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The New Boccaccio

Howard Nelson shook hands with the white-haired man who stood behind the desk. "Nelson," said Howard, introducing himself, "of Nelson and Rand, Publishers."

"I'm Forrick," said the white-haired man, smiling. "Well, we of United Computers seldom meet a publisher. We're usually called in to straighten out production difficulties."

"That's my trouble exactly," said Howard.

"Really? You said you were a publisher?"

"That is correct. Publishers publish books, and books have to be produced. Let me assure you, we have production difficulties. But my specific problem at the moment is our monthly, Varlet."

Forrick smoothed his white hair with one hand. "Oh yes," he said, smiling. "Varlet. I bought a copy the other night on my way to the train and rode three stops past my station. Very fine magazine." He cleared his throat, and blushed slightly.

"I'm glad you've read it," said Howard. "You can understand it's hard to obtain material that's just right for Varlet. What we like is a humorous, sophisticated, but high-powered approach to sex."

"Fine art work, too," said Forrick approvingly. "But I don't see where we can help you."

"Didn't I read somewhere recently that you folks claimed you could make a machine that would play chess?"

"Why, yes, and we could. But there's been no demand for that sort of computer." Forrick frowned in puzzlement. "What does that have to do with your magazine?"

"Let me tell you some of the difficulties we have in producing Varlet," said Howard, "and you'll see what I'm driving at."

"Go right ahead," said Forrick. "I'm interested."

"To start with," said Howard, "our need is for a very specialized type of material, and writers only occasionally hit on exactly the right blend for us. This made it hard enough when we first came out, but we managed by using the best original material we could obtain, and by reprinting other stories and articles that happened to meet our requirements. But now—" he spread his hands—"there's not only Varlet on the stands, but also Rascal, Sly, Villain, and I understand there's one coming out next month called Devilish. How are we supposed to compete with that field when there isn't enough to be bought in the first place? It's impossible."

"I see your point," said Forrick, frowning. "You'd have to lower your standards. But that would hurt sales."

Howard nodded and sat back.

"It is a production problem," said Forrick thoughtfully. "Hm-m-m." He reached for a telephone. Soon he had a phone in each hand. "Meigs," he roared at one point, "that's our motto! If the job is impossible, we'll do it anyhow!"

Howard sat tight. Eventually Forrick put down the phones and mopped his brow with a large handkerchief.

"We've got the boys working on it," he said. "I'm glad you brought this to us, Nelson. It looks like a real challenge."

They shook hands.

Howard was cursing dismally over a piece of miserable art work some months later when they brought it in. He watched in amazement as the workmen set the glittering machine by his door, then he got up excitedly. The thing looked like a combination electron microscope and spin-drier, but plainly on the front of it in shining chromium was the word: Writivac-112. He walked over to look at it.

"Say, not bad," he said.

The technicians plugged it in and carried out tests with little meters and lengths of cord. Howard watched interestedly.

There was a discreet cough at his elbow. He glanced around. "If you'll just sign here, sir."

"How much?"

"Total cost, installed, is $5,750. Is that satisfactory?"

"Is it satisfactory?" Howard stared at him for a moment. To be able to just set dials and get exactly what he wanted? "Is it satisfactory?" He grabbed his pen, read rapidly, and signed his name.

As soon as they cleared out, he approached the Writivac-112. A little instruction book dangled beside it. "Fred! Don!" he yelled. "Get in here!" He got his two top men into the room, and then they locked all the doors and went to work.

The machine had several dials and settings. According to the little instruction book, the three knobs lettered A through C on the front determined the proportion of sex, adventure, and mystery in the story. The fourth knob, lettered D, handled special types, all the data for which had to be put in a feed-in slot at the top of the machine, and the feed-in switch thrown to the right. If a large amount of such special material had to be fed in, both memory and feed-in switches were turned to the right. Then the length and spacing switches were to be set, the On button pushed, and the user must be sure the ink reservoir was full and the paper dispenser loaded.

"Oh, boy," said Fred, who was art editor. "Check the paper reservoir, chief." Surreptitiously he turned dial A (sex), all the way to the right.

"I notice there's no humor dial," said Don coldly, looking over Fred's shoulder. As fiction editor and part-time writer, he did not look on the machine with enthusiasm. "It'll be a hell of note if this thing doesn't turn out humor," he said. "I hope we haven't got a white elephant here."

"One way to find out," said Howard. He opened the cabinet in back. "Plenty of paper and ink there."

"Let's go," said Fred. "Can I push the button?"

"I'll push it," said Howard. He glanced at the settings. "A little one-sided, but let's see what happens." He pushed the On button.

There was a soft, continuous, muffled clacking sound, and a faint sliding noise of sheets of paper slipping over one another. At one point the Writivac hesitated and then went on, just like an author hunting for the right word.

"Sounds O.K." said Fred eagerly.

"Maybe it'll hatch an egg," grumbled Don.

"I don't like your attitude," said Howard, thinking of the $5,750 he had tied up in this.

"Sorry," said Don.

The machine whirred on.

At length there was silence. Then there was a loud plop, and a massive stack of papers dropped into view through the Out slot. A bell rang once, like the timer on a stove.

Fred and Don and Howard looked at each other.

Howard recovered first and reached in the slot.

Fred coughed. "Should we say some historic words?"

"I can't think of any," said Howard.

"Wait till later," said Don ironically, "and we can have the machine run some up for us."

Howard glanced at him suspiciously, then pulled out the paper. The first sheet was a title page. In the exact center of the white sheet, capital letters spelled:


They huddled around the stack of paper at a large table, and Howard cautiously removed the title sheet to glance at the first page. Immediately his face reddened. Fred's eyes bulged out like onions. Don pursed his lips and made as if to blow live steam out of his mouth.

After a lengthy silence interrupted only by the turning of pages, Don reached out a shaky hand to the carafe and poured himself a glass of water. Howard grabbed it. Fred quietly appropriated the rest of the manuscript.

"Whew!" said Howard. "I feel scorched."

Across the room, the machine rang its bell.

"What did you set the length for?" asked Don.

"I forgot to set the length," said Howard. He leaned forward and squinted.

"You've got a novel coming up," said Don, staring at the machine. "But we still don't know if the thing will write stuff for Varlet."

"Boy!" said Fred, looking up. "Where's the rest of it?"

"There's another ten thousand words or so in the Out slot," said Howard.

Fred shot across the room, and wandered back, reading as he walked.

Howard glared. "Don't hog it!" he roared. "Over here with it!" The three of them hunched over the new set of sheets as the machine clacked busily across the room.

The sun was a faint glimmer in the west as they finished the last page. Howard cleared his dry throat, and squeezed a last drop of water from the carafe. He glanced at Don. "What do you think?"

"My eyes feel like sandpaper just from reading it."

"How about it," said Fred. He made motions with his hands in the air. "A half-dressed babe on the cover, her negligee down over one shoulder. LUST in big red letters behind her. Nothing else. No background. No nothing. Just a plain cover with the babe and LUST. How about it?"

"It'll be banned in Boston," said Don dubiously.

"So what?" said Fred. "That's good advertising."

"We'll have to sell it under the counter," said Don. "We'll have to ship it out in lead-lined trucks and have it hustled over the state line by men in asbestos suits."

"Oh, it's not that bad," said Howard. "We'll say it's frank and outspoken, a down-to-earth novel. Could we call it a 'psychological study'?"

"I doubt it," said Don.

Fred shook his head reluctantly.

"All right," said Howard, "then it's a down-to-earth, plain-spoken novel about the stuff life's made of. We'll say it's a first novel, a masterpiece by . . . ah . . . by the new Boccaccio!" He looked up in triumph. "That's exactly the note to strike. Boccaccio's respectable. We'll say this is the work of a modern Boccaccio, that's all."

Don eyed the machine sourly and said nothing.

"Well," said Howard, "we'll rush it through the presses and publish it in the fall. Can you have that cover ready, Fred?"

"You bet," said Fred, grinning and raising his thumb and forefinger.

"I thought we got this thing to write stories for Varlet," said Don.

"Precisely," said Howard, "but we have to have enough breadth of vision to fit it into the big picture, too."

"A stroke of genius, chief," said Fred on cue.

"Thank you, Fred." Howard looked at Don hopefully.

"There's bound to be a catch in a thing like this," said Don.

Howard looked hurt. "Did any of your writers ever produce a book like that . . . or any kind of a book, for that matter . . . right on order in an afternoon?"

"No," said Don.

"All right. Now don't worry about Varlet. We'll set it up for Varlet next."

Fred sneaked a glance at this watch. "That book gave me an appetite," he said. "Why not let Don go out for some food?"

"I'm not leaving this room," said Don. "If anyone isn't needed here, it's the art editor."

Howard said mildly, "You can both go. It'll take two of you to bring it back." He pulled over a pad and scribbled his order. "Here, and don't lose the paper."

After they had left, Howard made careful adjustments on the Writivac. He fed in several exceptionally good issues of Varlet, three of Playboy, two copies of The New Yorker, and an old issue of Esquire. He replenished the paper supply, checked the level of the ink, and set the length for two thousand words. Then there was a commotion at the door, and he looked up to see Don and Fred come in with covered trays.

"Well, we eat in style," he said. "You were fast enough."

"We naturally wanted to get back in time to see our next issue," said Don.

"You set it up yet?" asked Fred.

"Just finished." Howard pressed the button.

They had hardly uncovered the tray when the Writivac-112 rang its bell. Fred started eagerly across the room.

"Wait a minute, will you?" said Don. "Once we start reading that stuff we'll never get to eat."

Howard started buttering a roll. "Come on back, Fred. It can wait a minute."

Fred came back reluctantly. The minute they finished the food and piled the trays to one side, Fred was across the room again. The three of them crowded over the printed sheets. On the title page appeared the words:


"Could be anything," said Don.

"It sounds promising to me," said Howard.

They leafed through the sheets with intense interest, three pairs of eyes moving as one.

When they were through, Howard looked up exultantly. "We're in!"

Fred looked dazed. "Boy," he said at last. "Boy!"

Don nodded reluctantly. "It's good," he said.

They clapped each other on the back, Fred and Howard happily, and Don resignedly. Mentally, Don was filling out a correspondence school coupon for a course in welding. Finally they all went home and fell into an exhausted sleep.

The next six months, for Howard, were a triumphal march. Varlet was coming out twice a month, and arrangements were being completed to bring it out as a weekly. The magazine had so much advertising that it was as thick as a phone book, and desperate TV executives were petitioning Congress to pass a law against it. Just in case, Howard was planning a home-type magazine. He and Fred were making final arrangements on the format of The Saturday Reader's Companion.

"We won't get many ads at first, of course," Howard was saying, "but after the first couple of issues—" He was interrupted by someone rapping the outside of the door with his foot. "There's Don with the food." He started to get up.

"I'll get it," said Fred, springing to his feet.

Don came in carrying a stacked tray balanced on a pile of magazines. He was grinning like an imbecile.

"You out of your head, boy?" said Fred. "Watch that tray!"

Howard scowled. "What are all those magazines? What are you bringing them in here for?"

Don shrugged. "I told you a thing like that had to have a catch in it." He plopped down the stack of magazines.

"Varlet," he said. He tossed a copy onto the desk. "Devilish." He tossed a copy of Devilish onto the desk. "Sly." He tossed a copy of it on the desk. "Villain." Another copy. "Slicker." Another. "Hellion, Rascal, Knave, Cheat." He tossed them on the desk in rapid succession.

"Open any one," said Don. "Look at the stories. Good stuff."

Howard blinked.

Fred closed the door furtively and locked it. "What are you getting at?" he asked. "We've still got the Reader's Companion coming out."

"I think I get it," said Howard slowly. "What's that last thing you've got in your hands there?"

Don held it out for him to see. "The Publishers Gazette." He opened it to an ad on an inside page.

Howard took it and read:

"Writivac-120, the new all-purpose electronic writer, composes stories typed, double or single-spaced, adjustable margins. Neat copy. Choose one of several styles. Mystery Master, at $3650, is a sound low-priced machine. Can be converted to any other standard type by inserting pop-in coils (available at extra cost). Genre King, at $5750, supplies the best in versatile production-ability with complete control over content. Flexible. Swift. Reliable. Get yours today.

"Available with pica or elite type. Prices slightly higher west of the Mississippi."

"Well—" said Howard.

"I knew there was something fishy," said Don. "What they did was give us a pilot model and watch to see if we complained of quirks while they got their production lines tooled up. Now they're in mass-production. If they get the price down far enough, or the payments spaced out long enough, there'll be one in every living room in the country. We've had it."

Fred stared at the floor.

Howard cleared his throat. "How's that welding course coming?" he asked hopefully. "Is there room for two more in the class?"


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