Wastelands: “The End of the Whole Mess”


As stated on Twitter, I recently picked up “Wastelands: Stories of the Apocalypse” an anthology of post-apocalyptic shorts. The series includes many notable authors, some of whom were recommended to me. With this series, I want to look at each story to get a better grasp on the plot, characters, and the apocalypse itself. This promises to be one of the few times The Rad-lands will be breaking away from specifically post-nuclear fiction.

134-stephen_kingOur first story is “The End of the Whole Mess” by Stephen King. Truthfully, this was the first time I read King. He didn’t disappoint; the prose has a nice flow and is both easy and pleasant to read aloud (so easy, they chose Matthew Broderick to narrate the audiobook).

So what kind of apocalypse is this anyway? Well, we only get hints about the outside world. The story is a cross between stream of consciousness writing and character establishing flashbacks. The apocalyptic setting is really just a framing device to carry the irony. That said, the cause of this apocalypse is Calmative, a water additive dispersed across the entire planet that first made humans docile and later resulted in dementia, cognitive failure, and death. That’s certainly a unique apocalyptic scenario, almost like a reverse Planet of the Apes.

It was certainly a bold editorial choice for the first story in an anthology titled “Wastelands” to recall the backstory of an apocalypse while simultaneously avoiding the portrayal of a traditional wasteland. The reader’s only insight into the present situation is something to the effect of “all the plants are dead.” The reader learns more about the events leading up to the apocalypse than the apocalypse itself. This is a stylistic move by King in which the narrator purposely spends too much time describing the foundational events, leaving little time to describe the actual apocalypse.

“The End of the Whole Mess” has a strong framing device in which the narrator, Howard, injects himself with the water additive, leaving a limited time to tell the story before he loses all cognitive function. From a writer’s perspective, it makes me wonder if King challenged himself to write this story along the time line or if each individual spelling mistake was placed with purpose. King refers to this device several times, giving the narrator opportunity to reflect on the last few pages of writing while describing how the chemical has taken hold of him. Thought this shows the reader the effects of the water additive, it raises two glaring questions.

Since the story is framed as a journal, who is it being written for? Apparently, the plants are all dead and every human infected with the virus eventually loses all mental function. The narrator addresses his story to you (if there are any “you” later on to read this), but it seems the planet is practically dead already. There’s no clear opportunity for a post-apocalyptic society to form as the entire atmosphere has been poisoned by Calmative. So why leave a record?

Second, and to me most confusing, why did Howard inject himself with the chemical? He claims “I never could work without a deadline,” but that doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. We’re told this story could take up thousands of pages, yet the plot device of the drug causes a purposefully rushed ending. Surely, if all rain water is contaminated, the narrator must already be infected. Ultimately, the actual apocalyptic aspect of this story doesn’t matter, because this is really a character study of the narrator’s brother, Bobby.

Bobby is a child prodigy who eventually grows up to be a super-scientist in Texas. Personally, I found his archetype and character arc to be reminiscent of H.P. Lovecraft’s “Herbert West: Reanimator.” Through flashbacks, Bobby is shown to be a child prodigy proficient in all realms of scientific discovery. As an adult, Bobby is confident, condescending, and most importantly insistent on the value of his research. Reading the text aloud, I found myself imagining Jeffery Combs reprising his role as Herbert West.


How I imagined Bobby

I would have enjoyed seeing Bobby progress on his character arc throughout adulthood. The tension between brothers, with Howard as a reluctant accomplice, again calls back to Herbert West. Although it’s a stylistic choice to meet the demands of the framing device, I thought too much was missing from the ending.

The final part of the story feels like the Wikipedia plot summary from a larger novelette. We never know if Howard had second thoughts about deploying the Calmative or if he truly believed in it. The journey to the volcano and the construction of a delivery device are conveyed in a handful of paragraphs. Perhaps I’m in the minority, but it seems like there should have been a greater emphasis on character development before deploying a super weapon that would permanently alter the minds of every person on Earth. Instead, the framing device demands we rush toward the ending as Howard goes from a few spelling mistakes to complete incoherent gibberish within a page and a half.

That question of character development aside, “The End of the Whole Mess” succeeds because of an interesting concept, a good message, and effective use of an untraditional writing style. While I felt that the story stumbles in a few places, it was obviously chosen as the first anthology in “Wastelands” for a reason. I believe that reason is the fantastic character development we see as a genius super-scientist matures and is overcome with the grief of a world gone mad. Overall, this is a strong introduction to what promises to be an insightful post-apocalyptic anthology.


Ron Livingston as Howard

Why did Howard inject himself with Calmative? Tell us in the comments!


Tales from the Whatpad: Fallout Survivor

Wasteland legend tells of a tumbling pad of pallid paper filled with horrors beyond comprehension and meaning. Those who stumble across this legendary “Whatpad” rarely live to tell the tale…

“Tales from the Whatpad” is an dramatic reading of terrible post-apocalyptic fan fiction.

Fallout Survivor: www.fanfiction.net/s/12353653/1/Fallout-Survivor
Music by: www.bensound.com/

I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream: AM


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 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 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 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 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 claim 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 who 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 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 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 AM’s most mysterious side. Like the Id, three of the humans notice something familiar in the manifestation. In direct juxtaposition to the Id, the humans suggest AM’s Superego looks like an angel. This part of AM’s personality says it bears no grudge against the human because it is only concerned with long term planning. 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 look at the moon. He never bothered to do touch 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 said 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 considering how excited he was at the though of more humans living on the moon. Moreover, he 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.

In the Belly of the Beast

Well, this isn’t so bad,

10f7365ae3a83129b412f4aeb2ba0b0d  There I was, trapped in a cage like a common animal. My captor was busy nursing a crackling fire. With the cave illuminated, I was able to orient myself to the exit portal. Looking around, I found a mattress, a chessboard resting on a table of stacked car rims, and even a carved china cabinet full of knick-knacks.

I was then distracted by an unpleasant pattering sound that scratched the back of my mind and caused my eyebrow to twitch and my neck muscles to tense. Turning away from the fire, I spotted a collection of drying pots and pans. Licking my cracked lips, I watched as precious water droplets rhythmically plopped into a tin dish. Though my head was still pounding from dehydration, I knew that my captor had must have a sustainable water source if he was willing to waste such a valuable commodity on washing dishes.

A monstrous humanoid shadow appeared on the wall in front of me, growing larger and larger as the sound of crunching sand grew louder and louder. Trembling, I turned around to formally meet my kidnapper. I don’t know what I was expecting.

Grabbing the iron lattice, the mutant revealed himself in all his horrific glory. My captor stood nearly seven feet tall. His flesh was a sickly yellowish green that had the consistency of fresh mucus. His whole body unnaturally oozed and festered, yet not a single drop of slime fell from his body. An odd explosive glow churned in his bloated belly. He wore little more than leather boots, tattered cargo shorts, and a pouch bandolier that seemed fused to his chest.

My captor introduced himself as Urmit, apparently of a race called the hulking horrors. My teeth chattering, I silently nodded my head. Suddenly, the mutant’s body made a grotesque crunching sound, similar to splitting wood. His muscular left arm atrophied until it was little more than a five fingered stump, while his right arm turned into a tentacle, slithering into the cage to meet me with a handshake.

Retracting his right arm and re-growing his left, the horror noted that I was extremely dehydrated. He picked up the tin dish full of drippings and slid it into my cage. As I emptied the curved plate, Urmit asked what I was doing out in the desert without any gear. I plainly told him that I was looking for a water source to help the people of Abundance. It was the truth after all, mostly.

“You mean like dat?” the mutant asked, pointing behind me.

I turned around once again to find a reflective pool that stretched as far back into the cave as I could see.

Now I just need to play my card right and get out of here.

-Joe Junkman




I let Gray walk off over the mountains before I started following him. I made sure that I was always just out of his sight before continuing on to the next pass. It was obvious that the Bushman was looking for something, but I’m wasn’t sure what. I tracked him for hours, seemingly walking in circles through sandy hills. There’s nothing out here but brush, rocks, and cacti.

Normally, I would have been up to follow Gray all day. Unfortunately, I am not a smart man. I had spent most of the day walking uphill, in the desert, while wearing insulated pants and a long sleeve shirt. At the time, I didn’t even think about taking them off. Not to mention that all of my food and water had been stolen. I developed a horrific pounding headache and it felt like I had been gargling sand.

As the sun dipped below the valley wall, my whole body felt shaky. I was stumbling about on my hands and knees, too weak to turn back. I just hoped that Gray would find me and lend me a sip of water before I turned into a piece of jerky. I crawled as far as I could, making my way over one last hill. Before I passed out, I saw Gray sitting cross legged in a cactus field, his back turned to me. I tried to cry out, but my voice was just a raspy squeak.

I woke up to strange noises coming from ahead. It was too dark to see, but it sounded like shifting sand. I was helpless to do anything. All I could do was look straight ahead and clutch at the dirt.

Cast against the moonlight, I could make out figures surrounding Gray on all sides. I could tell they weren’t human. Their silhouettes were elongated, almost uncanny in their proportions. One stretched out a hand to the Bushman. Its palm was teardrop shaped while its fingers were short, fat, and stubby. I couldn’t believe my eyes.

I dipped my head into the dirt and nodded off again.

-Joe Junkman

Radiation as a Gameplay Mechanic


You can’t have a post-nuclear setting without radiation. Many films overlook this crucial aspect or at most offer a token Geiger counter scene (She Wolves of the Wasteland). This is largely because radiation cannot be seen, felt, or heard and special equipment is required to detect it. Despite this, radiation serves as an important gameplay mechanic in the majority of post-nuclear video games, but with gamification comes new challenges. In reality, radiation does not kill outright, even several lethal doses will not result in immediate death. Because radiation attacks the body slowly, game developers have approached this mechanic in a variety of ways.

To further explore this mechanic, we’ll be analyzing three game series that make extensive use of radiation.

  1. Metro 2033
  2. S.T.A.L.K.E.R.
  3. Fallout



The Geiger counter in Metro 2033 is primarily used for immersive world building. Small set pieces such as bioluminescent mushrooms or pools of bubbling green slime will cause the Geiger counter to tick. These pockets of radiation are mostly harmless, though Artyom can die if he stands in a radioactive hotspot for a few minutes. Although subtle, this gameplay mechanic immerses the player into the setting. Without radiation, the world of Metro 2033 could be mistaken for a sci-fi setting similar to Gears of War, especially since Moscow’s surface is considered poisonous rather than radioactive. This is why so many post-apocalyptic movies have an obligatory Geiger counter scene: it puts the audience in a survivalist mindset. The Metro games take this a step further, subtly reminding the player that the world above the tunnels is not like the world in the postcards.


Though technically not post-nuclear, fans of the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. franchise are constantly aware of their radiation exposure. Contrary to handful of contaminated puddles and mushrooms in post-nuclear Moscow, the Zone is positively covered with fields of radiation. Players who wander into these hot spots will find their vision distorted by grey TV static.

Radiation damage is pretty simple: the more radiation you’ve absorbed, the faster your health decreases. Radiation can be removed either with a radiation absorbing artifact or a dose of anti-rad. Because artifacts drain radiation slowly and anti-rad is somewhat rare, players are forced to respond quickly after absorbing deadly amounts of radiation.


Although the Zone’s radioactive hotspots (and anomalies) seem like a nuisance, they actually encourage exploration. Artifact hunting aside, anomalies and pockets of radiation act as landmines, encouraging the player to take the long way (usually ending up at a lootable location), rather than risk wasting resources or instant death.

Moreover, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. encourages a high risk/ high reward style of gameplay when dealing with artifacts. Although artifacts grant stalkers special abilities, they emit large amounts of radiation. Before obtaining high tier anti-radiation artifacts, players will occasionally be forced to balance their health, elemental resistance, carry weight, and radiation levels. Having artifacts emit radiation was a brilliant idea and one that makes the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series all the more satisfying and rewarding.


Finally, there’s the Fallout franchise. Radiation sickness has been a gameplay mechanic since the first Fallout, but originally it didn’t effect much. In the first game, there were only two ways to get irradiated: Get smacked by a glowing one or wander into The Glow.


Lets cook some hot-dogs!

The original Fallout has the most complex take on radiation sickness, requiring a chart to fully understand what it does. Every part of the character is effected: HP, healing, and SPECIAL (with skills as a result). If either HP or any S.P.E.C.I.A.L. attribute drops to zero because of radiation sickness, the character will die. However, as I said previously, I don’t think radiation was used to its full potential in  the original Fallout. Two doses of Rad-X makes the player completely immune to radiation, giving them 24 hours to explore The Glow without worrying about any side effects. Even if the player took a few points of radiation damage on arrival, they can use a single Rad-Away to instantly cure themselves. Allowing the player to reach 100% radiation resistance detracted from the danger of The Glow as the lore (and environment) shows that even Brotherhood Paladins have died due to the intense radiation exposure.


Fallout 3 streamlined the mechanic of radiation sickness. Instead of effecting several variables, radiation sickness only lowers endurance (at minor sickness), agility (at advanced sickness), strength (at critical sickness) and finally caused death at 1000 rads. Additionally, radiation was far more present in Fallout 3 than previous games in the franchise. The Lone Wanderer could not eat or drink  without absorbing at least a few rads. Additionally, radiation resistance was capped at 85%, making it challenging to approach areas like Vault 87.

With Fallout 3 and New Vegas came special perks associated with radiation sickness.  These perks are often overlooked as the majority of players want to keep their rads as low as possible. However, the brave few who uses these bonuses will find their gameplay dramatically shifts toward min-maxing.

  • Rad Regeneration: Offers the player free healing of crippled limbs in exchange for advanced radiation sickness (-2 EN, -1 AG). This perk comes free with the “Wasteland Survival Guide” quest, but is lackluster compared to admantium skeleton, which decreases limb damage by 50%. Perhaps this perk was ahead of its time. It would have been great for survival mode in New Vegas (as rare doctors bags are required to heal limbs), but in a game where a single stimpack instantly heals crippled limbs, this is a useless perk.
  • Rad Child: This perk is where high risk/high reward should shine through. Each level of radiation sickness increases health regeneration. In exchange for minor radiation sickness (-1 EN), player are treated to +2 health per second. At advanced sickness, players receive +4 health per second. Again, this is often overlooked simply because it relies on radiation, which brings S.P.E.C.I.A.L. penalties. However, by utilizing Wasteland outfits (which provide +1 EN, +1 AG) the effects of advanced sickness are practically nullified, while the player still benefits from extreme HP regeneration. Although for balance purposes this perk should be risky, it actually provides far more protection than power armor or a higher damage threshold while still allowing players to travel at maximum speed.
  • ATOMIC: This perk grants players a faster run speed, +2 strength,  and+2 damage threshold while being irradiated. Additionally, action points regenerate much faster based on level of radiation sickness. This synergizes amazingly well with Rad Child. The challenge is that the best parts of the perk are only available while being irradiated.Luckily, New Vegas has coyote steaks, which irradiate the player over time and whose effects stack. If the Courier should buy coyote steaks at every opportunity, they will become more powerful than any wastelander could possibly imagine.

Although overlooked, New Vegas’ radiation perks are definitely worth the penalties they bring, especially when combined with wasteland outfits and the Travel Light perk.


Most recently, there is Fallout 4 and Fallout: Shelter where the mechanic of radiation sickness was streamlined once again. Radiation sickness now merely reduces maximum health by 1% per 10 rads (making 1000 rads still lethal). This eliminates the complexities of the S.P.E.C.I.A.L. system as a whole and reduces roleplaying opportunities.

At a first glance Fallout 4 seems like it moved away from the aspect of radioactivity. Although the game moved away from player interaction with radiation, it expanded on NPC interaction in the form of weapons that utilize radiation damage. These weapons reduce the max health of an enemy, making it more difficult (if not impossible) for them to heal. What I find interesting in this new gameplay element issome enemies are immune to radiation while others are highly resistant. This is a big shift from Fallout 3, where all NPCs were immune to radiation and could approach the door of Vault 87 without any trouble.


Gamma Guns are fun

Overall, each game (even within the same franchise) deals with radiation differently. It’s a difficult feature to include in a game and it’s even harder to get right. There’s no right or wrong answer to the inclusion of radiation sickness in a video game or movie. Metro 2033 uses radiation merely to set the tone, while S.T.A.L.K.E.R. uses radiation to make players think about resource management and navigation, and the gameplay mechanics of the Fallout franchise continue to mutate in entirely new directions. Radiation is a necessary part of the post-nuclear atmosphere and I hope game developers continue to experiment with this genre specific gameplay mechanic.


How would you like to see radioactivity and radiation sickness used in video games?  Tell us in the comments!