Harlan Ellison’s 1967 work “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” looms large on the internet. The Hugo award winning short story tells the tale of the only five people left alive after civilisation has been wiped out by a supercomputer called “AM”. Initially a weapons system in an escalated cold war (“Allied Mastercomputer”), AM becomes self aware (and namewise moves from an acronym to a more strident AM, as in “I think therefore”) and possessed of an all-consuming hatred for mankind, whom he promptly nukes from the face of the earth. Only the unfortunate protagonists are left alive, to be tortured and disfigured by AM in myriad horrific, luridly described ways; the story picks up events in year 109 of AM’s reign, when our narrator summons up a last burst of resistance and kills his fellow captives. For this, AM transforms him into a soft mound of flesh, wracked with an eternity of unimaginable pain; and so we leave him. As he tells us in the story’s concluding lines, he has no mouth, but he must scream.
Despite its genesis in the Cold War- and a shadow-of-the-bomb plot which marks it out as very definitely a product of that moment- IHNM has only grown in relevance in the years since its publication. It manages to be that rare thing, a piece of culture that is simultaneous grounded in the anxieties of its own time but prescient of those yet to come; in the world of IHNM, fears of the nuclear apocalypse and mutually assured destruction run concurrently, rather than consequentially, with ideas of digital eternities and malign tech.
While the blood of I Have No Mouth runs in the veins of many well known sci-fi endeavours – most notably The Terminator franchise – in many ways its true life started (fittingly enough) on the internet, where it has been a part of the countercultural canon from almost the very beginning. This was thanks in large part to its adaptation, in 1995, into a point and click video game. Harlan Ellison himself provided the game’s voiceover, and added an opening monologue for AM detailing the sheer depth of the supercomputer’s hatred for humans, broadly, and his captives, specifically. The game was widely praised and its popularity helped it gain a foothold in the world of the early internet. Its snowclone title, an easy slot-a tab-b for wordplay and parody, became a meme; I first encountered it on the Facebook page “I Have No Meme But I Must Scream”.
The television show Black Mirror is often mocked as “what if phones but too much: the series”, but for all the criticisms levelled at video games journalist turned showrunner Charlie Brooker, “insufficiently conversant with the cultural ephemera of the early internet” is not one of them. Many episodes of Black Mirror engage with the themes of IHNM – particularly, the capacity for digital consciences to suffer for vast spans of time – but the 4th season episode USS Callister is very explicit in its riff on Ellison’s story. So explicit that at one point the programme’s AM stand-in Robert Daly, a coding genius who exercises absolute control over his digitally cloned colleagues in a perfectly rendered version of Star Trek-alike 1960s television show Star Fleet, literally takes away someone’s mouth and tells them they will not be able to scream. IHNM’s narrator describes AM as a god – likewise the crew of the USS Callister know they’re in a “bubble universe” run by an “asshole god” who, like AM, will torture and disfigure those who displease them. AM turns one of his captives into a hideous ape man; Daly transfigures a disobedient resident of his universe into a giant Starship-Troopers-reminiscent insect creature.
The humans in IHNM are kept alive past their usual lifespans- and, in the case of the narrator, on into forever- by the machinations of AM; in the worlds of Black Mirror, the digital enables consciousness all but uncoupled from time. Such is the world of the internet; the line given to ink hungry teenagers is always that a tattoo lasts forever, but of course it doesn’t. It simply lasts a lifetime- what does that mean when in some form or another, some corner of the cloud, the tweet will likely long outlive the skin of the tweeter? Most of us have probably, by now, encountered some form of social media belonging to a dead person; a profoundly eerie thing somewhere between a spectre and a ghost ship, sailing on unsteered. At some point the dead will outnumber the living on the internet and we will click on aimlessly through an aether filled with still bodies, passing above reefs. It is hard to know where the likes of The Forever Social will fit in this world; high grade coffin, generation ship, straight out ghost?
Part of IHNM’s prescience comes from its understanding of the sheer expanse of the world of artificially intelligent and digitally wrought. Philip Larkin wrote of humans that, while our element is time, we are not suited to the long durations. For AM, for those trapped on the USS Callister, for the social media accounts of the dead, for undervisited MMORPGs and dormant forums; their element is not time. They are suited to the long durations. The horror of IHMN comes from the idea of us- thinking, feeling, keening, hair brushing, eminently shelf life’d humans- becoming stuck in a world without time, but an infinity of duration. However, as we move more and more of our lives onto the internet, the worlds of time and duration move closer together than before. The uncanny valley of a dead person’s Facebook account proclaiming “like” has something of this horror, but in other places it is more fully formed.
In the early 2000s, the creators of the game “BioShock” found their way to a newly digitised set of archives; photographs from the Gillies archive at Queen Mary’s Hospital in south London, taken by Henry Tonks. The portrait series documented the faces of soldiers who were among the earliest recipients of plastic surgery, at the close of the First World War. These men’s injuries are difficult to look at, classically disfiguring; Tonks’s portraits, however, neatly posed in army uniform, are dignified- respectful rather than prurient. Probably best known among them is Henry Lumley, a RAF pilot who spent years undergoing plastic surgery following a crash. In this time he stayed at the hospital; he did not want his family to see him as he looked then. He died shortly after surgery in 1918. Life after death in a medical archive, remembered for your role in the pioneering of reconstructive surgery. The archive digitised, found by game designers building a world; a different kind of life after death begins.
BioShock is a dystopia, set in an underwater city named Rapture that has gone horribly wrong, its population mutated and hostile. The 2007 game has been widely praised as a near uniquely complete and atmospheric world. Henry Lumley lives there now, as do various others from the Gillies archive. They are the basis for the mutated residents, who are hideous fiends and rapists, trapped in their submerged city. They stumble about in digital undersea darkness waiting for you to kill them in inventive ways. They are wholly recognisable as the ordinary men who died a century ago.
Likeness is not consciousness, of course. People are not their images, but they are subject to them; we might not be them, but in some small, meaningful way, our images are us, peering down the centuries from behind frames. Susannah Biernoff, the academic who first wrote about BioShock’s use of WW1 soldiers, has summed up the strange feeling of revulsion the game might provoke by commenting that “if BioShock is unethical, it’s because it violates this irrational but deeply held conviction that photographs of people… somehow contain or capture their subjects and that they therefore carry a burden of care”. The old line about a photograph stealing your soul- what about taking your image, without permission, and animating it, setting it to walk without reprieve or reason in an alternative world?
The world of the internet is more alive than a simple photograph. In Channel 4’s AI drama Humans, there is no ingredient X for consciousness- just lines upon lines of code. In Black Mirror, animating a dead person’s social media imprint into an uncanny valley form of almost-person is possible, and even AM, in the foreword to the IHNM game, talks of being made up of machinery, coded component parts that together struck upon a kind of life. This is all to say that matters of consciousness and machines are, in reality and in culture, not a zero sum game. Whenever it is we stumble across some singularity, the Turing test finish line, we will have reached the end point of a journey long begun, not been magically zapped there in a Cronenberg style transporter. It is our existence at a hard to discern point on this continuum between inert photograph- already uncomfortable- and some version of reality that lends BioShock its uniquely disturbing quality, along with the fact that the images used are images that define the men by the worst thing that had ever happened to them. The world of BioShock hews to the plot of the Black Mirror episode “Black Museum”, in which a man’s death is captured and recaptured as an entertaining gimmick for tourists. It is this horror that makes one feel the worlds of IHNM and BioShock are not so far apart, both terrible, timeless pens that distort time and self and image. The key difference, of course, is that IHNM is a story, a fiction. BioShock isn’t real; but it isn’t all the way false, either. The shimmers in the corner of the screen, lurching to attack some teenaged player- those are the coopted images of real people. Pioneering surgeon Fred Albee wrote that “it must be unmitigated hell to feel like a stranger to yourself”. The creators of BioShock found a way to simultaneously assert that this was the case- that nothing in their imagining could be more horrific than the faces of these real people- and to build a world, a hell, around this fact, and to people it.
Harlan Ellison, the author of IHNM, was (perhaps unsurprisingly) a notably unpleasant, bileful man; infamously, he once sent an editor a dead gopher in the post, 4th class, so that it arrived bloated and leaking and fetid. The campy cruelty of Ellison and AM expressing hate at vituperative length in the opening scene of the IHNM video game are one vision of digital hell. Clichéd as it may be, however, “the opposite of love is not hate, but indifference” has a ring of truth. The internet is a place with an ambivalent regard for human life, whatever it may look like. The internet is cruel, but it is, moreover, uncaring. The creators of BioShock, just like Daly and AM, are the asshole gods of a bubble universe. Their universe is real- you could go there today, once you finish reading this, to visit- and just as IHNM was prescient in its depiction of cyber assisted hells of long duration, the casual callousness of BioShock seems a fair, unhappy guide to our new century of quietly whirring servers. There will only be more dead people on the internet. Nothing suggests we will become kinder to them, or that we will work out how to live, and to die, on plains that are vast in every direction.