Con-man, pacifist, business woman, Nazi, scientist. Five improbable entities stuck together in a pit of darkness. A prolonged nightmare of 109 years conducted by a sadistic self-aware supercomputer with unlimited power. This is Harlan Ellison’s I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream.
Although on the surface IHNMAIMS is a straightforward story about five people trapped in an endless underground complex after a nuclear war, it has transcended into a franchise. The human characters from the short story were greatly expanded upon in the 1995 video game while the supercomputer, AM, gained some depth in a 2001 radio drama. A comic adaptation exists as well. This has become one of my favorite post-apocalyptic stories due to the development of the characters and the themes at play.
Over the next few weeks, we’ll break down each of the humans: exposing their fatal flaws and identifying what led them to redemption (and further punishment).
We’ll start with Benny, who has always been AM’s favorite torture toy. Originally, he was a brilliant scientist. It is never explained why AM hates Benny more than the others, but for whatever reason he was reduced to a hunchback ape-like creature. His handsome features replaced by a network of fissures and radiation scars.
Aside from his physical appearance, AM takes pleasure in altering Benny’s mental abilities. However, I have to wonder if altering Benny’s mind is the best use of AM’s power. By reducing the scientists’ mental faculties, AM only makes it more difficult for Benny to appreciate the irony of his situation. A scientist unable to express his ideas is far more torturous than a scientist who is reduced to a babbling fool. Benny is like a servitor in Warhammer 40,000. His mind has been altered, but that doesn’t affect him, only those who once knew him. Perhaps that was the goal. So long as he is crippled, blind, and dumb Benny requires constant care and attention from his four companions.
Expanding on Benny’s altered mind, it really doesn’t matter if Benny was once homosexual if his mind has been altered. Again, that was a different person, not the creature who now inhabits AM’s belly. As long as AM tampers with his mind, he cannot appreciate the irony of being forced to sleep with Ellen for 109 years. Originally, the game adaptation was going to deal with Benny’s sexual preference, but ultimately the character was completely revamped and given a new backstory.
In the video game, Benny was the commander of an American commando squad fighting in a Chinese rice patty during World War III. While deployed, Benny killed four of his squad mates. The reasons for the first murder is unclear, but it’s implied one squad mate couldn’t pull his weight and another tried to help him. Lacking compassion, Benny killed both of them for showing weakness. When the others found out, Benny murdered them as well. Something to briefly consider is if AM was created to oversee a war too complex for human minds, then it is possible Benny’s orders came from the great machine.
Interestingly, Benny’s initial psych profile is about cannibalism. This has led some fans to theorize Benny cannibalized his squad mates, just as he attempted to cannibalize Gorrister in the original story. However, cannibalism is hardly included in the final game. If Benny even attempts to eat someone, he will be sent back to the campfire. This is odd as AM even calls the villagers prey. Unable to eat the village’s only food source, Benny was intended to cannibalize the tribe. Indeed, a deleted scene from early promotional footage shows Benny was supposed to eat a live baby
The great thing about Benny’s psychodrama is that his mind is clear, but his body is crippled. Benny has become like the soldiers he once murdered. In a delicious bout of irony, Benny knows what he wants, but is forced to rely on the compassion of others and to display compassion in his own actions. Benny starts the scenario as a little more than a starving animal. By the end of the story, his stomach has been filled and he has made amends with those he wronged. Although Benny sacrificed himself to protect another, it hardly matters. Benny is effectively immortal; AM would never let him die. Sacrificing himself for another is merely symbolic and serves no real purpose other than to confuse AM. In the context of the psychodrama, the villagers don’t really exist. Even if there was a tribe of humans living inside the complex, Benny offering himself will only prolong the inevitable offering of the mutant child. The ending only serves to ease Benny’s state of mind.
Benny is an interesting character simply because of what he means to AM. In the original story the others are mentally altered, but physically intact. Benny is physically and mentally augmented until he no longer resembles the man he once was. He is a burden on the others, a constant reminder of what could happen to them if they misbehave. He has no consciousness and he must scream.