a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)
|A singular individual who knows how to do mental arithmetic triumphs over peers in a future where everyone has become dependent on calculators and computers. That description would apply equally to this short story about a school boy or to Isaac Asimov's more famous The Feeling of Power. Like that one, it could be considered a classic of mathematical fiction that presciently foresaw the dependence of modern society on electronic devices to do math. In my opinion, however, this story is quite a bit more contrived and consequently less effective.
In the distant future, men have evolved to be fat and neckless keyboarders and women apparently are relegated to being receptionists carrying tea trays. In this fictional era, boys are taught to use computers to solve mathematical problems involving apples and oranges. Although the correct answers are always integers, the students' answers are always decimal approximations (like "3.99999 x 100 Apples and 1.000802 x 101 Oranges") and their scores are determined both by how accurate their answers are and by how much computer time it takes them to find it. While seeking a student to compete in an "apples and oranges" contest, a school director is shocked to find a student whose always seems to score zero (meaning a perfectly correct answer obtained without any computer time). As this is unheard of, he calls the boy in and accuses him of cheating. The boy, Beaker, even looks strange, like an "ancient" human, with thin flexible fingers and a visible neck! However, it turns out he's not cheating. He is actually using memorized multiplication tables and a bit of algebra, things that his teacher and school director have never heard of. With a little coaching on how to modify his answers so that they don't look too unbelievably perfect, young Beaker wins the contest. (Oops. Sorry, should I have put a spoiler warning on there? Come on! Did anyone really think it would end any other way?)
At the end, we see that the same boy is causing trouble for his English teacher by writing poetry, something else that apparently did not survive the future evolution of human society.
The whole apples and oranges idea seems a bit too ridiculous to me, and the idea that nobody would think to round off answers like "3.99999 x 100 apples" to the nearest whole number when the questions always have integer valued answers is even more so.
Thanks to Bob Sullivan (Schenectady County Public Library) for bringing this story to my attention. It originally appeared in the July 1973 issue of Analog Science Fiction / Fact.
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(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)