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).
Hopeless romantic, playboy, great soft jelly thing. Ted is our unreliable narrator in the original story as well as the last living thing on Earth. Despite being our window into the world, Ted’s video game adaptation carries the same weight as the others, with one serious exception.
Ted’s fatal flaw is his paranoia. It shows in both the language of the writing and Ted’s actions. Harlan Ellison created a great sense of dread and worry as Ted describes action sequences.
“Something moving toward us in the darkness. Huge, shambling, hairy, moist, it came toward us.We couldn’t even see it, but there was the ponderous impression of bulk, heaving itself toward us. Great weight was coming at us, out of the darkness, and it was more a sense of pressure, of air forcing itself into a limited space, expanding the invisible walls of a sphere.”
All this build up inevitably led to nothing but a series of horrific smells filling the hallway. This was a great setup for AM’s tendency to keep the humans on their toes. The only thing I personally don’t like about this scene is that the sentence immediately after the quote shows the other four humans panicking and running to cover. I think Ted’s paranoia might have been better illustrated if he was the only one that sensed this huge shamble thing. That having been said, Harlan Ellison’s reading of this part for the audiobook was fantastic. He completely went off the rails and showed a certain madness to the character that wasn’t present in the text. This is an excellent move by Ellison because madness is Ted’s character.
Ted is an unreliable narrator; he believes that the others hate him because he alone is unaltered. Perhaps there are elements of truth to Ted’s beliefs. When he flees the great something in the dark, the others laugh at him despite that they too had been running for cover. Ultimately though, the reader knows that Ted has been altered by the sequence of events.
- Ted describes incoming darkness
- Explains how others have been altered
- Explains that the others hate him because he is not altered. Really, not at all!
- Ted breaks down and cries
There is no doubt that Ted has been altered. At the beginning of Ted’s psychodrama, AM flatly states: “I know I’ve made you a paranoid, Ted.” As Ted’s background was greatly expanded upon in the video game, the character has a lot to be paranoid about.
Ted’s video game incarnation was a playboy. Apparently his shtick involved dating wealthy women, enjoying their lifestyles, then robbing them blind before they found out that he wasn’t a millionaire. This is a great set-up for Ted’s paranoia. AM simply exaggerated one of Ted’s pre-existing conditions.
The game also plays with the irrationality of Ted’s paranoia. In the game’s introduction, AM says “Do they know you’re a fraud, Ted?” In the context of the story, Ted’s past is irrelevant. The world has been reduced to a smoldering radioactive crater. The last five humans are kept alive with materialized food. Ted lying about his past has no bearing on the situation. AM insisting that the others will torture Ted if they knew the truth is just another form of psychological torture with no bearing on reality.
Going deeper into Ted’s psychodrama, we find a lot of metaphor, but also a lot of symbolism. The psychodrama begins in “The Room of Dark”, a strange obelisk in the middle of a metallic cavern. Inside are a handful of TV screens. All but one shows images of Ted’s past. This serves to remind Ted that he cannot escape the truth (or AM’s gaze) while simultaneously informing the audience.
There are too many fantastic metaphors to count in Ted’s psychodrama, but one that really stuck out to me was the dire wolves in the forest. From the moment Ted appears by the castle, the player sees glowing eyes in the woods and hears wolfish howling. This seems like a literal version of being “thrown to the wolves”, directly relating to the others learning the truth about him. However, Ted can raise his spiritual barometer by fixing and blocking the door, ensuring that the wolves cannot come into the castle.
When he created the psychodrama, AM believed that Ted would revert to his old ways; that he would betray his love for Ellen and sleep with both the maid and the witch. In the best possible ending, Ted physically blocks his paranoia and overcomes lustful temptation, finally declaring love (though fleeting). The environment of constant temptation makes the appearance of a devil (and The Divine Comedy) welcome in this particular scenario.
One more brief thought on this scenario: Ted’s psychodrama is the only one to include interaction with another of the five human. Even though Ted’s version of Ellen was likely an android (or otherwise not really Ellen) it was nice to see the interaction between characters which is so prevalent in the story, but frankly lacking in the game. It would have been nice to see how the expanded characters interact off of each other.
Finally, there is Ted’s incarnation as the great soft jelly thing. As punishment for killing the other humans, Ted was transformed into a sluggish glob of mucus with useless rubbery arms, no mouth, and foggy eyes. Ted is happy that he somehow made AM angrier, but ultimately confesses that the machine has won.
Putting aside the video game’s mindscape, I think this was probably the best possible ending for the original story arc. Ted effectively broke AM’s toys, leaving only one in the box. To ensure that his toys could never be broken again, the machine traded in his last action figure for a can of slime. AM is still the loser here. The slime can’t be destroyed, but it also can’t do nearly as much as the fully articulated action figure.
AM can no longer torture Ted with horrible food, as he has no mouth. AM cannot make Ted flee like an ant as the jelly creature cannot run. AM cannot make Ted fear the others as there are no others. In his last human act, Ted effectively doomed AM. The machine has nothing to do but monitor its own systems until it ultimately succumbs to the principal of entropy.