The Alpha and the Omega

The machine’s argument is a simple extension of the traditional philosophical debate over determinism; but put into the mouth of a computer…the response raises some disquieting questions about the whole nature of this vision of free will. If only error separates the free soul from nonspiritual creation, is the distinction a particularly ennobling one?
- Adam Frisch and Joseph Martos, "Religious Imagination and Imagined Religion"

One of the integral steps in applying Barthes’ strategies to reading is to identify textual information and then assign symbolic significance to it. Textual information comes from a literal degree of fact concerning events within the text, such as where a character went at a specific time. Symbolic significance is the product of an interpretive act, such as explaining a certain character's motivations. Symbolic significance also creates information. This creation extends from one text, like the typeset story version of "I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream", to another, like the graphic novel adaptation.

In the beginning of the story, we see Gorrister suspended from the ceiling; "the body hung head down, attached to the underside of the palette by the sole of its right foot" (Ellison, 27). This attachment and arrangement of the body is reminiscent of the tarot card known as The Hanged Man. In its normal aspect, this card represents wisdom, trials, sacrifice, and prophecy; reversed, it symbolizes selfishness and the crowd (Kaplan, 15). Imparting wisdom operates both inside the story for the characters and outside the story for the reader. Ted learns to perceive a moment of action wherein he can take on the agency for his behavior rather than existing as a reactionary force to AM’s machinations. The reader, if in accord with Ellison’s intent to see the tale in a cautionary light, learns to view the misuse of technology as a potentially threatening situation, although the extent of this perspective is based to some degree on the reader’s acceptance of technology in the first place. The game begins with a lengthy introduction and explains something about each character in turn. This differs from the narrative of the story, where the reader enters the domain of AM without any sort of background information; additionally, the game, and the comic version, are in third person, while the story is told from the first person perspective of Ted. By giving the game player a "spiritual barometer" which fluctuates based on the morality of certain character actions, the user can see the effects of attempting different navigatations within a series of ethical dilemmas in order to complete the game. Within the parameters of the game itself, what is defined as good and bad actions are never explicitly stated; rather, these must be learned through the course of play and ultimately reflect what the program and its programmers deemed ethical. The issue of technological faith became more important as the story was translated into the computer format. In order to circumvent a potentially hypocritical position – condemning computers while employing them to create and use the product - and turn it into a more self-reflexive issue, the ending of the story changes somewhat in this format so that the computer complex of AM falls back under human control. The survivor of the game is transformed not into the slug-like entity of the short story but into an electronic guardian that prowls the pathways of AM and oversees the terraforming of Earth and return of a group of cryogenically suspended lunar colonists. The ghost in the machine then directly becomes an incarnation of the human spirit, this time a benevolent representation of humanity’s positive aspects rather than the malevolent impulses originally programmed into AM.

One of the primary plot devices in "I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream" involves the characters going on a trial or quest to find food. Ultimately, Ted does sacrifice himself for the sake of the rest of the group, however dubious his credibility as a narrator may be. A bit of foreshadowing, or prophecy, also occurs at the onset of the story. The characters see Gorrister suspended from the ceiling, his body "drained of blood through a precise incision made from ear to ear under the lantern jaw…it was almost as though he had seen a voodoo icon, and was afraid of the future" (Ellison, 27-28). Although an illusion at the time, the iconic representation of the future seems reminiscent of the climactic sequence of the story. When Ted uses the icicles to dispatch the members of the group, he does almost the same thing to Gorrister: "I pulled another spear free and straddled him, still moving, driving the spear straight down through his throat" (Ellison, 45). The configuration of the wound echoes back to the initial scene of the story. Even though AM supposedly inflicts a dreadful punishment on Ted for destroying his toys, could the virtually omniscient computer have foreseen this permutation of the human variables with which it plays?

Byrne may not have made explicit some of the aforementioned textual connections, possessing his own authorial vision (or being constrained by his medium), but his final panel of "I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream" bears some additional scrutiny. While some people might say it looks like his work on The X-Men and other comic books, it actually has closer resemblance to The Scream by Edward Munch:




















In the works of Edward Munch and Vincent Van Gogh, the objective study of light…was being abandoned in favor of a new, frighteningly subjective approach…an honest expression of the internal turmoil these artists just could not repress. (McCloud, 122)

The contorted bodies of Byrne’s subject closely emulate that of Munch’s. More importantly, the thematic content – a scream – is shared between the two works. The psychological emotion conveyed by The Scream clearly connects with Ted’s mental state not only at the end of the story but also throughout his narrative. In Ellison’s memoir of the story, he includes a discussion of how two drawings foregrounded the actual starting point for the story.

The first drawing, done in 1965 by Bill Rotsler, showed a doll-like human being missing a mouth; it was titled "I have no mouth and I must Scream." Depicting an amorphous humanoid composed of a dark, viscous substance, the second inspirational pen-and-ink drawing, by Dennis Smith, is also echoed in Byrne’s art (Ellison, 64-66). The degree to which Byrne is familiar with these preceding works is debatable, but it is interesting to note that the germination for Ellison’s original printed story began with visual catalysts. Within the 20th century, speculative fiction - from its early days in pulp magazines to its current interweavings with such media as painting, video, and computer graphics - has often been conjoined with an visual source. Moving more fully into the realm of the graphic novel has allowed "I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream" to reacquaint itself with its inspirational roots as well as see them become more fully developed, particularly with the move to a digital format. In adding another level of association, the genre of the short story gains a textual cousin in the comic adaptation:

The sources for many of Shakespeare's plays were other plays. But just as frequently the sources are texts in entirely different genres - Holinshed's Chronicles or Golding's translation of Ovid's Metamorphoses...if you've looked at the comics version, you certainly haven't read the story. Both the play and the comics version are new works. That's how they must be looked at. (Delany, 124)

Continuing the creation of a new work, the CD-ROM encoding of "I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream" provides not only another visual shift in the story’s representative narrative but also an arena for new textual exploration and development.