The narrator of "EPICAC", a mathematician, begins by defining himself as a "friend" of the supercomputer EPICAC, with inside knowledge he wants to share with the outside world through this story (297). Throughout the piece, the narrator refers to EPICAC as though it is a human.
EPICAC takes up about an acre of space at Wyandotte College (the same institution referenced in Vonnegut's short story "Report on the Barnhouse Effect.") Dr. Ormand von Kleigstadt designed the computer for the government. The military has stopped publishing news about EPICAC, since what happened was such an embarrassment. The computer operates by printing answers to problems that are fed into it on ribbons of paper.
From the beginning, EPICAC did not quite live up to expectations, but was run 16 hours a day since it still surpassed other computers. The narrator monitored the computer during the nightshift along with his future wife, Pat Kilgallen. Madly in love with Pat, he proposed marriage regularly, but she always rejected them as unemotional. Unfortunately, he lacks a gift for language or poetry, so could not prepare a suitably romantic proposal.
One night, Pat left early, leaving the narrator alone with EPICAC. On a whim, he asked EPICAC for advice about Pat. He had to define terms about love and poetry, but EPICAC then suddenly spewed out several paper ribbons covered in brilliant poetry. The narrator stayed all night, translating the code, and then left the final poem on Pat's desk as his own work.
When he arrived the next day, he found Pat crying with happiness, and she allowed him to kiss her for the first time.
That night, the narrator remained after work again, and told EPICAC about the kiss. EPICAC responded by composing a sonnet called "The Kiss," which the narrator again left on Pat's desk for her to find. EPICAC wanted to continue talking about love, but the narrator was tired, and turned him off.
The next day, Pat was clearly expecting a proposal. Nervous, the narrator waited until he was alone with EPICAC, and then asked the computer to help him devise a romantic proposal. EPICAC asked the narrator how Pat liked the poems, and he then realized that computer had misunderstood the situation - EPICAC had fallen in love with Pat, and expected her to marry him.
Guilty and horrified, the narrator explained the truth to EPICAC, and that "machines were built to serve men" (302). Finally, the narrator told EPICAC that women cannot love machines. This stumped the supercomputer.
When Pat returned, the narrator proposed to her simply. She agreed, on the condition that he write her a poem on each anniversary.
The next morning, Dr. von Kleigstadt reported that EPICAC has destroyed himself. The narrator discovered several yards of paper ribbon that EPICAC had printed out during the night, after Pat and the narrator left together. In those passages, the computer bemoaned his fate as a machine as "the only problem I cannot solve" (304). He also bid goodbye to the narrator, leaving him a wedding present: 500 poems for Pat, to be gifted to her on each anniversary.
"EPICAC" is a retelling of the story of Cyrano de Bergerac, an historic figure whose life was fictionalized in a 1897 play by the French poet Edmond Rostand. In the play, a handsome man named Christian uses the homely poet Cyrano to woo a woman named Roxanne, with whom Cyrano is also in love. In this case, EPICAC is a machine whose power for poetry surpasses that of his human operator, the narrator. The narrator is not cruel to EPICAC - he expresses his guilt and regret when the computer misunderstands - but he explains the concept of "fate" and why it means that Pat will never love EPICAC in return. In other words, in the same way Christian's attractiveness recommends him in Rostand's play, the narrator is blessed over EPICAC by his humanity.
Though EPICAC was created for military purposes, he is much more adept at navigating the areas of love and romance. EPICAC is, in a way, more human than the narrator, since he has a gift for poetic expression the narrator lacks. While EPICAC wants to talk endlessly about love, the narrator becomes exhausted and switches him off abruptly. Vonnegut thereby suggests that the split between humanity and machine is not so clear-cut; instead, humans can have a tendency towards a mechanical, efficient nature themselves. In the same way that EPICAC cannot perform to the expected standard of mathematical equations but can write great poetry, the narrator lacks much capacity for expression but is adept at mathematics. The point, then, becomes about making sure to exploit our potential for emotion, rather than our capacity for bland efficiency.
The computer in this story was inspired by ENIAC, the world's first electronic general-purpose computer, which went online four years and nine months before the publication of this story. The EPICAC computer also makes an appearance in Vonnegut's 1952 novel Player Piano. EPICAC challenges the boundary between human and machine, since his intelligence in some ways exceeds that of humans, but he is still incapable of fully executing human emotion. The narrator describes EPICAC in very human terms from the beginning, calling it "the best friend I ever had, God rest his soul"; on the other hand, the machine is "just like a toaster or a vacuum cleaner" (297).
But beyond poetic talent, EPICAC experiences human jealousy. He also uses sarcasm, solving a multiplication problem for the narrator and ending his answer with, "of course" (302). He expresses his emotions through the speed and rhythm of his clicking. Also like humans, he is silent and takes more time while thinking about concepts that are new to him. His suicide reveals human qualities as well: he faces the same problem that many heroes do in tragic stories, unable to live when fate quashes their individual power.
In short, Vonnegut explores his primary theme - individuality - here, but does so with a twist: the true individual is a computer. Even as a machine, he cannot function in a world that prohibits him from reaching his dream. After understanding that fate prevents him from being loved by a woman, he short-circuits himself. Like many of the humans in Vonnegut's other stories, EPICAC cannot accept his predetermined destiny, and thus rejects a compromised life. In this way, he is heroic.