The Euphio Question by Kurt Vonnegut
A short story from "The Monkey House"
LADIES AND GENTLEMEN of the Federal Communications Commission, I appreciate this opportunity to testify on the subject before you.
I'm sorry—or maybe "heartsick" is the word—that news has leaked out about it. But now that word is getting around and coming to your official notice, I might as well tell the story straight and pray to God that I can convince you that
I won't deny that all three of us—Lew Harrison, the radio announcer, Dr. Fred Bockman, the physicist, and myself, a sociology professor—found peace of mind. We did. And I won't say it's wrong for people to seek peace of mind. But if somebody thinks he wants peace of mind the way we found it, he'd be well advised to seek coronary thrombosis instead.
Lew, Fred, and I found peace of mind by sitting in easy chairs and turning on a gadget the size of a table-model television set. No herbs, no golden rule, no muscle control, no sticking our noses in other people's troubles to forget our own; no hobbies, Taoism[I1] , push-ups or contemplation of a lotus. The gadget is, I think, what a lot of people vaguely foresaw as the crowning achievement of civilization: an electronic something-or-other, cheap, easily mass-produced, that can, at the flick of a switch, provide tranquillity. I see you have one here.
My first brush with synthetic peace of mind was six months ago. It was also then that I got to know Lew Harrison, I'm sorry to say. Lew is chief announcer of our town's only radio station. He makes his living with his loud mouth, and I'd be surprised if it were anyone but he who brought this matter to your attention.
Lew has, along with about thirty other shows, a weekly science program. Every week he gets some professor from
Fred Bockman is thirty and looks eighteen. Life has left no marks on him, because he hasn't paid much attention to it. What he pays most of his attention to, and what Lew Harrison wanted to interview him about, is this eight-ton umbrella of his that he listens to the stars with. It's a big radio antenna rigged up on a telescope mount. The way I understand it, instead of looking at the stars through a telescope, he aims this thing out in space and picks up radio signals coming from different heavenly bodies.
Of course, there aren't people running radio stations out there. It's just that many of the heavenly bodies pour out a lot of energy and some of it can be picked up in the radio-frequency band. One good thing Fred's rig does is to spot stars hidden from telescopes by big clouds of cosmic dust. Radio signals from them get through the clouds to Fred's antenna.
That isn't all the outfit can do, and, in his interview with Fred, Lew Harrison saved the most exciting part until the end of the program. "That's very interesting, Dr. Bockman," Lew said. "Tell me, has your radio telescope turned up anything else about the universe that hasn't been revealed by ordinary light telescopes?"
This was the snapper. "Yes, it has," Fred said. "We've found about fifty spots in space, not hidden by cosmic dust, that give off powerful radio signals. Yet no heavenly bodies at all seem to be there."
"Well!" Lew said in mock surprise. "I should say that is something! Ladies and gentlemen, for the first time in radio history, we bring you the noise from Dr. Bockman's mysterious voids." They had strung a line out to Fred's antenna on the campus. Lew waved to the engineer to switch in the signals coming from it. "Ladies and gentlemen, the voice of nothingness!"
The noise wasn't much to hear—a wavering hiss, more like a leaking tire than anything else. It was supposed to be on the air for five seconds. When the engineer switched it off, Fred and I were inexplicably grinning like idiots. I felt relaxed and tingling. Lew Harrison looked as though he'd stumbled into the dressing room at the Copacabana. He glanced at the studio clock, appalled. The monotonous hiss had been on the air for five minutes! If the engineer's cuff hadn't accidentally caught on the switch, it might be on yet.
Fred laughed nervously, and Lew hunted for his place in the script. "The hiss from nowhere," Lew said. "Dr. Bockman, has anyone proposed a name for these interesting voids?"
"No," Fred said. "At the present time they have neither a name nor an explanation."
The voids the hiss came from have still to be explained, but I've suggested a name for them that shows signs of sticking: "Bockman's Euphoria." We may not know what the spots are, but we know what they do, so the name's a good one. Euphoria, since it means a sense of buoyancy and well-being, is really the only word that will do.
After the broadcast, Fred, Lew, and I were cordial to one another to the point of being maudlin.
"I can't remember when a broadcast has been such a pleasure," Lew said. Sincerity is not his forte, yet he meant it.
"It's been one of the most memorable experiences of my life," Fred said, looking puzzled. "Extraordinarily pleasant."
We were all embarrassed by the emotion we felt, and parted company in bafflement and haste. I hurried home for a drink, only to walk into the middle of another unsettling experience.
The house was quiet, and I made two trips through it before discovering that I was not alone. My wife, Susan, a good and lovable woman who prides herself on feeding her family well and on time, was lying on the couch, staring dreamily at the ceiling. "Honey," I said tentatively, "I'm home. It's suppertime."
"Fred Bockman was on the radio today," she said in a faraway voice.
"I know. I was with him in the studio."
"He was out of this world," she sighed. "Simply out of this world. That noise from space—when he turned that on, everything just seemed to drop away from me. I've been lying here, just trying to get over it."
"Uh-huh," I said, biting my lip. "Well, guess I'd better round up Eddie." Eddie is my ten-year-old son, and captain of an apparently invincible neighborhood baseball team.
"Save your strength, Pop," said a small voice from the shadows. "You home? What's the matter? Game called off on account of atomic attack?"
"Nope. We finished eight innings."
"Beating 'em so bad they didn't want to go on, eh?"
"Oh, they were doing pretty good. Score was tied, and they had two men on and two outs." He talked as though he were recounting a dream. "And then," he said, his eyes widening, "everybody kind of lost interest, just wandered off. I came home and found the old lady curled up here, so I lay down on the floor."
"Why?" I asked incredulously.
"Pop," Eddie said thoughtfully, "I'm damned if I know."
"Eddie!" his mother said.
"Mom," Eddie said, "I'm damned if you know either." I was damned if anybody could explain it, but I had a nagging hunch. I dialed Fred Bockman's number. "Fred, am I getting you up from dinner?"
"I wish you were," Fred said. "Not a scrap to eat in the house, and I let
"Couldn't get the car started, eh?"
"Sure she got the car started," said Fred. "She even got to the market. Then she felt so good she walked right out of the place again." Fred sounded depressed. "I guess it's a woman's privilege to change her mind, but it's the lying that hurts."
"She tried to tell me everybody wandered out of the market with her—clerks and all."
"Fred," I said, "I've got news for you. Can I drive out right after supper?"
When I arrived at Fred Bockman's farm, he was staring, dumbfounded, at the evening paper.
"The whole town went nuts!" Fred said. "For no reason at all, all the cars pulled up to the curb like there was a hook and ladder going by. Says here people shut up in the middle of sentences and stayed that way for five minutes. Hundreds wandered around in the cold in their shirt-sleeves, grinning like toothpaste ads." He rattled the paper. "This is what you wanted to talk to me about?"
I nodded. "It all happened when that noise was being broadcast, and I thought maybe—"
"The odds are about one in a million that there's any maybe about it," said Fred. "The time checks to the second."
"But most people weren't listening to the program."
"They didn't have to listen, if my theory's right. We took those faint signals from space, amplified them about a thousand times, and rebroadcast them. Anybody within reach of the transmitter would get a good dose of the stepped-up radiations, whether he wanted to or not." He shrugged. "Apparently that's like walking past a field of burning marijuana."
"How come you never felt the effect at work?"
"Because I never amplified and rebroadcast the signals. The radio station's transmitter is what really put the sock into them."
"So what're you going to do next?"
Fred looked surprised. "Do? What is there to do but report it in some suitable journal?"
Without a preliminary knock, the front door burst open and Lew Harrison, florid and panting, swept into the room and removed his great polo coat with a bullfighter-like flourish. "You're cutting him in on it, too?" he demanded, pointing at me. Fred blinked at him. "In on what?"
"The millions," Lew said. "The billions."
"Wonderful," Fred said. "What are you talking about?"
"The noise from the stars!" Lew said "They love it. It drives 'em nuts. Didja see the papers?" He sobered for an instant. "It was the noise that did it, wasn't it, Doc?"
"We think so," Fred said. He looked worried. "How, exactly, do you propose we get our hands on these millions or billions?"
"Real estate!" Lew said raptly. " 'Lew,' I said to myself, 'Lew, how can you cash in on this gimmick if you can't get a monopoly on the universe? And, Lew,' I asked myself "how can you sell the stuff when anybody can get it free while you're broadcasting it?'"
"Maybe it's the kind of thing that shouldn't be cashed in on," I suggested. "I mean, we don't know a great deal about—"
"Is happiness bad?" Lew interrupted. "No," I admitted.
"Okay, and what we'd do with this stuff from the stars is make people happy. Now I suppose you're going to tell me that's bad?"
"People ought to be happy," Fred said.
"Okay, okay," Lew said loftily. "That's what we're going to do for the people. And the way the people can show their gratitude is in real estate." He looked out the window. "Good—a barn. We can start right there. We set up a transmitter in the barn, run a line out to your antenna, Doc, and we've got a real-estate development."
"Sorry," Fred said. "I don't follow you. This place wouldn't do for a development. The roads are poor, no bus service or shopping center, the view is lousy and the ground is full of rocks."
Lew nudged Fred several times with his elbow. "Doc, Doc, Doc—sure it's got drawbacks, but with that transmitter in the barn, you can give them the most precious thing in all creation-happiness."
"That's great!" said Lew. "I'd get the prospects, Doc, and you'd sit up there in the barn with your hand on the switch. Once a prospect set foot on
"Every house a home, as long as the power doesn't fail," I said.
"Then," Lew said, his eyes shining, "when we sell all the lots here, we move the transmitter and start another development. Maybe we'd get a fleet of transmitters going." He snapped his fingers. "Sure! Mount 'em on wheels."
"I somehow don't think the police would think highly of us," Fred said.
"Okay, so when they come to investigate, you throw the old switch and give them a jolt of happiness." He shrugged. "Hell, I might even get bighearted and let them have a corner lot."
"No," Fred said quietly. "If I ever joined a church, I couldn't face the minister."
"So we give him a jolt," Lew said brightly.
"No," Fred said. "Sony."
"Okay," Lew said, rising and pacing the floor. "I was prepared for that. I've got an alternative, and this one's strictly legitimate. We'll make a little amplifier with a transmitter and an aerial on it. Shouldn't cost over fifty bucks to make, so we'd price it in the range of the common man—five hundred bucks, say. We make arrangements with the phone company to pipe signals from your antenna right into the homes of people with these sets. The sets take the signal from the phone line, amplify it, and broadcast it through the houses to make everybody in them happy. See? Instead of turning on the radio or television, everybody's going to want to turn on the happiness. No casts, no stage sets, no expensive cameras—no nothing but that hiss."
"We could call it the euphoriaphone," I suggested, "or 'euphio' for short."
'That's great, that's great!" Lew said. "What do you say, Doc?"
"I don't know." Fred looked worried. "This sort of thing is out of my line."
"We[I2] all have to recognize our limitations, Doc," Lew said expansively. "I'll handle the business end, and you handle the technical end." He made a motion as though to put on his coat. "Or maybe you don't want to be a millionaire?"
"Oh, yes, yes indeed I do," Fred said quickly. "Yes indeed."
"All righty," Lew said, dusting his palms, "the first thing we've gotta do is build one of the sets and test her."
This part of it was down Fred's alley, and I could see the problem interested him. "It's really a pretty simple gadget," he said. "I suppose we could throw one together and run a test out here next week."
The first test of the euphoriaphone, or euphio, took place in Fred Bockman's living room on a Saturday afternoon, five days after Fred's and Lew's sensational radio broadcast.
There were six guinea pigs—Lew, Fred and his wife Marion, myself, my wife Susan, and my son Eddie. The Bockmans had arranged chairs in a circle around a card table, on which rested a gray steel box.
Protruding from the box was a long buggy whip aerial that scraped the ceiling. While Fred fussed with the box, the rest of us made nervous small talk over sandwiches and beer. Eddie, of course, wasn't drinking beer, though he was badly in need of a sedative. He was annoyed at having been brought out to the farm instead of to a ball game, and was threatening to take it out on the Bockmans' Early American furnishings. He was playing a spirited game of flies and grounders with himself near the French doors, using a dead tennis ball and a poker. "Eddie," Susan said for the tenth time, "please stop."
"It's under control, under control," Eddie said disdainfully, playing the ball off four walls and catching it with one hand.
Marion, who vents her maternal instincts on her immaculate furnishings, couldn't hide her distress at Eddie's turning the place into a gymnasium. Lew, in his way, was trying to calm her. "Let him wreck the dump," Lew said. "You'll be moving into a palace one of these days."
"It's ready," Fred said softly.
We looked at him with queasy bravery. Fred plugged two jacks from the phone line into the gray box. This was the direct line to his antenna on the campus, and clockwork would keep the antenna fixed on one of the mysterious voids in the sky —the most potent of Bockman's Euphoria. He plugged a cord from the box into an electrical outlet in the baseboard, and rested his hand on a switch. "Ready?"
"Don't, Fred!" I said. I was scared stiff.
"Turn it on, turn it on," Lew said. "We wouldn't have the telephone today if
"I’ll stand right here by the switch, ready to flick her off if something goes sour," Fred said reassuringly. There was a click, a hum, and the euphio was on.
A deep, unanimous sigh filled the room. The poker slipped from Eddie's hands. He moved across the room in a stately sort of waltz, knelt by his mother, and laid his head in her lap. Fred drifted away from his post, humming, his eyes half closed.
Lew Harrison was the first to speak, continuing his conversation with
"Uh-uh," said Susan, shaking her head dreamily. She put her arms around Lew, and kissed him for about five minutes.
"Say," I said, patting Susan on the back, "you kids get along swell, don't you? Isn't that nice, Fred?"
Fred was still prowling around the room, smiling, his eyes now closed all the way. His heel caught in a lamp cord, and he went sprawling on the hearth, his head in the ashes. "Hi-ho, everybody," he said, his eyes still closed. "Bunged my head on an andiron." He stayed there, giggling occasionally.
"The doorbell's been ringing for a while," Susan said. "I don't suppose it means anything."
"Come in, come in," I shouted. This somehow struck everyone as terribly funny. We all laughed uproariously, including Fred, whose guffaws blew up little gray clouds from the ashpit.
* * *
A small, very serious old man in white had let himself in, and was now standing in the vestibule, looking at us with alarm. "Milkman," he said uncertainly. He held out a slip of paper to
"Good day to be indoors," the milkman said. "Radio says we'll catch the tail end of the Atlantic hurricane."
"Let 'er come," I said. "I've got my car parked under a big, dead tree." It seemed to make sense. Nobody took exception to it. I lapsed back into a warm fog of silence and thought of nothing whatsoever. These lapses seemed to last for a matter of seconds before they were interrupted by conversation of newcomers. Looking back, I see now that the lapses were rarely less than six hours.
I was snapped out of one, I recall, by a repetition of the doorbell's ringing. "I said come in," I mumbled. "And I did," the milkman mumbled.
The door swung open, and a state trooper glared in at us. "Who the hell's got his milk truck out there blocking the road?" he demanded. He spotted the milkman. "Aha! Don't you know somebody could get killed, coming around a blind curve into that thing?" He yawned, and his ferocious expression gave way to an affectionate smile. "It's so damn' unlikely," he said, "I don't know why I ever brought it up." He sat down by Eddie. "Hey, kid—like guns?" He took his revolver from its holster. "Look—just like Hoppy's."
Eddie took the gun, aimed it at
"He'll make a cop yet,"
"God, I'm happy," I said, feeling a little like crying. "I got the swellest little kid and the swellest bunch of friends and the swellest old wife in the world." I heard the gun go off twice more, and then dropped into heavenly oblivion.
Again the doorbell roused me. "How many times do I have to tell you—for Heaven's sake, come in," I said, without opening my eyes.
"I did," the milkman said.
I heard the tramping of many feet, but had no curiosity about them. A little later, I noticed that I was having difficulty breathing. Investigation revealed that I had slipped to the floor, and that several Boy Scouts had bivouacked on my chest and abdomen.
"You want something?" I asked the tenderfoot whose hot, measured breathing was in my face.
"Beaver Patrol wanted old newspapers, but forget it," he said. "We'd just have to carry 'em somewhere."
"And do your parents know where you are?"
"Oh, sure. They got worried and came after us." He jerked his thumb at several couples lined up against the baseboard, smiling into the teeth of the wind and rain lashing in at them through the broken window.
"Mom, I'm kinda hungry," Eddie said.
"Oh, Eddie—you're not going to make your mother cook just when we're having such a wonderful time," Susan said.
Lew Harrison gave the euphio's volume knob another twist. "There, kid, how's that?"
"Aaaaaaaaaaah," said everybody.
When awareness intruded on oblivion again, I felt around for the Beaver Patrol, and found them missing. I opened my eyes to see that they and Eddie and the milkman and Lew and the trooper were standing by a picture window, cheering. The wind outside was roaring and slashing savagely and driving raindrops through the broken window as though they'd been fired from air rifles. I shook Susan gently, and together we went to the window to see what might be so entertaining.
"She's going, she's going, she's going," the milkman cried ecstatically.
Susan and I arrived just in time to join in the cheering as a big elm crashed down on our sedan.
"Kee-runch!" said Susan, and I laughed until my stomach hurt. "Get Fred," Lew said urgently. "He's gonna miss seeing the barn go!"
"H'mm?" Fred said from the fireplace. "Aw, Fred, you missed it,"
Now there was only the sound of the wind. "How come nobody cheered?" Lew said faintly. "The euphio—it's off!"
A horrible groan came from the fireplace. "God, I think I've got a concussion."
I looked at the woman I had my arms around—a dreadful, dirty old hag, with red eyes sunk deep in her head, and hair like Medusa's. "Ugh," I said, and turned away in disgust. "Honey," wept the witch, "it's me—Susan." Moans filled the air, and pitiful cries for food and water. Suddenly the room had become terribly cold. Only a moment before I had imagined I was in the tropics. "Who's got my damn' pistol?" the trooper said bleakly. A
I shuddered. "I'll bet it's Sunday morning," I said. "We've been here twelve hours!" It was Monday morning.
The chief of the Beaver Patrol, with the incredible stamina of the young, was the hero of the day. He fell in his men in two ranks, haranguing them like an old Army top-kick. While the rest of us lay draped around the room, whimpering about hunger, cold, and thirst, the patrol started the furnace again, brought blankets, applied compresses to Fred's head and countless barked shins, blocked off the broken window, and made buckets of cocoa and coffee.
Within two hours of the time that the power and the euphio went off, the house was warm and we had eaten. The serious respiratory cases—the parents who had sat near the broken window for twenty-four hours—had been pumped full of penicillin and hauled off to the hospital. The milkman, the
Susan had fallen asleep right after eating. Now she stirred. "What happened?"
"Happiness," I told her. "Incomparable, continuous happiness —happiness by the kilowatt."
Lew Harrison, who looked like an anarchist with his red eyes and fierce black beard, had been writing furiously in one corner of the room. "That's good—happiness by the kilowatt," he said. "Buy your happiness the way you buy light."
"Contract happiness the way you contract influenza," Fred said. He sneezed.
Lew ignored him. "It's a campaign, see? The first ad is for the long-hairs: 'The price of one book, which may be a disappointment, will buy you sixty hours of euphio. Euphio never disappoints.' Then we'd hit the middle class with the next one—"
"In the groin?" Fred said.
"What's the matter with you people?" Lew said. "You act as though the experiment had failed."
"We had a cross section of
He ran his hands through his hair and rolled his eyes. "And the selling points—my God, the selling points! No expensive toys for the kids. For the price of a trip to the movies, people can buy thirty hours of euphio. For the price of a fifth of whisky, they can buy sixty hours of euphio!"
"Or a big family bottle of potassium cyanide," Fred said.
"Don't you see it?" Lew said incredulously. "It'll bring families together again, save the American home. No more fights over what TV or radio program to listen to. Euphio pleases one and all—we proved that. And there is no such thing as a dull euphio program."
A knock on the door interrupted him. A repairman stuck his head 'n to announce that the power would be on again in about two minutes.
"Look, Lew," Fred said, "this little monster could kill civilization in less time than it took to burn down
"You're kidding!" Lew said, aghast. He turned to
"Not by operating an electronic opium den,"
Lew slapped his forehead. "It's what the public wants. This is like Louis Pasteur refusing to pasteurize milk."
"It'll be good to have the electricity again,"
The lights came on the instant she said it, but Fred and I were already in mid-air, descending on the gray box. We crashed down on it together. The card table buckled, and the plug was jerked from the wall socket. The euphio's tubes glowed red for a moment, then died.
Expressionlessly, Fred took a screwdriver from his pocket and removed the top of the box.
"Would you enjoy doing battle with progress?" he said, offering me the poker Eddie had dropped.
In a frenzy, I stabbed and smashed at the euphio's glass and wire vitals. With my left hand, and with Fred's help, I kept Lew from throwing himself between the poker and the works.
"I thought you were on my side," Lew said.
"If you breathe one word about euphio to anyone," I said, "what I just did to euphio I will gladly do to you."
And there, ladies and gentlemen of the Federal Communications Commission, I thought the matter had ended. It deserved to end there. Now, through the medium of Lew Harrison's big mouth, word has leaked out. He has petitioned you for permission to start commercial exploitation of euphio. He and his backers have built a radio-telescope of their own.
Let me say again that all of Lew's claims are true. Euphio will do everything he says it will. The happiness it gives is perfect and unflagging in the face of incredible adversity. Near tragedies, such as the first experiment, can no doubt be avoided with clockwork to turn the sets on and off. I see that this set on the table before you is, in fact, equipped with clockwork.
The question is not whether euphio works. It does. The question is, rather, whether or not
In closing, I'd like to point out that Lew Harrison, the would-be czar of euphio, is an unscrupulous person, unworthy of public trust. It wouldn't surprise me, for instance, if he had set the clockwork on this sample euphio set so that its radiations would addle your judgments when you are trying to make a decision. In fact, it seems to be whirring suspiciously at this very moment, and I'm so happy I could cry. I've got the swellest little kid and the swellest bunch of friends and the swellest old wife in the world. And good old Lew Harrison is the salt of the earth, believe me. I sure wish him a lot of good luck with his new enterprise.