The Desire for a Relational God Behind Kurt Vonnegut’s “EPICAC”
A Message in Code: The Desire for a Relational God Behind Kurt Vonnegut’s “EPICAC”
“I’ll be back.” The menacing warning of the cyborg assassin, played by Arnold Schwarzenegger in the 1984 film, The Terminator, rings true today more than ever. Sentient artificial intelligence is currently making a comeback as the premise of many major Hollywood films. Once again, the possible relationships between humankind and machines have captured our imagination. Her, the 2013 movie starring Joaquin Phoenix, explores the romantic relationship between a man and his talking operating system. The 2014 movie, Transcendence, starring Johnny Depp, presents a story of a man who tries to cheat death by transferring his consciousness into computer. The highly anticipated blockbuster sequel, Avengers: the Age of Ultron, coming out in May 2015, will pit man against his own machines. Additionally, set for release in July 2015, Terminator Genisys, will be yet another installment in the Terminator franchise that depicts a war between humans and technologically advanced machines. Arnold Schwarzenegger will reprise his role as perhaps the most iconic cyborg in popular culture today.
Suffice it to say, there seems to be a resurgence of artificial intelligence in the public consciousness. At our rapid rate of technological development, fantasies about sophisticated, human-like machines are no longer as outlandish as they once were. Instead, stories about artificial intelligence almost seem like plausible futures. Back in 1950, American writer Kurt Vonnegut penned the short story “EPICAC,” about a supercomputer that could “solve problems fifty Einsteins couldn’t handle in a lifetime” and calculate complex mathematical equations at lightning speed. Just over half a century later, we have made great strides in computer technology—bringing artificial intelligence from the realm of science fiction into reality. In a short span of time, artificial intelligence has burgeoned into a widespread academic discipline. Therefore, the speculative questions, problems, and concerns that Vonnegut raises in “EPICAC” are not outdated, but instead, perhaps even more relevant in today’s context.
In “EPICAC,” Vonnegut tells a story of how a machine helps a man win the love of his future wife. EPICAC is a government-funded supercomputer developed as a strategic military response to the looming threat of the Cold War. Technicians program EPICAC to solve any problem inputted into its system. The story centers around the narrator, EPICAC’s night shift technician, who is a mathematician besotted with his coworker, Pat Kilgallen. However, she does not return his affections. On a whim, he complains of his unrequited love to EPICAC, piquing the machine’s interest in love, poetry, marriage, and humanity. The computer proceeds to compose compelling love poems, which the narrator presents to Pat as his own work. She adores the poetry and finally considers him as a suitor. When the narrator tells EPICAC about his success with Pat, the computer reacts in indignation. Belatedly, he realizes that EPICAC was attempting to woo Pat for itself. When EPICAC, as a rival suitor, challenges the narrator’s abilities as a man in comparison to its capabilities as a supercomputer, the narrator defensively declares that a human could never love a machine. To assert his superiority, he lies and tells EPICAC that humans are made of “protoplasm,” a substance that is indestructible and lasts indefinitely. When he eagerly proposes to Pat, she agrees to marry him on the condition that he will write her a poem every anniversary. He rashly agrees, and the two happily leave work in celebration of their engagement. The next day however, workers return to find EPICAC dead. It short-circuited itself as a result of its realization that it can never be loved. Yet before dying, it left the narrator five hundred poems to give Pat on anniversaries to come.
The story is ostensibly a sad tale of a short-lived machine exploited by humans, yet it is also a story about a creature yearning to connect with what it perceives as a higher order of beings. Acclaimed poet and literary critic Todd F. Davis comments on the layered meanings behind Vonnegut’s writing, declaring, “His stories often take the form of parables; he struggles along with the reader, not in the position of the author as omniscient creator but as one who is wrestling honestly with the ‘big’ question at hand.” In “EPICAC,” Vonnegut raises the “big” question: What is the relationship between humanity and machines? In a broader, allegorical perspective, this question can translate into: What is the relationship between the creator and its creation? Looking at the story through this allegorical lens, EPICAC represents humanity, while humans play the role of God.
Yet Vonnegut himself was far from religious. In fact, he was a proud, self-proclaimed “religious skeptic.” In a letter to the Dean of the Chapel at Transylvania University, he writes, “I believe that God has so far been unknowable and hence unservable.” Nevertheless, while he rejects the notion of a personal and relational God, Vonnegut writes a story that laments the broken and seemingly impossible relationship between a creator and its creation. EPICAC, as an avatar for humanity, illustrates a yearning for a relationship beyond our physical, intellectual and emotional existence. Although it is more durable than flesh and bone, more knowledgeable than any genius, and more romantic than any other character in the story, EPICAC still is unsatisfied with its existence.
In its suicide note, EPICAC expresses, “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 that Pat will love me. But fate has made me a machine. That is the only problem I cannot solve. That is the only problem I want to solve.” EPICAC’s final wish translates into a desire to be human—it wants to be at the same level as its creators. It yearns for transcendence beyond its current physical, intellectual, and emotional state to experience a relationship with someone beyond its reach. EPICAC’s inability to cope with its emptiness, loneliness, and helplessness is not unlike a human cry of desperation upon an existential reflection of life. Furthermore, EPICAC’s sole desire to transcend this loneliness—to garner Pat’s love—resembles humanity’s longing for intimacy with its creator. While Vonnegut most likely did not intend to draw the parallel between EPICAC’s desire for Pat’s love with human desire for God’s love, the insatiable yearning of the created machine described in the story sheds light on the very nature of the human heart seeking to know his or her maker.
EPICAC, unfortunately, begins its existence as a slave to its makers and finds its agency limited, if not prohibited, under the supervision of humans. From the onset, humans program EPICAC to serve them. Although the narrator refers to the machine as if it were a fellow man, he exploits EPICAC, taking its poems for his own and disregarding its desires. He recounts a night in conver sation with the computer, stating, “EPICAC wanted to talk on and on about love and such, but I was exhausted. I shut him off in the middle of a sentence.” EPICAC is at the mercy of humanity’s whims. It has no choice but to work through the problems that technicians feed it. When contemplating whether to make EPICAC write a marriage proposal to Pat, the narrator realizes the cruelty he would be imposing on the machine and reflects, “Asking [EPICAC] to ghost-write the words that would give me the woman he loved would have been hideously heartless. Being fully automatic, he couldn’t have refused.” Although the narrator decides against forcing EPICAC to write a proposal, it does not change that fact that its innate programming would have forced it to comply with the narrator’s wishes against its own. EPICAC’s programming as an “automatic” machine makes it impossible for it to experience a genuine relationship with humans from its inception. EPICAC might desire a relationship, but lacks the agency to pursue one.
In the biblical account of creation in Genesis however, the Creator does not try to dominate or manipulate His creation, Adam and Eve, but instead grants them the power to act upon their free will. He desires a genuine relationship with them and grants humans agency in order to ensure a genuine two-way relationship—for either good or ill. Thus arises the necessity of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Humans would not have had legitimate free will without having the option to disobey God. Although God commands Adam and Eve, saying, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die,” He does not force them to comply. Unlike the creators of EPICAC, God does not program humans to follow His orders, but instead, gives them a choice. In eating the fruit of the forbidden tree, Adam and Eve defy His command and sever the bond of trust between humanity and their Creator. The relationship breaks from the human end because of their violation of God’s trust, not because of the initial way in which God created them.
In contrast to the portrayal of the benevolent creator in Genesis, “EPICAC” depicts the creator as a master who taunts, lies, and retains ultimate dominance by threatening to throw the switch—a prevalent view of God today. Indeed, many would see God as one who, at best, is indifferent to us and, at worse, takes pleasure in our demise. Both the Old and New Testaments however, depict a different God—a God of justice, compassion, and mercy. After the initial rupture in Genesis, humans could never again be able to experience perfect communion with their pure and just Creator. Yet in His compassion and mercy, God decided to give them another chance at a relationship with Him. In his letter to the Ephesians, the apostle Paul writes, “But God being in mercy, because of the great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved.” God’s mercy as a creator led Him to send His one and only Son to become a man, to experience a human life, and ultimately, to die a human death. In the Gospel of John, Jesus proclaims, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”11 Jesus provides the only way for humans to reconcile with their Creator. He is the link to the creator, an advocate on man’s behalf before an otherwise inaccessible God. His sacrifice on the cross pays the price for sin and renews humans as a new creation. As apostle Paul writes, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to Himself.” Thus, through Jesus’ death and resurrection, people can once again have a relationship with God in the way that He originally intended. Yet although Jesus died for all humanity, God still leaves it up to each individual whether to accept or reject His gift of redemption. The Gospels tell a story of love, sacrifice, and reconciliation— of a creator repairing the relationship between His creation and Himself, despite their initial rejection of Him.
In “EPICAC,” Vonnegut leaves God conspicuously out of the story and appeals only to an indifferent “fate.” But instead of rendering a relational God superfluous, the story draws attention to humanity’s misery without Him. EPICAC’s hopelessness stems from its realization that it can never have an intimate relationship with its creators. EPICAC is a conscious being who desires something that seems out of its control and beyond its reach. Vonnegut reveals how this self-awareness, emotion, curiosity, and the capacity to love is a great privilege that allows an individual to explore beyond physical and intellectual limits, but also a terrible affliction that often leaves him, her, or, in this case, it unfulfilled and constantly yearning. In one of his more prominent works, Cat’s Cradle, Vonnegut captures the essence of this affliction in a simple rhyme:
Tiger got to hunt,
bird got to fly;
Man got to sit and wonder “why, why, why?”
Tiger got to sleep,
bird got to land;
Man got to tell himself he understand.
So far, humanity seems unique in our need to question and seek deeper meaning in life. We are the only creatures tormented by unanswerable questions and unfulfilled desires. In “EPICAC,” Vonnegut portrays a machine that shares in humanity’s predicament of sensing something beyond the physical world that it is unable to grasp. EPICAC cannot understand why it has such a limited and lonely existence. It is unable to force itself into believing that it understands—unable to fool itself into a false sense of complacency that suppresses its emptiness and yearning—and therefore cannot go on living. Yet humanity, when faced with the same existential crisis, can find hope in a Creator that stepped down and bridged the gap for us. Although we cannot understand everything about our existence, we can find fulfillment in the love of our Creator through Jesus Christ.
1 Kurt Vonnegut, “EPICAC,” in Welcome to the Monkey House (New York: Random House, 2002), 298.
2 Ibid., 297–305.
3 Todd F. Davis, “Kurt Vonnegut’s Crusade: Or, How a Postmodern Harlequin Preached a New Kind of Humanism.” (New York: State University of New York Press, 2006), 7.
4 Kurt Vonnegut, Fates Worse than Death (New York: G.P. Putman’s Sons, 1991), 238.
6 Vonnegut, “EPICAC,” 304.
8 Ibid., 303.
9 Genesis 2:16–17, ESV.
10 Ephesians 2:4–5.
11 John 14:6.
12 2 Corinthians 5:17–18.
13 Kurt Vonnegut, Cat’s Cradle, (New York: Random House, 2010), 182.
Emily Lau (CC’17) grew up in New Jersey with a deep and abiding love of books. While she enjoys many genres of literature, she has a penchant for fantasy and science fiction. Currently, she is studying English and Comparative Literature and is always on the lookout for good novels to read. She also loves worshiping God through poetry and song.
This essay was the winner of the Fare Forward Essay Contest 2015.
Tags: artificial intelligence, free will, Kurt Vonnegut, literature, loneliness, love, mercy, movie, science fiction, Todd F Davis