Unpublished Curiosities

The Novel Computer by Robert Escarpit (1966)

First published in France as Le littératron (1964) and translated by Peter Green, this is a mordant satire on how to win government research contracts. Sleeping with the right people's wives is essential, and so is apt brand-naming.

The "tron" suffix was then regarded as highly sexy. Alas, the obvious name for an automatic voting machine was pre-empted: there's no market for the Electron. But the talentless protagonist, more salesman than creator, sees his chance to hype computerized language analysis as the Literatron. Fame soon follows.

Escarpit was a French academic and pioneer in information theory who knowingly presented the Literatron not as a one-off superscience gadget but as a database system running on IBM mainframes. Its first triumph is a (then if not now) unbelievably banal political manifesto based on machine extrapolation of voters' inner feelings:

Politics never really change. It's the same old game the whole time. Stuff about friends and enemies and all standing shoulder to shoulder. If we strung a few people up, the world would be a better place. Intellectuals are always the biggest fools, etc, etc.

This duly wins the election with 85% of the votes. Next come computer-spawned novels including The Virgin Typist, a sensitive romance; Blossoming Spatula, a medical heart-throb; and another lowest-common-denominator success, the hard-boiled thriller The Bastard Aims for Your Groin – which, pirated by a human author, takes the National Literary Prize.

But the research climate changes and the Literatron is already yesterday's fad. By the closing pages our antihero is planning to make his fortune anew with a Somethingelseotron. Wry smiles all round.

written 2017