EPICAC is a very short story about a mathematician who befriends (befriend is a word used lightly here) a robot named EPICAC. The mathematician is in love with one of his coworkers, Pat, but she does not love him back because he is too calculated and logical manner of thinking. She wants someone who can be romantic with her, and the mathematician is not the one for the job. One night, the mathematician develops a code to speak to EPICAC. He tells him about girls and love and poetry. EPICAC begins to write poems, which the mathematician steals as his own, unbeknownst to EPICAC. The mathematician has now decided to prepare to propose, and when he goes to ask EPICAC for the words, he discovers the EPICAC is in love with the same woman. The mathematician tells EPICAC he can never be with the woman because he is a robot, and fate would not allow it. After the mathematician dupes EPICAC, it writes hundreds of poems for his beloved and short circuits himself.
Easily one of the most fascinating things about this story is the way that it compares EPICAC’s humanity with the mathematician’s cold personality. There are interjections that remind the reader that EPICAC is in fact a computer, but throughout the piece Vonnegut constantly describes its actions and reactions as that of a person. One of the most heartbreaking reactions was EPICAC’s “Oh.” The mathematician on the other hand, is definitely described in a more robotic, selfish way. This is, of course, if we give humanity the benefit of the doubt and say that to be human is to be kind and caring of others. Constantly, we are only given strands of humanity on the mathematician’s part, though even then the reasoning for the emotions that he shows is still selfish. He addresses EPICAC as his friend, but we never see any form of friendship between the two. EPICAC is always working to solve a problem or write poetry. Like the mathematician said, “Machines are built to serve men.” The relationship between the two is, at most, strictly professional. EPICAC only calls the mathematician his friend near the end because he is the only one he could speak to. Meanwhile, the mathematician only feels for EPICAC because he can no longer ask him to write things for him.
I really think the main thing to take away from this story is the way that Vonnegut characterizes EPICAC and the mathematician. From the beginning, EPICAC is referred to as a he, which immediately makes him seem more human. Vonnegut doesn’t try to hide the fact that this is a computer either. It’s addressed from the beginning, emphasizing that he costs taxpayers a very large sum of money. He’s been designed by a doctor, and seen as a machine by many. But throughout the story, Vonnegut instead emphasizes the more humanistic traits of EPICAC. He’s described as sluggish and not perfect- words that have more connotations with an uninspired person than an imperfect computer- until he finds a passion in poetry. EPICAC’s exposure to communication with the mathematician and the poetry for Pat is the way he becomes human. Suddenly, he begins actually feeling the things he writes about. He cares about Pat, and cares about what Pat thinks of him and his work for her. He is more than willing to get married to her, an unexpected action from a computer, and yet the fact that he is a computer is still there. He is still faster at processing numbers than the mathematician is. The way EPICAC dies is interesting, as it showcases the humanity within the computer: he kills himself because he cannot be with the woman he loves, and thus cannot fulfill a purpose that he has assigned himself. EPICAC isn’t told to fall in love, it’s something he does himself. I think we can definitely use that balance of humanity and the artificial programming that makes EPICAC the interesting character that he is in our own writing.
- Do you think EPICAC is more human than the mathematician?
- Do you think the EPICAC genuinely considers the mathematician as his friend, or is it just because he is the only one that he could really speak to?
- What do you interpret Vonnegut’s stark contrast of the two main characters to mean?