“EPICAC” (no, not “ipecac”)

This is the title of yet another of Kurt Vonnegut’s short story collection, Welcome to the Monkey House. It’s the story of an operator for some behemoth-ic government-owned computer called EPICAC. I’m sure this name is intentionally similar to both “UNIVAC” (an actual early generation computing machine) and ipecac – as in the well known emetic, “syrup of ipecac.” The computer operator apparently has the hots for one of his co-workers (described as a “crackerjack mathematician”) who won’t give him the time of day because he’s unromantic and boring. Imagine that – not too different from a current stereotype, huh?

By the way, If this story sounds somewhat familiar to you, it may be because it was in part appropriated by Rod Serling and Bernard Schoenfeld for a 1964 episode of the tv series “The Twilight Zone” titled “From Agnes – with Love.” (***Spoiler Alert***) In that story, however, the computer actually falls for the operator, not the girl.

In the Vonnegut story, however, the computer innocently asks of the operator (never named in the story) “what’s the trouble?” and the hapless guy explains about the girl, Pat. After getting some background information (“what’s girl?”, “what’s love?”) EPICAC helps the operator by writing a long, wonderful poem which the operator passes off to her as his own. Pat is predictably impressed and begins to see the operator in a new light. They share a kiss and later he asks the computer to write another poem about the kiss. This time it’s a short and beautiful, “immaculate sonnet”

“Love is a hawk with velvet claws
Love is a rock with heart and veins;
Love is a lion with satin jaws,
Love is a storm with silken reins.”

I have to say that’s pretty good for a computer, eh? I wonder what Ray Kurzweil’s cyber poet would think of that? Would it give up and unplug itself?

Anyway, things proceed swimmingly and the operator begins to think about marriage. After talking with EPICAC and explaining the situation (“what’s marriage?”), the machine agrees that Pat is a worthy candidate for matrimony and says “I’m ready whenever she is.” The operator is taken aback and tries to explain to the computer the impossibility of such a marriage (sprinkling in a few lies to make his case more palatable to his “friend” the machine – he says he is made out of protoplasm and will last forever, and says a woman cannot love a machine – that it’s fate, which he also has to define) In the end, the machine “can’t go on” (“I don’t want to be a machine. I don’t want to think about war.” – the latter is his primary function) and sort of burns itself out when “left on” overnight by the operator (nothing like that tight government security, huh?). The operator is fired from his job for his neglect, but also cleans up many rolls of printed tape (this is how EPICAC communicated with its users) from the room. He discovers that it contains a going away present from the computer: 500 years of anniversary poems for him to give his wife. How sad. I felt a pity for the machine not too dissimilar to that which I felt for Frankenstein’s monster when reading that classic a couple months ago.

Have you read this story? Do you remember the “classic” Twilight Zone episode?

(below: actor Wally Cox in “From Agnes – with Love” 1964)

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