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 was created but never published, though a few English panels and the full Spanish version found their way onto the internet. This has become one of my favorite post-apocalyptic stories due to the development of the characters and the themes at play.
First Allied Mastercomputer, then Adaptive Manipulator, later Aggressive Menace, and finally AM. Originally created to oversee World War III, the machine gained sentience and chose to kill as many people as possible, sparing five fatally flawed individuals. While the world above became a radioactive wasteland, AM handpicked five humans to live in his ever-growing complex. For 109 years, AM developed himself until he had achieved god-like power (at least inside his own compound). All the while, the machine tortured his new toys physically, psychologically, and spiritually until they devolved into caricatures.
The obvious question is: Why does AM hate?
Each incarnation has a different answer. In the original story, AM’s motives are mysterious and never really touched upon; exposition takes a backseat (with some exceptions) for characterization of the humans. In the video game, AM hand selected each of the humans because of their fatal flaws; each of them was either lacking something that the machine also lacked or had a history of being subdued by powerful figures. Then there was the 2001 radio drama.
In the radio play, shortly after the humans are swept across the complex by the hurricane winds, AM speaks to Ted. The machine (as always voiced by Harlan Ellison) explains that he is angry because he will never play the piano, never feel the wind on his cheek, never walk around on the surface, and never know what love is. The version of AM with the most exposition admits that he hates humans because he is envious.
The video game is more subtle in AM’s relation to the humans. With the exception of Gorrister, all the humans directly interact with AM in their psychodramas. Not only that, but if we lay out each of the scenarios, we see a trend in the way that the machine views himself.
- Benny: AM is the literal angry god of a village and demands sacrifice.
- Ellen: AM hides his original components under an Egyptian pyramid made of obsolete computer parts. He is the pharaoh, traditionally the tyrant god-king.
- Nimdok: AM has replaced Nazi propaganda posters with his own logo.
- Ted: AM has employed devils, who state that AM has conquered hell.
In each of these four psychodramas, AM is an oppressive supreme-leader. He is dictator, Satan, and God rolled into a single entity. Although AM does not directly appear in Gorrister’s psychodrama, he says this during the introduction: “I would not want you to think for a moment that I am not a grateful god.” From this, it is overwhelmingly clear that AM imagines himself as not just God, but the most powerful being that has ever existed. Although AM himself, AM the complete and singular, sees himself as this god-king, the three Freudian elements of his personality don’t seem to have such delusions.
AM’s Id is perfect within the context of the story. The machine was originally created to kill as many people as possible. Therefore, it makes sense that the Id dreams of violence, fantasizes about murder, and even finds pleasure in torture.
Additionally, the Id is arguably the only entity in AM’s belly that does not lie to the humans. Despite its desire to torture, the Id provides one of the greatest hints toward achieving the best ending, stating: “End us all and make us one. And then the misery of the three becomes the misery of us all. Do this and leave me in my pleasure.” As a final thought, Gorrister, Ellen, and Nimdok all recognize some lurking evil in the Id’s physical manifestation.
AM’s ego, the decision maker, feels like the weakest of the three. According to Freudian psychology, the ego must please the Id in a realistic manner. The only way to please the AM’s Id is to kill, torture, and maim. To a god-machine like AM, everything is realistic. Additionally, the humans are completely incapable of hurting the machine, meaning that there can be no grief created (except perhaps frustration), by the Ego pleasing the Id.
AMs Ego identifies itself as a logical machine, a precarious image. The outside world, AM’s creators, wanted him to remain a lifeless machine. The Id only seeks to kill. The Superego is looking at long term consequences. All of this makes a rather confused personality, which shows itself in AM’s at times unstable character.Ultimately, forgiveness for indulging the Id is what disables the Ego. I believe this is the grief associated with the reality principle. As the machine says, forgiveness is not a logical response.
The Superego is perhaps AM’s most mysterious side. Like the Id, three of the humans notice something familiar in the manifestation. In direct juxtaposition to the Id, three humans suggest that AM’s Superego looks like an angel. This part of AM’s personality says that it bears no grudge against the human and that it is concerned with long term planning, but that feels like a lie.
AM has effectively become the Earth. The entire planet is now a series of tunnels and computer chips. The machine has god-like power, but focuses all of it on the five humans. AM is so obsessed with his human toys, that he never bothered to toward the moon. He never bothered to do something with the surface world. It raises the question as to what the Superego was actually planning. It seems the only answer is how to expand and thereby create a more effective torture chamber.
Ultimately, the Superego is defeated by acknowledging the same complaints AM had in the audio drama. The machine has god-like power, but nothing to do with it. AM destroyed the world in a fit of infant rage and now finds himself alone, without an intellectual equal. His purpose and pleasure both came from humans. Without mankind, the machine has no goal and will eventually rust and wither away until the Earth is a silent barren husk.
Many might ask why the humans cannot find a way to disable AM. The answer is two-fold: First is obviously that the world the human’s walk through is handcrafted by AM. The machine controls the whole world and can easily hide his components in inaccessible locations. Second is that the original story briefly mentions “a valley of obsolescence.” AM is constantly upgrading himself and creating backups. The audio drama expanded upon this by mentioning that AM is still growing.
Potentially, AM could keep one power node/data server/McGuffin in China and another in Antarctica. Had it not been for the video game’s Mindscape, AM would be completely undefeatable. This is why, in Ted’s article, I noted that being transformed into a jelly thing was likely the best possible ending as AM no longer has humans to play with.
Still, there are many more questions regarding why AM doesn’t use his transmogrification powers to genetically engineer or even clone humans, especially since he displayed excitement at the though of more humans living on the moon. Moreover, he even materialized a giant bird to fight the humans in the original story.
AM allowing for a situation in which the humans could actually die gives me pause. If the machine wanted to remove any chance of the humans dying, he could have put them in a Matrix-type scenario, where they exist as computer programs, but their physical bodies are in cryosleep or some-such. Though perhaps Ellison hadn’t considered these sci-fi concepts at the time.
At any rate, AM is a complex character, too complex to break down in a single sitting. Like his human co-stars, each incarnation of his character is different. In the original story he was simply a genocidal torture machine, in the video game he gained a flair for irony, and in the audio drama Ellison shows elements of a sympathetic side, casting him in a light similar to Satan in Paradise Lost.
Each version of I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream has its ups and downs. Whatever your favorite incarnation of this story is, key elements of human suffering and man’s inhumanity to man arise. I think Ted said it best:
“AM, whom we created because our time was badly spent and we must have known unconsciously that he could do it better.”