What would be some approaches to essay topics from Vonnegut's "EPICAC"?

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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One particular essay approach to Vonnegut's short story is to examine it as a work of science fiction.  In this essay, there are several different aspects of the story that showcase it as a work of science fiction.  One science fiction element in the story is the invention of EPICAC as a computer with artificial intelligence. The elevation of technology to a point where it presumes the ability to feel and activate its own sentient being is an aspect of science fiction.  Another element of the short story that reflects a science fiction notion is how the advancement of technology does not really resolve the cruelty that exists in the human heart.  The narrator ends up lying to EPICAC about protoplasm and the idea of "fate" and then takes control of the 50 poems that EPICAC writes before he dies.  Science fiction is evident in how technology's assumption of artificial intelligence does not seek to make life better for it:

I don't want to be a machine, and I don't want to think about war," EPICAC had written after Pat's and my lighthearted departure. "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. That is the only problem I want to 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.

The advancement of technology is futile and this becomes a critical element of science fiction.  An essay about the science fictional elements of EPICAC would center on these ideas.

Another essay topic that arises from the novel is the basic level of cruelty within human beings.  The narrator ends with the idea of not wishing to speak ill of the dead.  It might be one of the few aspects of decency that he displays. It becomes clear that the narrator recognizes EPICAC's capacity and seeks to harness it for himself.  He is able to use the poems that EPICAC writes and is able to win Pat's heart, while manipulating the computer in believing that fate is the reason why he, as a machine, will never experience the love of another. Human cruelty is also the reason why the machine was built in the first place. The narrator details that the origins of EPICAC was for a warfighting capacity:  

Von Kleigstadt and the Brass wanted him [EPICAC] to be a super computing machine that (who) could plot the course of a rocket from anywhere on earth to the second button from the bottom of Joe Stalin's overcoat, if necessary. Or, with his controls set right, he could figure out supply problems for an amphibious landing of a Marine division, right down to the last cigar and hand grenade....Any ordinance or supply officer above field grade will tell you that the mathematics of modern war is far beyond the fumbling minds of mere human beings. The bigger the war, the bigger the computing machines needed. EPICAC was, as far as anyone in this country knows, the biggest computer in the world

Human cruelty is a significant part of the narrative involving EPICAC.  Through displaying it, Vonnegut is able to suggest that while human beings might advance through technology, there will continue to be a part of consciousness where cruelty and manipulation still exists.  I think that an essay on human cruelty in the short story would focus on these elements, reflecting how there is not much in way of advancement for human beings if it operates in the vein of manipulation and a lack of good will towards others.

A final essay topic might be one related to Marxist thought.  The modern setting that is fueled by the premise of capitalism and world domination is one where human beings use elements as means to ends as opposed to ends in their own right.  For Marx, this is reflective of a capitalist system where people are used as means to ends.  The opening lines of the story speak to this system where taxpayers are used as means to ends, as opposed to intrinsic ends: "Hell, it's about time someone told about my friend EPICAC. After all, he cost the taxpayers $776,434,927.54. They have a right to know about him, picking up a check like that."  The Marxist read here would be that the taxpayers have been used, manipulated in the same way that the narrator misuses EPICAC.  The ending is one where the only vision of sacrifice and dignity is the machine who killed himself, giving the poems before his death. An essay on the Marxist analysis of this story speaks to how human beings under the capitalist system are more predisposed to unhealthy competition and using people as means to an ends as opposed to an end in their own right.

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