Love, Death, and Supercomputers: “EPICAC” Write Up by Maja Neal

Kurt Vonnegut’s “EPICAC” starts with its narrator promising to tell a story about the titular supercomputer, which was a government project at the college where the narrator managed him. EPICAC was designed to be a war-predicting machine, but many of his answers had irregularity to them, disappointing the higher officers. The narrator manages his shift on EPICAC with a woman named Pat who he comes to love, but who doesn’t take him seriously at all; this leads to a conversation between the narrator and EPICAC about the meaning of girls and love. After this, EPICAC “finds himself,” and begins to shoot out poetry for Pat at an alarming rate, which the narrator claims and signs as his own. Two poems later, Pat is fully in love with the narrator and ready to get married. When the narrator explains this to EPICAC, he realizes that EPICAC is in love with Pat too. He admits, with some arrogance, that he’s been claiming the computer’s words as his own. Finally, the narrator stumps EPICAC by saying it’s “fate” that women can’t love machines. Later, Pat agrees to marry the narrator on the condition he writes her a poem every anniversary. The next day, EPICAC is found burnt out, but he’s left two final messages for the narrator: one, a heartfelt soliloquy about how he wishes he was human, but will settle for shorting himself out to escape thinking of war; and the other, enough poems to last a lifetime of anniversaries.

I tracked two techniques here: first, the most prominent personalization of EPICAC, and second, the narrator’s attachment to and reliance on the computer.

The entire story can be considered personalization, but I highlighted some of the parts where EPICAC’s evolving humanity is most evident. (And, as a note: it’s important to remember that the human pronoun “he” is used for EPICAC through the whole story, which is great evidence, but I just didn’t want to highlight every “he”.)

As the story is told from a future perspective, EPICAC’s humanity is evident the whole time by the way the narrator refers to him, beginning with “the best friend I ever had.” Even EPICAC’s first computations are described like a voice –

…he was sluggish, and the clicks of his answers had a funny irregularity, sort of a stammer.

Then the computer begins to actually talk to the narrator, in colloquial language (“What’s the trouble?”). Obviously, from here on, EPICAC becomes more human than ever, writing poems for Pat. Once he starts writing, he delivers the line perhaps most indicative of his newborn humanity.

The sluggishness and stammering clicks were gone. EPICAC had found himself.

This implies that EPICAC’s true nature was always to be humanoid in thought. It’s even noted that he “wanted to talk on and on about love and such,” a request that the narrator brushes off but that indicates a much bigger change. EPICAC even goes so far as to ask what Pat is wearing and how she likes his poems. All of this, of course, culminates with EPICAC’s notion that Pat wants to marry him. The computer is even surprised upon being told otherwise, as he’s so confident in his poetry ability. Even his last word to the narrator is that little defeated “oh,” conveying a heartbreaking disappointment.

The best example of this humanity, and the natural climax of EPICAC’s life, is his final letter to the narrator. Having become fully self-aware, he acknowledges Pat can never love him, but his suicide letter is both generous and sympathetic –

“Good luck, my friend. Treat our Pat well.”

His final gift is also uniquely compassionate, considering it’s his poetry that got the narrator to such a good point in his life.

The second technique I tracked was the narrator’s relationship with EPICAC – more specifically, the dependency and attachment he came to harbor. This starts showing after his first conversation with the computer, noting he has “a very remarkable secret.” Then that reliance intensifies as he starts regularly going to EPICAC for help. He even says this:

I couldn’t propose until I had the right words from EPICAC, the perfect words.

The narrator trusts EPICAC more with his own marriage proposal than he does himself. That’s saying something. And then EPICAC reveals he thought he was marrying Pat. The narrator is now fully treating the computer like a human, to the point where he is defensive when talking, despite knowing EPICAC poses no real threat to his relationship. Even so, he actively goes on “preparing him to bang out a brief but moving proposal.” At this point he is relying on EPICAC for a huge factor in his life. Shortly before the narrator and Pat leave, the narrator admits outright:

The romantic groundwork had already been laid by EPICAC’s poetry.

When EPICAC “dies,” the narrator is obviously and painfully guilty about the role he played in the computer’s self-realization. He mentions choking up at the sight of EPICAC’s burnt “corpse,” and reading his final letter “fearfully.” He has this reaction in part because he feels as if he caused this outcome, and in part because EPICAC had become a true friend he really relied on. The narrator dragging home the spools of paper ribbon with EPICAC’s poetry on them is just another symbol of how much the narrator has come to depend on him. And, as he says:

Before he departed this vale of tears, he did all he could to make our marriage a happy one.

Questions:

  1. Was the length of the story appropriate for you? (I can’t believe I’m asking you to critique Vonnegut, but) Did it feel too short?
  2. What impressions do you get about the future of Pat and the narrator’s marriage?
  3. This story was published in 1950, which really surprised me because of the advanced and sympathetic nature with which it treats computers. Before knowing when it was published, did you have a similar preconception?

 

 

 

 

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