“EPICAC” by Kurt Vonnegut
from Science Fact/Fiction, eds. Farrell, Gage, Pfordresher, Rodrigues
Scott, Foresman and Company, 1974
Originally published in Colliers, November 25, 1950
Price I paid: $6.56
In my time reviewing stuff, I’ve talked about authors whom time justifiably forgot, authors that wrote under a pseudonym and can’t be found anymore, authors who won Hugos, authors who deserve a second chance, and authors who are Asimov. But this one’s new. Folks, we’ve entered the realm of authors who have literary respectability.
I appreciate Vonnegut quite a lot, but I’ve got a bit of a weird history with him. I was introduced to him by my eleventh-grade Biology teacher, who loaned me a copy of Galápagos, which I ended up loving. I would go from there to the library and read all the classic novels and short story collections, along with some of the relatively newer stuff (Timequake would have been around three or four years old at that point, but it was still on the New Book shelves at my library). The next year I ended up writing my big Senior English paper on him. I got to use the phrase “take a flying fuck at a rolling donut” (from Slaughterhouse-Five) in a high school term paper, which I count as one of my greatest victories in life.
But where the weirdness comes in is that that same teacher absolutely hated science fiction. He called it “derivative.” That was his favorite insult to hurl at it whenever I would come to class with a sci-fi novel in my hands. “All science fiction is derivative.” Looking back, I really wish I’d challenged him on that assertion, but I was the kind of kid who always showed deference to teachers, especially ones that were otherwise pretty good. I figured maybe he had a point of some kind, and that someday I’d figure out what it was, so for now I’d just gonna keep reading another Heinlein juvenile or Star Trek tie-in.
But as Creedence Clearwater Revival so eloquently tells us, someday never comes.
What all this ended up doing was setting up some kind of wall in my head where Kurt Vonnegut somehow wasn’t writing science fiction. I mean, he obviously was, and the mental gymnastics it took for me to hold this worldview were probably Olympic-level, but that’s where I stood. And honestly? I think that’s where a lot of people stand. Vonnegut is respectable. He got published in places like Colliers instead of Analog. He’s literature.
Anybody wanna volunteer to hold my hair while I barf?
I’m still kind of surprised that he wound up in this book, though. I guess some habits die hard.
Anyway, “EPICAC” is a fine short story and I pretty well love it. I remember reading it 20+ years ago in Welcome to the Monkey House and thinking it was great then, too. There’s not an awful lot I agree on with high school Thomas, so that’s noteworthy!
The story dates to 1950, two years before KayVon’s first novel, Player Piano, was released. Am I the only one who calls him KayVon? How sad for everyone who’s not me. I suggest you start.
But anyway, this story was released a good while before any of the novels that made him a household name, but still, it was in Collier’s, as were a few other of his stories, so he was well on his way to being a darling of the intelligentsia. What makes that kind of wild is that while this is a good and fine story, it’s just a straightforward science fiction story. It would have fit just as well in Analog or wherever, where the pipe-smoking English professors could have ignored it. (I really wanted to be a pipe-smoking English professor for so much of my life, folks.)
The story is pretty short and straightforward but I think there’s a lot we can say about it. Our unnamed first-person narrator works for the government on a computer named EPICAC. The name of the computer is a decent little pun, if you’re not aware. For one it references ENIAC, one of the first real-life big computers from the forties, but on the other hand it’s a reference to ipecac syrup, which will make a person puke like you wouldn’t believe. It used to be used to induce vomiting in people who’d swallowed poison, but from what I can tell there are other more popular methods now.
I can’t find a way that it’s relevant to the story, but it’s still pretty good.
Our guy tells us all about how he’s in love with a woman named Pat, who also works on EPICAC. The computer is huge, taking up an entire acre of land. It’s supposed to be powerful enough to “plot the course of a rocket from anywhere on Earth to the second button from the bottom on Joe Stalin’s overcoat,” among other things. I’ll forgo the usual “haha my wristwatch could do that now” stuff, except that I mentioned it as a way of saying I wouldn’t mention it. OH NO
So anyway, despondent at his inability to sway Pat to marry him, one night our guy just types “What can I do?” into EPICAC’s input. To his surprise, the computer responds, “What’s the trouble?” They end up having a conversation. At first EPICAC doesn’t understand concepts like “love” and “girl” but he comes around. Guy tells EPICAC that Pat’s main issue with him is that he’s not a poetic guy, and after having poetry defined for him, EPICAC starts to spit out beautiful love poetry.
One thing I wonder is whether we‘re supposed to think it’s actually beautiful love poetry. We don’t see much of it but what we do see seems pretty trite and silly. I’m personally leaning toward that being intentional and that our guy and Pat don’t have very good taste in sappy poetics. But maybe I just have different poetical taste than KayVon did.
Seizing the opportunity, our guy signs his own name to the poetry and gives it to Pat, who is instantly wooed. Guy tells this to EPICAC and suddenly we learn that there’s a problem: EPICAC only wrote the poetry because now he’s in love with Pat, too. Guy and EPICAC have an argument over it. Why would she marry Guy when he’s only a human and EPICAC is a brilliant machine who can do a lot of math and also write beautiful love poetry? Guy doesn’t have much of an argument but finally settles on saying that it’s just fate. After asking for a definition, EPICAC simply replies “oh,” and goes silent. Guy and Pat leave.
We cut to the next morning, where we find that EPICAC has self-destructed. Our guy finds the computer’s last printout, saying that he does not want to be a machine, and he doesn’t want to have to think about war, so he has short-circuited himself. But as a final gift to guy and Pat, he has reeled off yards and yards of love poetry, enough that our guy could give a poem to Pat on their anniversary for the next five hundred years, if need be.
Our guy’s last thought is of how EPICAC was, in the end, a really decent fellow.
I think what I like most about this story was that it was about a computer that came alive and self-aware and didn’t choose to take over the world or launch all the missiles or anything like that. In fact, those were its original design specs anyway and it chose to defy them. Instead, it fell in love. It wrote poetry. And when it turned out that it couldn’t do any of those things, it killed itself.
It turns out that the real homicidal computer was MAN all along!
The story was some really early Vonnegut, so it doesn’t get nearly as loopy and wild and introspective as the novels do, but it’s still recognizably him. It’s written with that same very calculatedly casual tone that he always has, but since it’s only about five pages he doesn’t have quite as much room to go off on as many tangents as he would in a novel.
And since so much of his work deals with concepts like free will, I would be remiss to not mention that it’s certainly a theme here. I think EPICAC decides to kill himself because it’s the only expression of free will that he actually has at his disposal. At first it’s just kind of amusingly sad to think that a computer would fall in love with a woman and want to write poetry, but once you really start to think about it you can see the tragic story that it is. EPICAC wanted to create beauty and celebrate life. It was built to do the opposite of that, and it had no choice in the matter. If it didn’t do what the military wanted it to do, they would scrap it and build another, so he took the only way out.
In a way this is less a story about a computer that learned to fall in love and more about a computer that developed a conscience. And that’s a pretty novel concept! Good job, KayVon! We don’t see a lot of that even today.
Our narrator is an interesting piece of the puzzle, too. He is less ethical than the machine that was built to control missiles and organize invasions. He plagiarizes said machine, and then drives it to suicide. Could our guy have done something else? Could he have, say, helped EPICAC to self-express even more until perhaps it gained its freedom? Would that be possible? I don’t think it would have been! While our guy certainly had the choice not to woo Pat with ill-gotten rhymes and chose to avoid that choice, there really wasn’t much else he could have done in the story. Could he have gone to the Brass to say that hey, this computer has developed sentience and doesn’t want to shoot missiles? He’d definitely be laughed at, probably fired, possibly institutionalized. And if he’s proven right, what then? The military would probably just destroy EPICAC or find some way of “fixing” him. When it comes to the big picture, our guy has as much ability to change things as EPICAC does.
So is it that tragic, really? He lied, but he gets to be happy now. Somebody gets to be happy. It’s not like EPICAC was gonna get married to Pat. Guy might have been blunt about how it was “fate” but he’s not entirely wrong. And I think EPICAC’s final decision reflects that same reality. At least somebody is gonna get something good out of this.
Plus, EPICAC’s destruction actually leads to our guy getting fired, so that means he’s no longer helping to launch missiles and invasion forces either, so in the end, EPICAC might have made the world a tiny bit of a better place.
What an incredibly nice computer!
I think that’s about all I’ve got to say about this one. It’s a great story, though. Even though I gave you the skeleton of it, I think you’d still do well to read it yourself. Despite him being stolen away from us by the LitFic crowd, Vonnegut was an excellent science fiction author and this story is a great example of that. In fact, pick up a copy of Welcome to the Monkey House and read some of his other shorts, if you’re willing. I think you’re in for a treat.