That unforgettable Sci Fi story about a man who rediscovers how to perform calculations by hand

One of those works of fiction that I read innumerable years ago but I’ve never been able to forget was Isaac Asimov’s 1957 short story, “The Feeling of Power.” Set in the distant future when computers perform all calculations and design new technology without further input from man, it is the story of a humble technician who rediscovers the process of doing math on paper, by hand.

I had forgotten its author and the title, and was delighted to come across it in an old Science Fiction anthology I packed for pleasure reading on a trip.

While the narrative gist of a handful of stories and novels linger on in my memory, very few titles do the same. I’m one of those annoying people who says:

“You know, it’s that book about the guy who…”

Sometimes I follow up that gem with:

“I think the cover might have been blue?”

I may intrigue you, but I’m unlikely to be an efficient resource for putting the work into your hands. Unlikely, that is, unless I still own the hard copy, and the cover is, in fact, blue! If I find it (probably while you’re sitting at my dinner table), I’ll send it home with you, then promptly forget to whom I’ve loaned the book.

Returning to “The Feeling of Power,” I recommend it. It’s a short ten pages, and a quick read. I can see why it stuck in my mind so many years ago, but I also found much more to appreciate this time around. I remembered very strongly the tone of the ending, but had forgotten many details of the narrative.

It should be particularly appealing to anyone who loves math–or perhaps to those who find it hateful who would like to imagine it forgotten!–and to anyone who likes Sci Fi in general and Asimov in particular.

Here’s the particular anthology I brought on vacation. It was published in 1985.

Asimov was a prolific writer, and I’m certain “The Feeling of Power” appeared elsewhere in print. I actually thought I’d originally read this story in one of those elementary school reading textbooks full of disjointed works by a variety of authors. If anyone knows whether Asimov ever published in such volumes, I’d love to hear about it!

6 thoughts on “That unforgettable Sci Fi story about a man who rediscovers how to perform calculations by hand

  1. Asimov was always one of the best. I have a great deal of his stuff in ebook format, but have only really read the obvious… Foundation, Robots, Cyborg, and a bit more. I’d be surprised – given how many files I have – if this isn’t there, I must take a look. Thank you!

    • My youth was spent reading and re-reading my parents’ large collection of paperbacks. They collected mostly mysteries, but also general fiction, some Sci Fi, and a bit of historical fiction.

      I lived in automobile oriented suburbs when I was small, so the public library wasn’t accessible without involving an adult, and my parents were busy professionals. I could check out all the children’s literature that I wanted through my school libraries, but pulp paperbacks weren’t readily available there.

      So I read the Robot series because my father had the whole set. I think only some of the Foundation series books were on the shelf, and not the first one. I was even more of a stickler about reading things “in order” as a kid. Plus, I think there remains a question to this day as to the “right” order for Robot/Empire/Foundation. I’m going to read them all now, but am sorting out in which order to do so.

      Dad did have a collection of old Sci Fi magazines or anthologies of short stories, or I found those at school… (Details fuzzy.) I read a fair bit of Sci Fi predating my birth from those old tomes.

      • If you decide on a “correct order”, please let me know… there has been a great deal of randomization about my reading over the years.

        I believe I even read Tolkien’s “Two Towers” before I read the “The Fellowship of the Ring”. But it all got figured out in the end 🙂

  2. I, like you, remember reading this in a textbook. In my case, I can report with confidence it was in the text for my 7th grade Reading class back in 1989 or 1990. The tragedy of these text books, especially for a brain that files memories away utilizing a system much like you describe here (“I remember the cover looked like this” or “I’m pretty sure it was on this shelf in this library on this date 20 years ago…”), is that too often the stories are lost forever. To this day I have strong memories of excerpts I read as part of standardized tests that I’d love to read again or explore further, but I’ve not been able to locate their source material. One in particular was about Elizabeth Kenny who treated polio with methods including heat packs and careful exercise, and told an anecdote about her treatment of a young girl.

    Google is both a blessing and a curse when searching for these lost texts. A blessing because it can work wonderfully well with even the smallest thread of a memory. I searched for “short story about rediscovering how to do arithmetic,” and your blog post was the first result listed – wonderful! I’ve been able to find many books, stories, clips, and ideas from my past and it’s incredibly gratifying to be reconnected. But I do miss the joys of my more analog searching. I loved spending time wandering the ordered shelves of my library, especially the reference books towards the start of the Dewey Decimal numbering system. Here I discovered so many interesting bits of information, things I didn’t realize how much I wanted to know.

    I suppose it sort of comes full circle with finding this post. I am experiencing both the gratification of knowing the name of the short story that has lingered in my brain all of these years (a story I reference surprisingly often), AND the joy of discovering a new blog to savor filled with really wonderful things. Thank you!

    • Thanks so much for reading, and for the thoughtful comment. Your visit to my site has made my day!

      I still feel quite passionately that a decent public library must have a large selection of physical books on shelves to facilitate precisely the kind of discovery you mention.

      Vancouver, Washington–essentially a suburb of Portland, Oregon, not the Canadian Vancouver–has a large, new, modern, architecturally impressive main library branch… but they didn’t stock even one of a dozen classics I was hoping to grab one summer pre-pandemic. Perhaps that’s growing pains as there were lots of half-empty shelves and no doubt the construction was expensive, but it sets off alarm bells for me when titles I think of as foundational aren’t readily accessible.

      I’m grateful for the convenience of digital books, but I find far less serendipity in them.

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