“Well, Knipe, my boy. Now that it’s finished, I just called you in to tell you I think you’ve done a fine job.”
Adolph Knipe stood still in front of Mr Bohlen’s desk. There seemed to be no enthusiasm in him at all.
“Aren’t you pleased?”
“Oh yes, Mr Bohlen.”
“Did you see what the papers said this morning?”
“No, sir, I didn’t.”
The man behind the desk pulled a folded newspaper towards him, and began to read:” The building of the great automatic computing engine, ordered by the government some time ago, is now complete. It is probably the fastest electronic calculating machine in the world today. Its function is to satisfy the ever-increasing need of science, industry, and administration for rapid mathematical calculation which, in the past, by traditional methods, would have been physically impossible, or would have required more time than the problems justified. The speed with which the new engine works, said Mr John Bohlen, head of the firm of electrical engineers mainly responsible for its construction, may be grasped by the fact that it can provide the correct answer in five seconds to a problem that would occupy a mathematician for a month. In three minutes, it can produce a calculation that by hand (if it were possible) would fill half a million sheets of foolscap paper. The automatic computing engine uses pulses of electricity at the rate of a million a second to solve all calculations that resolve themselves into addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. For practical purposes there is no limit to what it can do…”
Mr Bohlen glanced up at the long, melancholy face of the younger man. “Aren’t you proud, Knipe? Aren’t you pleased?”
“Of course, Mr Bohlen.”
“I don’t think I have to remind you that your own contribution, especially to the original plans, was an important one. In fact, I might go so far as to say that without you and some of your ideas, this project might still be on the drawing-boards today.”
Adolph Knipe moved his feet on the carpet, and he watched the two small white hands of his chief, the nervous fingers paying with a paperclip, unbending it, straightening out the hairpin curves. He didn’t like the man’s hands. He didn’t like his face either, with the tiny mouth and the narrow purplecoloured lips. It was unpleasant the way only the lower lip moved when he talked.
“Is anything bothering you, Knipe? Anything on your mind?”
“Oh no, Mr Bohlen. No.”
“How would you like to take a week’s holiday? Do you good. You’ve earned it.”
“Oh, I don’t know, sir.”
The older man waited, watching this tall, thin person who stood so sloppily before him. He was a difficult boy. Why couldn’t he stand up straight? Always drooping and untidy, with spots on his jacket, and hair falling all over his face.
“I’d like you to take a holiday, Knipe. You need it.”
“All right, sir. If you wish.”
“Take a week. Two weeks if you like. Go somewhere warm. Get some sunshine. Swim. Relax. Sleep. Then come back, and we’ll have another talk about the future.”
Adolph Knipe went home by bus to his two-room apartment. He threw his coat on the sofa, poured himself a drink of whisky, and sat down in front of the typewriter that was on the table. Mr Bohlen was right. Of course he was right. Except that he didn’t know half of it. He probably thought it was a woman. Whenever a young man gets depressed, everybody thinks it’s a woman.
He leaned forward and began to read through the half-finished sheet of typing still in the machine. It was headed “A Narrow Escape”, and it began “The night was dark and stormy, the wind whistled in the trees, the rain poured down like cats and dogs…”
Adolph Knipe took a sip of whisky, tasting the malty-bitter flavour, feeling the trickle of cold liquid as it travelled down his throat and settled in the top of his stomach, cool at first, then spreading and becoming warm, making a little area of warmness in the gut. To hell with Mr John Bohlen anyway. And to hell with the great electrical computing machine. To hell with …
At exactly that moment, his eyes and mouth began slowly to open, in a sort of wonder, and slowly he raised his head and became still, absolutely motionless, gazing at the wall opposite with this look that was more perhaps of astonishment than of wonder, but quite fixed now, unmoving, and remaining thus for forty, fifty, sixty seconds. Then gradually (the head still motionless), a subtle change spreading over the face, astonishment becoming pleasure, very slight at first, only around the corners of the mouth, increasing gradually, spreading out until at last the whole face was open wide and shining with extreme delight. It was the first time Adolph Knipe had smiled in many, many months.
“Of course,” he said, speaking aloud, “it’s completely ridiculous.” Again he smiled, raising his upper lip and baring his teeth in a queerly sensual manner.
”It’s a delicious idea, but so impracticable it doesn’t really bear thinking about at all.”
From then on, Adolph Knipe began to think about nothing else. The idea fascinated him enormously, at first because it gave him a promise – however remote – of revenging himself in a most devilish manner upon his greatest enemies. From this angle alone, he toyed idly with it for perhaps ten or fifteen minutes; then all at once he found himself examining it quite seriously as a practical possibility. He took paper and made some preliminary notes. But he didn’t get far. He found himself, almost immediately up against the old truth that a machine, however ingenious, is incapable of original thought. It can handle no problems except those that resolve themselves into mathematical terms – problems that contain one, and only one, correct answer.
This was a stumper. There didn’t seem any way around it. A machine cannot have a brain. On the other hand, it can have a memory, can it not? Their own electronic calculator had a marvelous memory. Simply by converting electric pulses, through a column of mercury, into supersonic waves, it could store away at least a thousand numbers at a time, extracting any one of them at the precise moment it was needed. Would it not be possible, therefore, on this principle, to build a memory section of almost unlimited size?
Now what about that?
Then suddenly, he was struck by a powerful but simple little truth, and it was this: that English grammar is governed by rules that are almost mathematical in their strictness! Given the words, and given the sense of what is to be said, then there is only one correct order in which those words can be arranged.
No, he thought, that isn’t quite accurate. In many sentences there are several alternative positions for words and phrases, all of which may be grammatically correct. But what the hell. The theory itself is basically true. Therefore, it stands to reason that an engine built along the lines of the electric computer could be adjusted to arrange words (instead of numbers) in their right order according to the rules of grammar. Give it the verbs, the nouns, the adjectives, the pronouns, store them in the memory section as a vocabulary, and arrange for them to be extracted as required. Then feed it with plots and leave it to write the sentences.
There was no stopping Knipe now. He went to work immediately, and there followed during the next few days a period of intense labour. The living-room became littered with sheets of paper; formulae and calculations; lists of words, thousands and thousands of words; the plots of stories, curiously broken up and subdivided; huge extracts from Roget’s Thesaurus; pages filled with the first names of men and women; hundreds of surnames taken from the telephone directory; intricate drawings of wires and circuits and switches and thermionic valves; drawings of machines that could punch holes of different shapes in little cards, and of a strange electric typewriter that could type ten thousand words a minute. Also a kind of control panel with a series of small push-buttons, each one labeled with the name of a famous American magazine.
He was working in a mood of exultation, prowling around the room amidst this littering of paper, rubbing his hands together, talking out loud to himself; and sometimes, with a sly curl of the nose he would mutter a series of murderous imprecations in which the word “editor” seemed always to be present. On the fifteenth day of continuous work, he collected the papers into two large folders which he carried – almost at a run – to the officers of John Bohlen Inc., electrical engineers.
Mr Bohlen was pleased to see him back.
“Well, Knipe, good gracious me, you look a hundred per cent better. You have a good holiday? Where’d you go?”
He’s just as ugly and untidy as ever, Mr Bohlen thought. Why doesn’t he stand up straight? He looks like a bent stick. “You look a hundred per cent better, my boy.” I wonder what he’s grinning about. Every time I see him, his ears seem to have got larger.
Adolph Knipe placed the folders on the desk. “Look, Mr Bohlen!” he cried. “Look at these!”
Then he poured out his story. He opened the folders and pushed the plans in front of the astonished little man. He talked for over an hour, explaining everything, and when he had finished, he stepped back, breathless, flushed, waiting for the verdict.
“You know what I think, Knipe? I think you’re nuts.” Careful now, Mr Bohlen told himself. Treat him carefully. He’s valuable, this one is. If only he didn’t look so awful, with that long horse face and the big teeth. The fellow had ears as big as rhubarb leaves.
“But Mr Bohlen! It’ll work! I’ve proved to you it’ll work! You can’t deny that!”
“Take it easy now, Knipe. Take it easy and listen to me.”
Adolph Knipe watched this man, disliking him more every second.
“This idea,” Mr Bohlen’s lower lip was saying, “is very ingenious – I might say almost brilliant – and it only goes to confirm my opinion of your abilities, Knipe. But don’t take it too seriously. After all, my boy, what possible use can it be to us? Who on earth wants a machine for writing stories? And where’s the money in it anyway? Just tell me that.”
“May I sit down, sir?”
“Sure, take a seat.”
Adolph Knipe seated himself on the edge of a chair. The older man watched him with alert brown eyes, wondering what was coming now.
“I would like to explain something Mr Bohlen, if I may, about how I came to do all this.”
“Go right ahead, Knipe.” He would have to be humoured a little now, Mr Bohlen told himself. The boy was really valuable – a sort of genius, almost – worth his weight in gold to the firm. Just look at these papers here. Darndest thing ever saw. Astonishing piece of work. Quite useless, of course. No commercial value. But it proved again the boy’s ability.
“It’s a sort of confession, I suppose, Mr Bohlen. I think it explains why I’ve always been so …so kind of worried.”
“You tell me anything you want, Knipe. I’m here to help you – you know that.”
The young man clasped his hands together tight on his lap, hugging himself with his elbows. It seemed as though suddenly he was feeling very cold.
“You see, Mr Bohlen, to tell the honest truth, I don’t really care much for my work here. I know I’m good at it and all that sort of thing, but my heart’s not in it. It’s not what I want to do most.”
Up went Mr Bohlen’s eyebrows, quick like a spring. His whole body became very still.
“You see, sir, all my life I’ve wanted to be a writer.”
“Yes, Mr Bohlen. You may not believe it, but every bit of spare time I’ve had, I’ve spent writing stories. In the last ten years I’ve written hundreds, literally hundreds of short stories. Five hundred and sixty-six, to be precise. Approximately one a week.”
“Good heavens. Man! What on earth did you do that for?”
“All I know, sir, is I have the urge.”
“What sort of urge?”
“The creative urge, Mr Bohlen.” Every time he looked up he saw Mr Bohlen’s lips. They were growing thinner and thinner, more and more purple.
“And may I ask you what you do with these stories, Knipe?”
“Well, sir, that’s the trouble. No one will buy them. Each time I finish one, I send it out on the rounds. It goes to one magazine after another. That’s all that happens, Mr Bohlen, and they simply send them back. It’s very depressing.”
Mr Bohlen relaxed. “I can see quite well how you feel, my boy.” His voice was dripping with sympathy. “We all go through it one time or another in our lives. But now – now that you’ve had proof – positive proof – from the experts themselves, from the editors, that your stories are – what shall I say – rather unsuccessful, it’s time to leave off. Forget it, my boy. Just forget all about it.”
“No, Mr Bohlen! No! That’s not true! I know my stories are good. My heavens, when you compare them with the stuff some of those magazines print – oh my word, Mr Bohlen! – the sloppy, boring stuff that you see in the magazines week after week – why, it drives me mad!”
“Now, wait a minute, my boy…”
“Do you ever read the magazines, Mr Bohlen?”
“You’ll pardon me, Knipe, but what’s all this got to do with your machine?”
“Everything, Mr Bohlen, absolutely everything! What I want to tell you is, I’ve made a study of magazines, and it seems that each one tends to have its own particular type of story. The writers – the successful ones – know this, and they write accordingly.”
“Just a minute, my boy. Calm yourself down, will you. I don’t think all this is getting us anywhere.”
“Please, Mr Bohlen, hear me through. It’s all terribly important.” He paused to catch his breath. He was properly worked up now, throwing his hands around as he talked. The long, toothy face, with the big ears on either side, simply shone with enthusiasm, and there was an excess of saliva in his mouth which caused him to speak his words wet. “So you see, on my machine, by having an adjustable co-ordinator between the “plot-memory” section and the “word-memory” section I am able to produce any type of story I desire simply by pressing the required button.”
“Yes, I know, Knipe, This is all very interesting, but what’s the point of it?”
“Just this, Mr Bohlen. The market is limited. We’ve got to be able to produce the right stuff, at the right time, whenever we want it. It’s a matter of business, that’s all. I’m looking at it from your point of view now – as a commercial proposition.”
“My dear boy, it can’t possibly be a commercial proposition – ever. You know as well as I do what it costs to build one of these machines.”
“Yes, sir, I do. But with due respect, I don’t believe you know what the magazines pay writers for stories.”
“What do they pay?”
“Anything up to twenty-five hundred dollars. It probably averages around a thousand.”
Mr Bohlen jumped.
“Yes sir, it is true.”
“Absolutely impossible, Knipe! Ridiculous!”
“No sir, it is true.”
“You mean to sit there and tell me that these magazines pay out money like that to a man for …just for scribbling off a story! Good heavens, Knipe! Whatever next! Writers must all be millionaires!”
“That’s exactly it, Mr Bohlen! That’s where the machine comes in. Listen a minute, sir, while I tell you some more. I’ve got it all worked out. The big magazines are carrying approximately three fiction stories in each issue. Now, take the fifteen most important magazines – the ones paying the most money. A few of them are monthlies, but most of them come out every week. All right. That makes, let us say, around forty big stories being bought each week. That’s forty thousand dollars. So with our machine – when we get it working properly – we can collar nearly the whole of this market!”
“My dear boy, you are mad!”
“No sir, honestly, it’s true what I say. Don’t you see that with volume alone we’ll completely overwhelm them! This machine can produce a five-thousand word story, all typed and ready for dispatch, in thirty seconds. How can the writers compete with that? I ask you, Mr Bohen, how?”
At that point, Adolph Knipe noticed a slight change in the man’s expression, an extra brightness in the eyes, the nostrils distending, the whole face becoming still, almost rigid. Quickly, he continued.
“Nowadays, Mr Bohlen, the hand-made article hasn’t a hope. It can’t possibly compete with mass-production., especially in this country – you know that. Carpets…chairs…shoes…bricks…crockery…anything you like to mention - they are all made by machinery now. The quality may be inferior, but that doesn’t matter. It’s the cost of production that counts. And stories – well - they are just another product, like carpets and chairs, and no one cares how you produce them so long as you deliver the goods. We’ll sell them wholesale, Mr Bohlen! We’ll undercut every writer in the country! We’ll corner the market!”
Mr Bohlen edged up straighter in the chair. He was leaning forward now, both elbows on the desk, the face alert, the small brown eyes on the speaker.
“I sill think it’s impracticable, Knipe.”
“Forty thousand a week!” cried Knipe. “And if we halve the price, making it twenty thousand a week, that’s still a million a year!” And softly added. “You didn’t get any million a year for building the old electronic calculator, did you, Mr Bohlen?”
“Listen, Mr Bohlen. Who on earth is going to want custom-made stories when they can get the other kind at half the price? It stands to reason, doesn’t it?”
“And how will you sell them? Who will you say has written them?”
“We’ll set up our own literary agency, and we’ll distribute them through that. And we’ll invent all the names we want for the writers.”
“I don’t like it, Knipe. To me, that smacks of trickery, does it not?”
“And another thing, Mr Bohlen. There’s all manner of valuable by-products once you’ve got started. Take advertising, for example. Beer manufacturers and people like that are willing to pay good money these days if famous writers will lend their names to their products. Why, my heavens, Mr Bohlen! This isn’t any children’s playing we’re talking about. It’s big business.”
“Don’t get too ambitious, my boy.”
“And another thing. There isn’t any reason why we shouldn’t put your name, Mr Bohlen, on some of the better stories, if you wished it.”
“My goodness, Knipe. What should I want that for?”
“I don’t know, sir, except that some writers get to be very much respected – like Mr Erle Gardner or Kathleen Morris, for example. We’ve got to have names, and I was certainly thinking of using my own on one or two stories, just to help out.”
“A writer, eh?” Mr Bohlen said, musing. “Well, it would surely surprise them over at the club when they saw my name in the magazines – the good magazines.”
“That’s right, Mr Bohlen.”
For a moment, a dreamy, faraway look came into Mr Bohlen’s eyes, and he smiled. Then he stirred himself and began leafing through the plans that lay before him.”
“One thing I don’t quite understand, Knipe. Where do the plots come from? The machine can’t possibly invent plots.”
“We feed those in, sir. That’s no problem at all. Everyone has plots. There’s three of four hundred of them written down in that folder there on your left. Feed them straight into the “plot memory” section of the machine.”
“There are many other little refinements, too, Mr Bohlen. You’ll see them all when you study the plans carefully. For example, there’s a trick that nearly every writer uses, of inserting at least one long, obscure word into each story. This makes the reader think that the writer is wise and clever. So I have the machine do the same thing. There’ll be a whole stack of long words stored away just for this purpose.”
“In the “word-memory” section,” he said, epexegetically.
Through most of that day the two men discussed the possibilities of the new engine. In the end, Mr Bohlen said he would have to think about it some more. The next morning, he was quietly enthusiastic. Within a week, he was completely sold on the idea.
“What we’ll have to do, Knipe, is to say that we are merely building another mathematical calculator, but of a new type. That’ll keep the secret.”
“Exactly. Mr Bohlen.”
And in six months the machine was completed. It was housed in a separate brick building at the back of the premises, and now that it was ready for action, no one was allowed near it excepting Mr Bohlen and Adolph Knipe.
It was an exciting moment when the two men – the one, short, plump, breviped – the other tall, thin and toothy – stood in the corridor before the control panel and got ready to run off the first story. All around them were walls dividing up into many small corridors and the walls were covered with wiring and plugs and switches and huge glass valves. They were both nervous, Mr Bohlen hopping from one foot to the other, quite unable to keep still.
“Which button?” Adolph Knipe asked, eyeing a row of small white discs that resembled the keys of a typewriter. “You choose, Mr Bohlen. Lots of magazines to pick from – Saturday Evening Post, Collier’s, Ladies’ Home Journal – any one you like.”
“Goodness me, boy! How do I know?” He was jumping down like a man with hives.
“Mr Bohlen,” Adolph Knipe said gravely, “do you realize that at this moment, with your little finger alone, you have it in your power to become the most versatile writer on this continent?”
“Listen, Knipe, just get on with it, will you please and cut out the preliminaries.”
“Okay, Mr Bohlen. Then we’ll make it … let me see – this one. How’s that? He extended one finger and pressed down a button with the name TODAY’S WOMAN printed across it in diminutive black type. There was a sharp click, and when he took his finger away, the button remained down, below the level of the others.
“So much for the selection,” he said. “Now – here we go!” He reached up and pulled a switch on the panel. Immediately, the room was filled with a loud humming noise, and a cracking of electric sparks, and the jingle of many, tiny, quickly-moving levers: and almost in the same instant, sheets of quarto paper began sliding out from a slot to the right of the control panel and dropping into a basket below. They came out quick, one sheet a second, and in less than half a minute it was all over. The sheets stopped coming.
“That’s it!” Adolph Knipe cried. “There’s your story!”
They grabbed the sheets and began to read. The first one they picked up started as follows:” fhgur,ncds,afkjffhtymdfn,akj,djwkhfgrth,e,vmaelLKDUERB…” They looked at the others. The style was roughly similar in all of them. Mr Bohlen began to shout. The younger man tried to calm him down.
“It’s all right, sir. Really it is. It only needs a little adjustment. We’ve got a connection wrong somewhere, that’s all. You must remember, Mr Bohlen, there’s over a million feet of writing in this room. You can’t expect everything to be right first time.”
“It’ll never work,” Mr Bohlen said.
“Be patient, sir. Be patient.”
Adolph Knipe set out to discover the fault, and in four days’ time he announced that all was ready for the next try.
“It’ll never work,” Mr Bohlen said. “I know it’ll never work.” Knipe smiled and pressed the selector button marked Reader’s Digest. Then he pulled the switch, and again the strange, exciting, humming sound filled the room. One page of typescript flew out of the slot into the basket.
“No, sir, it hasn’t. It’s exactly right. It’s for the Digest, don’t you see?”
This time it began:
“Fewpeopleyetknowthatarevolutionarynewcurehsabeendiscoveredwhichmaywellbringpermanentrelieftosuferersofthemostdreadeddiseaseofourtime…” And so on.
“It’s gibberish!” Mr Bohlen shouted.
“No, sir, it’s fine. Can’t you see? It’s simply that she’s not breaking up the words. That’s an easy adjustment. But the story’s there. Look, Mr Bohlen, look! It’s all there except that the words are joined together.”
And indeed it was.
On the next try a few days later, everything was perfect, even the punctuation. The first story they ran off, for a famous women’s magazine, was a solid, plotty story of a boy who wanted to better himself with his rich employer. This boy arranged, so that story went, for a friend to hold up the rich man’s daughter on a dark night when she was driving home. Then the boy himself, happening by, knocked the gun out of his friend’s hand and rescued the girl. The girl was grateful. But the father was suspicious. He questioned the boy sharply. The boy broke down and confessed. Then the father, instead of kicking him out of the house, said that he admired the boy’s resourcefulness. The girl admired his honesty – and his looks. The father promised him to be head of the Accounts Department. The girl married him.
“It’s tremendous, Mr Bohlen! It’s exactly right!”
“Seems a bit sloppy to me, my boy!”
“No, sir, it’s a seller, a real seller!”
In his excitement, Adolph Knipe promptly ran off six more stories in as many minutes. All of them – except one, which for some reason came out a trifle lewd – seemed entirely satisfactory.
Mr Bohlen was now mollified. He agreed to set up a literary agency in an office downtown, and to put Knipe in charge. In a couple of weeks, this was accomplished. Then Knipe mailed out the first dozen stories. He put his own name to four of them, Mr Bohlen’s to one, and for the others he simply invented names.
Five of these stories were promptly accepted. The one with Mr Bohlen’s name on it was turned down with a letter from the fiction editor saying. “This is a skillful job, but in our opinion it doesn’t quite come off. We would like to see more of this writer’s work…” Adolph Knipe took a cab to the factory and ran off another story for the same magazine. He again put Mr Bohlen’s name to it, and mailed it immediately. That one they bought.
The money started pouring in. Knipe slowly and carefully stepped up the output, and in six months’ time he was delivering thirty stories a week, and selling about half.
He began to make a name for himself in literary circles as a prolific and successful writer. So did Mr Bohlen; but not quite such a good name, although he didn’t know it. At the same time, Knipe was building up a dozen or more fictitious persons as promising young writers. Everything was going fine.
At this point it was decided to adapt the machine for writing novels as well as stories. Mr Bohlen, thirsting now for greater honours in the literary world, insisted that Knipe go to work at once on this prodigious task.
“I want to do a novel,” he kept saying. “I want to do a novel.”
“And so you will, sir. And so you will. But please be patient. This is a very complicated adjustment I have to make.”
“Everyone tells me I ought to do a novel,” Mr Bohlen cried. “All sorts of publishers are chasing after me day and night begging me to stop fooling around with stories and do something really important instead. A novel’s the only thing that counts – that’s what they say.”
“We’re going to do novels.” Knipe told him. “Just as many as we want. But please be patient.”
“Now listen to me, Knipe. What I’m going to do is a serious novel, something that I’ll make ‘em sit up and take notice. I’ve been getting rather tired of the sort of stories you’ve been putting my name to lately. As a matter of fact, I’m none too sure you haven’t been trying to make a monkey out of me.”
“A monkey, Mr Bohlen?”
“Keeping all the best ones for yourself, that’s what you’ve been doing.”
“Oh no, Mr Bohlen! No!”
“So this time I’m going to make damn sure I write a high class intelligent book. You understand that.”
“Look, Mr Bohlen. With the sort of switchboard I’m rigging up, you’ll be able to write any sort of book you want.”
And this was true, for within another couple of months, the genius of Adolph Knipe had not only adapted the machine for novel writing, but had constructed a marvelous new control system which enabled the author to pre-select literally any type of plot and any style of writing he desired. There were so many dials and levers on the thing, it looked like the instrumental panel of some enormous aeroplane.
First, by depressing one of a series of master buttons, the writer made his primary decision: historical, satirical, philosophical, political, romantic, erotic, humorous, or straight. Then, from the second row (the basic buttons), he chose his theme: army life, pioneer days, civil war, world war, racial problem, wild west, country life, childhood memories, seafaring, the sea bottom and many, many more. The third row of buttons gave a choice of literary style: classical, whimsical, racy, Hemingway, Faulkner, Joyce, feminine, etc. The fourth row was for characters, the forth for wordage – and so on and so on – ten long rows of pre-elect buttons.
But that wasn’t all. Control had also to be exercised during the actual writing process (which took about fifteen minutes per novel), and to do this the author had to sit, as it were, in the driver’s seat, and pull (or push) a battery of labeled stops, as on an organ. By so doing, he was able continually to modulate or merge fifty different and variable qualities such as tension, surprise, humour, pathos, and mystery. Numerous dials and gauges on the dashboard itself told him throughout exactly how far along he was with his work.
Finally, there was the question of “passion”. From a careful study of the books at the top of the bestseller lists for the past year, Adolph Knipe had decided that this was the most important ingredient of all – a magical catalyst that somehow or other could transform the dullest novel into a howling success – at any rate financially. But Knipe also knew that passion was powerful, heady stuff, and must be prudently dispensed – the right proportions at the right moments: and to ensure this, he had devised an independent control consisting of two sensitive sliding adjusters operated by foot-pedals, similar to the throttle and brake in a car. One pedal governed the percentage of passion to be injected, the other regulated its intensity. There was no doubt, of course – and this was the only drawback – that the writing of a novel by the Knipe methods was going to be rather like flying a plane and driving a car and playing an organ all at the same time, but this did not trouble the inventor. When all was ready, he proudly escorted Mr Bohlen into the machine house and began to explain the operating procedure for the new wonder.
“Good God, Knipe! I’ll never be able to do all that! Dammit man, it’d be easier to write the thing by hand!”
“You’ll soon get used to it, Mr Bohlen, I promise you. In a week or two, you’ll be doing it without hardly thinking. It’s just like learning to drive.”
Well, it wasn’t quite as easy as that, but after many hours of practice, Mr Bohlen began to get the hang of it, and finally, late one evening, he told Knipe to make ready for running off the first novel. It was a tense moment, with the fat little man crouching nervously in the driver’s seat, and the tall toothy Knipe fussing excitedly around him.
“I intend to write an important novel, Knipe.”
“I am sure you will, sir. I am sure you will.”
With one finger, Mr Bohlen carefully pressed the necessary preselector buttons:
Master button - satirical
Subject – racial problem
Style – classical
Characters – six men, four women, one infant
Length – fifteen chapters
At the same time he had his eye particularly upon three organ stops marked power, mystery, profundity.
“Are you ready, sir?”
“Yes, yes, I’m ready.”
Knipe pulled the switch. The great engine hummed. There was a deep whirring sound from the oiled movement of fifty thousand cogs and rods and levers; then came the drumming of the rapid electrical typewriter, setting up a shrill, almost intolerable clatter. Out into the basket flew the typewritten pages – one very two seconds. But what with the noise and the excitement and having to play upon the stops, and watch the chapter-counter and the pace-indicator and the passion-gauge, Mr Bohlen began to panic. He reacted in precisely the way a learner driver does in a car – by pressing both feet hard on the pedals and keeping them there until the thing stopped.
“Congratulations on your first novel,” Knipe said, picking up the great bundle of typed pages from the basket.
Little pearls of sweat were oozing all over Mr Bohlen’s face. “It sure was hard work, my boy.”
“But you got it done, sir. You got it done.”
“Let me see it, Knipe. How does it read?”
He started to go through the first chapter, passing each finished page to the younger man.
“Good heavens, Knipe! What’s this!” Mr Bohlen’s thin purple fish-lip was moving slightly as it mouthed the words, his cheeks were beginning slowly to inflate.
“But look here, Knipe! This is outrageous!”
“I must say it’s a bit fruity, sir”
“Fruity! It’s perfectly revolting! I can’t possibly put my name to this!”
“Quite right, sir. Quite right!”
“Knipe! Is this some nasty trick you’ve been playing on me?”
“Oh no, sir! No!”
“It certainly looks like it.”
“You don’t think, Mr Bohlen, that you mightn’t have been pressing a little hard on the passion control pedals, do you?”
“My dear boy, how should I know.”
“Why don’t you try another?”
So Mr Bohlen ran off a second novel, and this time it went according to plan.
Within a week, the manuscript had been read and accepted by an enthusiastic publisher. Knipe followed with one in his own name, then made a dozen more for good measure. In no time at all, Adolph Knipe’s Literary Agency had become famous for its large stable of promising young novelists. And once again the money started rolling in.
It was at this stage that young Knipe began to display a real talent for big business.
“See here, Mr Bohlen,” he said. “We still got too much competition. Why don’t we just absorb all the other writers in the country?”
Mr Bohlen, who now sported a bottle-green velvet jacket and allowed his hair to cover two-thirds of his ears, was quite content with things the way they were. ”Don’t know what you mean, my boy. You can’t just absorb writers.”
“Of course you can, sir, exactly like Rockefeller did with his oil companies. Simply buy them out, and if they won’t sell, squeeze them out. It’s easy!”
“Careful now, Knipe. Be careful.”
“I’ve got a list here, sir, of fifty of the most successful writers in the country, and what I intend to do is offer each one of them a lifetime contract with pay. All they have to do is undertake never to write another word; and, of course, to let us use their names on our own stuff. How about that.”
“They’ll never agree.”
“You don’t know writers, Mr Bohlen. You watch and see.”
“What about the creative urge, Knipe?”
“It’s bunk! All they are really interested in is the money – just like everybody else.”
In the end, Mr Bohlen reluctantly agreed to give it a try, and Knipe, with his list of writers in his pocket, went off in a large chauffeur-driven Cadillac to make his calls.
He journeyed first to the man at the top of the list, a very great and wonderful writer, and he had no trouble getting into the house. He told his story and produced a suitcase full of sample novels and a contract for the man to sign which guaranteed him so much a year for life. The man listened politely, decided he was dealing with a lunatic, gave him a drink, then firmly showed him to the door.
The second writer on the list, when he saw Knipe was serious, actually attacked him with a large metal paper-weight, and the inventor had to flee down the garden followed by such a torrent of abuse and obscenity as he had never heard before.
But it took more than this to discourage Adolph Knipe. He was disappointed but not dismayed, and off he went in his big car to seek his next client. This one was a female, famous and popular, whose fat romantic books sold by the million across the country. She received Knipe graciously, gave him tea, and listened attentively to his story.
“It all sounds very fascinating,” she said. “But of course I find it a little hard to believe.”
“Madam,” Knipe answered. “Come with me and see it with your own eyes. My car awaits you.”
So off they went, and in due course, the astonished lady was ushered into the machine house where the wonder was kept. Eagerly, Knipe explained its workings, and after a while he even permitted her to sit in the driver’s seat and practice with the buttons.
“All right,” he said suddenly, “you want to do a book now?”
“Oh yes!” she cried. “Please!”
She was very competent and seemed to know exactly what she wanted. She made her own pre-selections, then ran off a long, romantic, passion-filled novel. She read through the first chapter and became so enthusiastic that she signed up on the spot.
“That’s one of them out of the way,” Knipe said to Mr Bohlen afterwards. “A pretty big one too.”
“Nice work, my boy.”
“And you know why she signed?”
“It wasn’t the money. She’s got plenty of that.”
Knipe grinned, lifting his lip and baring a long pale upper gum. “Simply because she saw the machine-made stuff was better than her own.”
Thereafter, Knipe wisely decided to concentrate only upon mediocrity. Anything better than that – and there were so few it didn’t matter much – was apparently not quite so easy to seduce.
In the end, after several months of work, he had persuaded something like seventy per cent of the writers on his list to sign the contract. He found that the older ones, those who were running out of ideas and had taken to drink, were the easiest to handle. The younger people were more troublesome. They were apt to become abusive, sometimes violent when he approached them; and more than once Knipe was slightly injured on his rounds.
But on the whole, it was a satisfactory beginning. This last year – the first full year of the machine’s operation – it was estimated that at least one half of all the novels and stories published in the English language were produced by Adolph Knipe upon the Great Automatic Grammatizator.
Does this surprise you?
I doubt it.
And worse is yet to come. Today, as the secret spreads, many more are hurrying to tie up with Mr Knipe. And all the time the screw turns tighter for those who hesitate to sign their names.
This very moment, as I sit here listening to the howling of my nine starving children in the other room, I can feel my own hand creeping closer and closer to that golden contract that lies over on the other side of the desk.
Give us strength, Oh Lord, to let our children starve.
I. Speak about the author of the story.
II. Transcribe the given words and read them correctly:
telephone directory, a literary agency/agent, Collier’s, Saturday Evening Post, Reader’s Digest, thesaurus, Cadillac
VII. Explain the difference between:
1. continuous – continual
2. to care for – to care about
3. ingenious - ingenuous
VIII. Write a short summary of the story. Retell the story
IX. Explain how you understand the following:
1. Whenever a young man gets depressed, everybody thinks it’s a woman.
2. And stories – well - they are just another product, like carpets and chairs, and no one cares how you produce them so long as you deliver the goods. We’ll sell them wholesale, Mr Bohlen! We’ll undercut every writer in the country! We’ll corner the market!”
3. “They’ll never agree.”
“You don’t know writers, Mr Bohlen. You watch and see.”
“What about the creative urge, Knipe?”
“It’s bunk! All they are interested in is the money – just like everybody else.”
4. Thereafter, Knipe wisely decided to concentrate only upon mediocrity. Anything better than that – and there were so few it didn’t matter much – was apparently not quite so easy to seduce.
5. Give us strength. Oh Lord, to let our children starve.
X. Answer the questions:
1. Who are the main characters of the story? What is the relationship between them like?
2. What machine did Mr Bohlen’s firm build? What was Adolph Knipe’s contribution to the project?
3. Knipe was a mathematical genius. But what was his secret ambition?
4. What was Knipe’s motive for building the Great Automatic Grammatizator? What did Mr Bohlen think of the idea?
5. Why did Mr Bohlen agree to have the Grammatizator built? What was the decisive argument?
6. Did Knipe get the machine working properly in the end? How long did it take for the machine to produce a short story? What was the first story they ran off?
7. Were all the stories produced by the machine published? Whose names did Knipe put to the stories?
8. How was the machine adapted for writing novels? Was the first novel Mr Bohlen ran off a seller? What reputation did Knipe’s literary agency get?
9. Whose idea was it to buy out all the other writers in the country? What contract did the authors have to sign?
10. Did all the writers agree to sign up? Who was the first one to be persuaded? How? Who were the easiest to handle? Who were the most troublesome?
11. At the end of the first year of the machine operation, how many of all the novels and short stories published in English were produced by the Grammatizator?
XI. Discussion points:
1. Give Adolph Knipe’s character sketch.
2. With modern computers being so much superior to the Great Automatic Grammatizator, do you find the idea of using a computer to mass produce stories plausible/practicable? Why or why not?
3. Would “machine-made” stories be inferior to “custom-made” ones? If so, why? R. Dahl implies that most readers didn’t notice any difference. How would you explain it?
4. If you knew for sure that a story or a novel was written by a computer, would you enjoy reading it?
5. Why did some writers sign Mr Knipe’s contract? Why did some refuse to do it?
6. “At least one half of all the novels and stories published in English were produced upon the Great Automatic Grammatizator. Does it surprise you? I doubt it.” Could you comment upon the statement?
7. What makes a good story? What are the essential ingredients?