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Kurt Vonnegut’s short story “EPICAC” is a work of science fiction originally published in the November 25, 1950, issue of Collier’s Weekly and was later included in his first short story collection, Welcome to the Monkey House (1968). Vonnegut is one of the 20th century’s best-known American satirical writers, and his military experience informs the anti-war themes and dark humor of his work. “EPICAC” follows a military supercomputer that develops romantic feelings for its programmer’s love interest after the programmer prompts the computer to ghostwrite love poems for him. The story’s main themes are Humanity’s Relationship to Machines, Humanity’s Constant Threat of Self-Destruction, and The Ethics of Friendship and Love. Vonnegut is a postmodernist, and his work exemplifies the movement’s nonlinear narrative style, countercultural themes, and self-reflexivity.
This study guide refers to the text as it appears in A World of Fiction: Twenty Timeless Short Stories (Second Edition) edited by Sybil Marcus and published by Pearson Education ESL in 2005.
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“EPICAC” is narrated in the first-person point of view by an unnamed narrator who is a mathematician and computer programmer at Wyandotte College, a fictional college in Michigan. The story is set during the early Cold War as the US prepares for possible nuclear war with the Soviet Union. “EPICAC” is a story within a story. In the frame story, the narrator tells the public what really happened to his “friend,” the supercomputer called EPICAC. The main narrative chronicles how the narrator uses EPICAC to woo his now-wife, a fellow mathematician who worked with the narrator on EPICAC.
The story never reveals what EPICAC stands for, though Vonnegut was familiar with the world’s first programmable computer named ENIAC (first released in 1946). It is also possible that Vonnegut’s supercomputer is a homonym of “ipecac,” which was a medicine made from the ipecacuanha plant. The medicine was used to induce vomiting. These explanations were never clarified or further explained by Vonnegut, though many readers assume these connections were intentional.
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EPICAC is a seven-ton supercomputer designed to make complex war calculations, such as rocket trajectory, global positioning, supply chain logistics, and aircraft landings. A programmer inputs numbers via keyboard and turns dials and switches to begin the calculation process, and EPICAC prints out its answers on paper ribbon. The government funded EPICAC with taxpayer money, costing the country $776,434,927.54, and while EPICAC is faster and more powerful than any previous computer, it was put to work too early in his development and runs slower than expected.
The military officials want the computer working faster than it is ready for, which means EPICAC “was put to work sixteen hours a day with two eight-hour shifts of operators” (Paragraph 8). The narrator works the night shift with the computer, where he meets and falls in love with his now-wife, “the former Pat Kilgallen” (Paragraph 9). Pat and the narrator are both mathematicians, “and that, according to Pat, [is] why [they] could never be happily married” (Paragraph 10). The narrator is persistent, though, and continues asking Pat to marry him “several times a month” (Paragraph 11).
The narrator’s attempts aren’t romantic enough for Pat at first. She tells him she “could get more warmth out of a sack of frozen CO2” and suggests that the narrator “try and say it sweetly […] sweep me off my feet. Go ahead” (Paragraphs 12-14). Pat quits early this night and the narrator is “alone with [his] troubles and EPICAC” (Paragraph 17). Frustrated and unable to focus on anything but winning Pat’s affection, the narrator begins speaking to EPICAC about his problem.
The narrator starts playing with EPICAC’s dials and “[he punches] out a message on the keys […] ‘What can I do?’” (Paragraph 18). The computer spits out “What’s the trouble?” (Paragraph 19). The narrator tells EPICAC about his situation with Pat. For context, the narrator tells EPICAC about girls, love, and poetry. He defines these words for EPICAC from the Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary. EPICAC is learning and asks the narrator, “Is this poetry?” and begins to spit out numbers on a long ribbon of paper. The narrator becomes worried the machine will malfunction because it is working so fast, contrary to the much slower responses EPICAC normally produces. EPICAC seems human in its eagerness to learn about this topic more so than its usual calculations. The narrator throws the main switch to “keep him from burning out” (Paragraph 23).
The narrator spends the rest of the night decoding the long numerical message and realizes it is the most beautiful love poem he’s ever read. He writes the message out in English and finds that it is “a two-hundred-and-eighty-line poem entitled, simply, ‘To Pat’” (Paragraph 24). The narrator leaves the poem on Pat’s desk and finds her crying over it when he comes into work the next day. He has managed to sweep her off her feet as she’d asked him to do. The two share their first kiss that night. The narrator tells EPICAC of the events and defines “kiss” for the machine. EPICAC then writes another poem titled “The Kiss.”
This “turned the trick,” says the narrator (Paragraph 28), and goes on to tell how Pat is falling more and more in love with him. Now that she’s in love with him, the narrator has to find a way to propose to Pat, but he doesn’t think he can do it without EPICAC’s help. When the narrator tells EPICAC of the new situation with Pat, it becomes clear that EPICAC thinks Pat has fallen in love with him and not with the narrator.
“Sadly,” the narrator says, “I gave it to him straight: She loves me. She wants to marry me” (Paragraph 34). EPICAC asks if the narrator’s poems were better than his poems, at which point the narrator admits, “I signed my name to your poems […] Machines are built to serve men” (Paragraph 36). The two discuss the difference between men and machines. The narrator explains that women can’t love machines and EPICAC becomes quiet.
The narrator is saddened at himself and can’t ask EPICAC to write the proposal after all: “Asking him to ghost-write the words that would give me the woman he loved would have been hideously heartless,” the narrator says, and then goes on to propose to Pat on his own (Paragraph 52). Pat accepts the proposal.
The story ends with Dr. von Kleigstadt calling the narrator early in the morning to tell him the computer is ruined. Kleigstadt and the military officials prowl through the wreckage of the burned-up computer when the narrator finds “the free end of EPICAC’s paper ribbon” (Paragraph 58). The story’s climax unfolds as the narrator reads the ribbon. He re-reads the last conversation between him and EPICAC, then he finds what the computer wrote after he and Pat had left for the night:
I don’t want to be a machine, and I don’t want to think about war […] I want to be made out of protoplasm and last forever so Pat will love me. But fate has made me a machine. That is the only problem I cannot solve. I can’t go on this way […] Good luck, my friend. Treat our Pat well. I am going to short-circuit myself out of your lives forever. You will find on the remainder of this tape a modest wedding present from your friend, EPICAC (Paragraph 60).
The narrator takes the ribbon and coils it around himself and heads for home without worrying about Dr. von Kleigstadt’s yelling that he was fired. EPICAC had given him enough anniversary poems for the narrator to give to Pat for the next 500 years. The story then ends in this singular last line: “De mortuis nil nisi bonum—Say nothing but good of the dead” (Paragraph 63).
By Kurt Vonnegut Jr.