of theme only to suffer from a lack of imagination in terms of setting.
Still, science fiction is primarily a genre of ideas, and Asimov serves up a whopper here. As a teacher, Profession struck some significant chords for me. I’m very ambivalent about Western modes of education these days. There are a lot of flaws to it, yet I’m not quite willing to throw my support behind any of the alternatives suggested so far. Of course, the prospect of learning something by simply downloading the information is a tantalizing dream that recurs throughout science fiction, usually more as a plot device or as a signpost to demonstrate how advanced a civilization has become. I think that it has a place, if we ever manage to do it, particularly for rote, skills-based tasks. As Asimov points out, it wouldn’t work as well for positions that require creative thought. It also seems to lack a dimension for experience—one could learn how to pilot an airplane through such technology, but having the skills to pilot an airplane doesn’t give one the ability to make quick judgement calls. Only years of experience, and countless mistakes, provides such an ability.
Profession is, like much of Asimov’s writing, thought-provoking and well-intentioned, even if it does seem dry and trite in some ways. It takes a simple but fascinating concept and explores what that might mean for our nature as creative individuals, and it does so with a fair amount of pathos.
Read as part of The Mammoth Book of Short Science Fiction Novels.