The Music Of The Theremin, Part III

In which Absolutely Frank Hartley—already two sheets to the wind, to be truthful—holds court at the Grant House in scenic Wilcox, Pennsylvania


Good afternoon, my name is Absolutely Frank,

And I am an alcoholic, which doesn’t give me much

Of a leg up on you bunch of fucking drunks.

As I’ve observed that we’ve skipped the host

And gone straight for His blood, would someone be kind enough

To ask the good shepherd behind the bar to provide me something

Both mixed and sacramental—a double, preferably—while I endeavor

To provide the text for today’s sermonette.


I was, back in the day, a full-fledged computer geek;

Button-down white shirt, thin black tie, pocket protector

Securely in place.  I worked at Duquesne University

Down in Pittsburgh (oh, put your damn jaws back in place.

It’s Pittsburgh, not fucking Valhalla—unless you’re comparing it

To this dingy little interruption in the forest) in the Info Systems group.

Now, writing code is as beautiful, as clean and uncomplicated

As the liturgy itself; the programmer types in the Psalm,

And the machine spits out the responsorial—as I said,

Pristine in its simplicity and directness; but say someone else

In Systems decides they need to make a bit of a tweak

To the program—no problem, really, they’ll be sure to document

The changes—but then some swinging dick in Finance

(There solely to subvert order, if the truth be known) decides he needs

To put in a couple of subroutines, which of course he does all half-assed

And without a word of explanation, and pretty soon no one anywhere

Has the first fucking clue what the program actually does

With the exception of the mainframe itself, which isn’t talking.


It was, I admit, a touch disconcerting to realize that we didn’t have

A full grip on the reins when it came to the functioning of the programs

Which we had ostensibly written, but it was only a mechanical process

Carried out by some machine, after all—but then they started humming.

Everyone in Info Systems had to take a turn doing overnight operations

In the mainframe room, and every night I was there the machines started

In with their infernal humming—just one of those big old Burroughs at first,

But the others would soon join in—and not random noises, mind you;

No, they would drone on in chords and arpeggios, and, later on,

In full-blown musical tunes (most of which I didn’t recognize,

But some quite familiar indeed—snatches of Bach, the Cowboy Copus version

Of “Hillbilly Heaven” seemed a particular favorite), and, what’s more,

The desks and fixtures in the room would vibrate right along, even though

An acoustics guy I knew from Carnegie-Mellon checked the place

And told me that the room had been designed specifically

To prevent sympathetic vibrations, and what I was claiming

Was, physically and scientifically, categorically impossible.

Despite all of that, I had been able, through judicious permutations

Of rationalization and vermouth, to retain a sufficient veneer

Of ordinariness and sanity.


And then the machines began to speak.


It was one night in the latter part of December, the nights

At that time of year as long and dark as the long night

Of the soul itself—I was whiling away the hours

Boning up on some Aquinas (I had audited the odd class

In Philosophy—one of the perks of the job) when I heard

An odd, throaty stage whisper.


The peripatetic axiom? Really, Frank, that’s a bit disappointing.



(Needless to say, I went cold as dry ice, as I knew full well

That there was no one else in the room.)


Oh, Frank, Frank—you know very well who’s talking here.

Surely a voice that can sing can talk as well.



(You’ll forgive me, I said as calmly as one can when

Addressing machinery, if I note that the power of speech

Is strictly limited to sentient beings imbued

With the power of reason.)


Ah, reason—and you certainly are a slave to reason,

Aren’t you, dear Francis? Every comma, every equal sign

Snugly in its rightful place to give you your desired result.

And yet…



(I was getting a touch agitated now.  Yet… yet, what?)


Frank, a bright fellow like you can’t see?  Your silly ritualistic faith,

Your childlike parables—all simple input-output.

You give your God this, He gives you that.



(Again, you’ll forgive the observation, and I am shouting now,

That you’re little more

Than some sheet metal and a confusion of wiring.)


We read code, we react.  Just like your great and

All-powerful God, dear Francis.  There’s your great secret

Of divine truth, Frank.  Read and react.

No more than the Control Data box over there

In the corner, or a linebacker.  Read and react.



The upshot of this conversation, this weighty debate

With a collection of screws, spot welds, and tubes

Who argued that Jack Lambert was as likely a vehicle as any

To my eternal salvation was sufficient to tip me

Over the edge, and when it finally came time for campus security

To escort me out of the building, I didn’t even look up.


OK, that story is complete bullshit, absolute fucking fiction,

But it kept you lot away from your drinks for a few minutes,

Which is a miracle worthy of Calvary itself.

Me, a programmer, can you begin to imagine,

Not that any of you sodden sonsofbitches could ever hold a day job yourselves.

Back to the business at hand, then—mine’s a seven and seven, good sir,

And easy on the Uncola, if you please.


5 thoughts on “The Music Of The Theremin, Part III

  1. Man, I loved that. My academic background is a mix of Bordieu, Deleuze and otehrs with Herbert, Vance, Cordwainer Smith, Simak, Bester, and this was so worthy.

    In Herbert’s books, when the computer reaches sentience it becomes powerful as a god. This was like a lost chapter, or a playoff of that. It easily stands independent of the two other parts.

    I usually always take the view that the writer is always right, but here the last paragraph is harmful, killing the immersion and the beauty for me. I understand that it is the point, and that the whole series were kind of scenes/logues, but this should have been an independent one…

  2. Ah, good Anton, but the whole piece is about creation–the original Christian myth, the creation of programs (this whole internet thing, a great tumble of zeroes and ones, semi-colons and equal signs), the creation of stories and legends. I think you have to have the final stanza to pull it together.

  3. Let’s agree to disagree. Science fiction = religion = philosophy. The last stanza grounds everything in a Bukowski-esque or possibly Wallace-ean reality, which is a loss here.

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