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 identifying what led them to redemption (and further punishment).
Ellen, the only woman in the center of the Earth. In the original story she was essentially a sex object, taking the other four humans in turn. She also served as a mother figure to Benny, always looking out for him and going so far as to wipe the spittle from his mouth. Additionally, it was Ellen who pushed the group toward the ice caverns with her fantasizing about what might be found there.
Notably, whereas Nimdok and Benny are the most consistent characters, Ellen takes on a different persona in each incarnation. In the video game, she has a New York City accent. In the radio drama, she carries a South African accent. In Harlan Ellison’s reading of the story, she has a distinctive Georgian accent. The only consistency in every depiction of Ellen’s is that she is black.
Ted claims AM left Ellen alone. This can be taken at face value in the video game adaptation. In the original story, she was in fact altered. AM replaced her belief in love with an insatiable lust. Apparently AM did this for his own amusement as Ted states that the machine “giggled every time we did it.”
It is implied the five humans have established a sexual routine, with Ellen occasionally breaking the cycle to show gratitude. This is because AM altered Ellen, twisted her mind until she had become a sex object. Since she no longer has any concept of love, sexual contact is Ellen’s only means of displaying affection.
Although it is difficult to tell (due to AM’s tampering) it is also possible Ellen is manipulative by nature and has been altered less than Ted thinks. This is supported by Ted explaining how crying was Ellen’s big defense mechanism. With the exception of Nimdok, every human character cries at some point in the story. Where the tears of Gorrister and Benny are met with sympathy, Ellen crying is merely a footnote.
In the video game, Ellen has an unusual role. Whereas the other humans are being punished for past crimes (insanity, war crimes, human experimentation, and manipulation), Ellen has no skeleton in her closet. Rather, she was the victim of another’s crime, namely a violent rape.
In my opinion, Ellen’s psychodrama has less to do with metaphorical references to her past and more to do with AM’s view of himself. For example, AM storing one of his original components behind an Egyptian motif reflects the machine’s role as a tyrant king. Perhaps the only obvious metaphor for Ellen herself is the blindfold, which allows her to overcome her anxiety by pretending the offender isn’t there, rather than confronting it directly.
Although she spends the first half of the psychodrama pretending there is nothing wrong, Ellen ultimately overcomes her fear by directly facing the cause and finally fighting back. Ellen and Nimdok’s scenarios are similar in that manner; they both find peace by confronting their past directly. Like Nimdok, it is unlikely Ellen would have been able to overcome her fears if not for the interference of the Chinese AM.
One aspect which is never expanded upon is: Ellen’s backstory in the video game in relation to the original text. Backstory in the game reveals Ellen limited her number of sexual partners and suffered a miscarriage before being the victim of rape. It is not far-fetched to presume in addition to her other phobias, the video game version of Ellen would be terrified of sexual activity. This lends a horrific subtext to the original story. Unfortunately, the game missed a big opportunity as none of the humans actually interact with each other in the game.
At least in the video game, AM seems to have a special interest for Ellen. For whatever reason, the single woman he brought into his belly was not a perpetrator of violence, but rather a recovering victim. For 109 years, Ellen was a source of laughter for the great machine. By the end of the original story, AM was never again be able to laugh at the simple acts that made his prisoners human.
I didn’t know the story and game versions of Ellen differed so much. From the game, it did stand out to me that Ellen was the only innocent. As such, it felt most fitting for Ellen to be the one to defeat AM (and I actually replayed the final ‘resistance’ chapter such to allow Ellen to defeat AM, just for my own satisfaction). Because game Ellen had intimate knowledge of computers in her story, it worked for me on that level too.
That said, Nimdok defeating AM also is satisfying (and it feels like that’s what the game wants) as it’d allow him to pay penance for his horrific crimes by acting as an overseer for the planet until the lunar humans could return.