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.
In this series, we’ll break down each of the humans: exposing their fatal flaws and then identifying what led them to redemption (and further punishment).
Nimdok is seemingly the least altered of the five humans. He is the least developed character in the original story. In my opinion, he also has the easiest and least interesting psychodrama in the video game. From the text, all that can be determined is AM has a special, but mysterious relationship with this Nimdok, the implications of which are never fully revealed.
Despite being a side character when compared to the other four, Nimdok is the most consistent. From the video game to the audio drama and even Harlan Ellison’s own recording of the book, Nimdok has always been German. Although it’s lost on both the audio drama and the video game, Nimdok’s real name no longer exists; AM gave him the name because it sounds funny. A search of “Nimdok” on Google will only turn up references to “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream”.
Nimdok is a somewhat mysterious character. In the original text, while Ted is listing the ways in which AM altered his companions, Nimdok’s is notably different from the others. All Ted has to say about the German is that he will wander off into the darkness and comes back white, drained of blood, and shaking.
Nimdok’s only role in the original story is that he is the one who claimed there was canned food in the ice caverns. It is likely (if not outright stated) AM implanted that idea in his head. In the video game, AM states he and Nimdok are brothers. Perhaps the machine was using Nimdok as a plant to infiltrate the emotional desires of the other humans, something that, as a machine, he would be incapable of fully understanding. All this is speculation though. Only Harlan Ellison really knows what happens when Nimdok wanders into the dark.
In the video game, Nimdok is plagued by a poor memory. As he interacts with people in his psychodrama, he cannot quite remember who they are or how they know him. At first, this seems like a great setup by AM. By resetting Nimdok’s memory, AM can potentially make Nimdok relive the horror of realizing he betrayed his family over and over again. Unfortunately, if you access AM’s console in the Mindscape, you’ll discover Nimdok only stopped his experiments with Dr. Mengele due to his failing memory. In other words, AM is using one of Nimdok’s preexisting medical conditions to torture him, rather than altering him into self-parody like the others.
Additionally, although Nimdok was once known as the butcher of Auschwitz, his failing memory combined with the psychodrama stop him from appreciating the pain he caused. It’s important to remember Nimdok’s own psych-profile states he only stopped the experimentation because of his failing memory, meaning he probably doesn’t feel guilt unless AM altered him. Additionally, although probably created by the Russian and Chinese computers, the psychodrama allows Nimdok to show three acts of medical compassion:
- Killing the surgeon to spare the child from being paralyzed.
- Using ether to cut down the trapped prisoner
- Using ether to ease the pain of the man who had his eyes removed.
All three of these actions boost Nimdok’s spiritual barometer for the finale and provide valuable hints about how to wake the golem. Now the one interesting thing tying AM and Nimdok together is in Mengele’s lab. The two doctors were experimenting on transmogrification, which is what allowed AM to alter the humans and keep them alive for 109 years. In that sense, there is some great irony behind Nimdok being tortured by the same technology he created.
The reason I found Nimdok to have the least interesting psychodrama is because of the setting. Being told to find the “lost tribe” in what is obviously a concentration camp just feels a bit tired and obvious. Benny’s psychodrama did not directly portray a rice patty in China. Ted had to navigate various obstacles relating to his character and metaphorical meanings of gods in the machine. Nimdok redeems himself through helping people, coming to terms with his past, and receiving punishment for his actions. It’s all fairly straightforward, not very metaphorical. The exception is Nimdok realizes he is stuck in the 1945; though if he had never realized that, it would be impossible for him to achieve the best ending. All that having been said, I still think having a mirror that makes you see yourself as you truly are was the most interesting experiment in the laboratory; I would have enjoyed seeing it used in a different context.
Nimdok’s redemption actually comes outside his psychodrama. The Doctor is required to achieve the best ending as only he knows the password to directly access AM’s interface. As a result, Nimdok is the character most likely to achieve the best ending, especially with the use of a walkthrough.
The best possible ending has Nimdok becoming AM, taking over the complex, having control over the other four humans, and using transmogrification to prepare Earth for the return of the lunar colonists. Effectively, this means Nimdok has become the God of humanity for all eternity. When he worked at Auschwitz, the doctor was obsessed with controlling life (through transmogrification) and immortality. As overseer of AM’s complex, Nimdok now has everything he ever aspired to obtain. He must choose: Succumb to the power and become AM 2.0 or return humanity to it’s former glory.
The only question is: Did Nimdok find his own humanity?
I like to believe that Nimdok was a just guardian until the lunar humans returned. It is his penance for his horrific acts he’d committed in his previous life.