Literary Multimedia: Harlan Ellison explores the connections and permutations of "I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream" as it moves from short story to sequential art to computer simulation. The impetus for developing this project arises not only from Hall's respect for Harlan Ellison as a writer but also from his interests in diverse forms of literature, popular culture, and theory (in addition to fulfilling a graduation requirement). A redacted version of this text was presented at the 19th Annual Conference of the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts.
There is a machine. It evolved itself, and behold! - it knits. It knits us in and it knits us out. It has knitted time, space, pain, death, corruption, despair and all the illusions - and nothing matters. Iíll admit however that to look at the remorseless process is sometimes amusing.
- Joseph Conrad to R.B. Cunninghame Graham
When it first appeared in the March 1967 issue of Frederick Pohlís If: Worlds of Science Fiction, "I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream" stood as a cautionary tale, depicting the woes of a world that had allowed a global network to think for its programmers. Almost a quarter of a century before the word Internet was to be a part of everyday speech, Harlan Ellisonís idea of the world-spanning AM computer galvanized the attention of the speculative fiction community. Along with "íRepent, Harlequin!í Said the Ticktockman", "I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream" has become one Ellisonís most cited and quoted stories. The changing face of literature has recently allowed for an inclusion of new texts. In disturbing this canon, the explosion of literary texts has also allowed for an exploration of literary forms. While "I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream" began as a short story, it has since gone through a series of functional transformations.
Imaginative fundamentalizing, or rethinking the fundamental structures of reality, is frequently found in science fiction novels and short stories. It seems that the Ďwhat ifí nature of the genre readily lends itself to a reappraisal of traditionally accepted images of reality. The cross-cultural reexaminations of the 1960s relaxed such restrictions [especially in the areas of sex and religion], however, and no vision became too dangerous for intrepid and iconoclastic authors to approach. (Frisch, 13)Ellison has reworked his vision into two additional fields from which to consider the original short story. The first of the two incarnations occurred within the pages of Harlan Ellisonís Dream Corridor as the story ran simultaneously with an adaptation into a graphic novel format, spanning a four-issue serialization during 1995. In January of 1996, a CD-ROM version of I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream was released as a text of interactive computer literature, allowing the user to explore within the frames of Ellison's story by using the very medium which he is critiquing.
These three forms, when taken together, comprise an intriguing series of adaptations across different forms of media; "[t]he voice speaking to us seems almost intent on physical contact, on abolishing the indifference between the printed page that normally separates reader from writer" (Slusser, 5). Umberto Eco has suggested that in addition to authorial intention and reader intention, there exists the possibility of textual intention, "or intentio operis, as opposed to - or interacting with - the intentio auctoris and the intentio lectoris" (Eco, 25). The various interpretations invested into the act of writing and reading also point toward the text itself as an entity for consideration; in some ways, to rely upon an old convention, the story comes alive. In attempting to ascertain an operational strategy that will function across three versions of the text, this paper will also appear in a hyperlinked format; the creation of a hypertext helps to reframe the analyses of the texts self-reflexively. While visual and auditory art have been written about for centuries using the format of a linear, paper-based essay, presenting the discursive media with theoretical underpinnings in a computer-based hypertextual environment will prove more effective for purposes of idea association and reader navigation. By creating an interconnecting system of links, our reading across these three forms of text can produce a series of shortcircuits among texts, resulting in the production of a more richly interwoven meta-text; "a web of literary resonances surrounds the action" (Slusser, 6).
This paperís theoretical support comes from the work of Roland Barthes
on textual definition and the role of the author in relation to text; it
is supplemented with ideas from Umberto Eco and Samuel R. Delany, speculative
fiction writers as well as theorists . In utilizing two of his more prominent
essays, "From Work to Text" and "Theory of the Text," Barthes elaborates
on the idea of compositional "textasy" and the different types of pleasure
that may be derived from various ways of reading. The canonical entity
known as the Author undergoes a transformation of identity within a reconfiguration
of the text. This also provides an interesting choice, given Ellisonís
notorious reputation for authorial control. Barthesí views are particularly
relevant as a text moves from one principal author, like the original short
story, to a group of collective authors, like the various artists and programmers
assigned to the graphic novel and electronic game formats. The work of
the noted artist John Byrne on the comic adaptation of the story tends
to privilege certain action elements of the plot while circumventing the
inner monologue of the narrator. The Cyberdreams company that produced
the CD-ROM adventure (with Ellisonís close guidance and approval) added
a substantial amount of character development and subplot threads as well
as reworking the storyís bleak ending into something more hopeful. All
of these various elements create a series of metamorphoses for "I Have
No Mouth, and I Must Scream".
Stories in which machines are simply instruments or simply aliens do not involve dialectical interplay between man and machine. Between these poles, however, are those fables that do concern themselves with reciprocal interaction. Many turn upon a transposition of the "natural" relationship between man and machine: man becomes the slave, the machine the masterÖsometimes the machine is revealed as finally and absolutely the master as in Harlan Ellisonís "I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream".
- Mark Rose, Alien Encounters: Anatomy of Science Fiction
In Ellisonís world, even the simplest use of technology is fraught with peril. Many of his tales cast a calculating eye towards something so basic as using a telephone, although Ellison is quick to point out that he does not hate technology:
I have never, ever, espoused a position of hating technology. Even "I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream", the original short story, is not anti-technology. What it is anti is anti-misuse by humans. (Ellison, 2)The story borrows from the paranoia of the Cold War Era when the Americans, Russians, and Chinese raced to create their own strategic supercomputers; "[w]ith the end of World War II and the explosion of the Atomic Bomb at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the focus of SF changed to that of history" (Delany, 45). Extrapolating from his contemporary surroundings, Ellison begins to create a future with frightening implications. At some point, long after the machines have been programmed with tactical data as well as more abstract philosophies of war and psychological treaties on aggression, the various countries - in a bit of bureaucratic irony - decide that their projects are too costly or perhaps too dangerous. Abandoning their systems to the deep Earth caverns in which they are housed, the superpowers fail to realize the ultimate cost of their endeavors:
[E]verything was fine until [the three computer systems] had honeycombed the entire planetÖone day AM woke up and knew who he was, and he linked himself, and he began feeding all the killing data, until everyone was dead, except for the five of us. (Ellison, 33)Cybernetically educated with the darkest aspects of human nature, AM runs amok of its programmers. Unlike Isaac Asimovís robots, AM has no behavioral laws to follow; it can, and does, cause great harm to its creators through its actions. In I, Robot, Asimov proposed "The Three Laws of Robotics":
In Ellisonís universe the machines are created to serve their designers, yet the computers are not programmed with safeguards; instead they are taught the accrued knowledge of warfare without the contextual component of ethics. The exploration of this ethical dimension later emerges as a crucial component of the game adaptation. The egomania of humanity then creates a war machine that liberates itself from human servitude and ravages the entire planet, then devouring the final remnants of its creators; "sentience here is born not of love but of hate" (Slusser, 47). This hate consumes most of AMís system resources and gives it a reason for existence that stands separate from its cogito ergo sum answer to its self-reflexive act of naming itself and investing itself with a purpose:
- A robot may not injure a human being, or, through inaction, allow a
human being to come to harm.
- A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except
where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
- A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection
does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
He was a machine. We had allowed him to think, but to do nothing with itÖHe could not wander, he could not wonder, he could not belong. He could merely be. And so, with the innate loathing that all machines had always held for the weak, soft creatures who had built them, he had sought revenge. (Ellison, 40)AMís rise to self-awareness is steeped in its programmersí politics and the sins of quiet aggression; its manifested form directly stems from its downloaded content. The afflicted Ted even goes so far as to accuse AM of paranoia. Trapped within a lifeless shell, AMís personality could be said to suffer a breakdown reminiscent of AXIS in Greg Bearís Queen of Angels or other similar sentient systems:
Like Kubrickís and Clarkeís HAL, Ellisonís AM, and Heinleinís Mike, machines in science fiction are continually "coming awake" and developing consciousness. Indeed, as Frankenstein, the archetype of the machine story, suggests, the drama of machines may ultimately be understood as a drama of consciousness. (Rose, 155)This is not to say that all of speculative fiction sees the ascension of an artificial intelligence (AI) ultimately resulting in breakdown. Just like their human creators, the AIs contain a number of intellectual variables which can combine in harmonious or conflicting fashions. As machines begin to function with increasing independence from their human creators, Ellison asks the reader to consider the most extreme speculative consequences as a cautionary ploy in order to consider the ramifications of over-reliance on automated systems or insufficient consideration during design. In this "drama of consciousness," a heightened level of technological sophistication does not necessarily result in an heightened level of user sophistication, but just as the potential exists for a incident to go horribly awry so too does it follow that something positive can be yielded from a situation.
At times, his vision of manís fate appears darkly pessimistic - it is survival of the fittest in a universe both violent and cruelly indifferent. But it would be wrong to reduce things merely to some form of post-Darwinian determinism. Battles, in Ellison, are fought on a strangely intimate level.
- George Slusser, Unrepentant Harlequin
The humanity of Ted, the narrator of "I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream", and the other characters is reflected in the machine that is AM. While Ted refers to it as a machine as well as by its name, AM also receives the curious appellation of creature in addition to that of computer:
Most of the time I thought of AM as it, without a soul; but the rest of the time I thought of it as him, in the masculineÖthe paternalÖthe patriarchalÖfor he is a jealous people. Him. It. God as Daddy the Deranged. (Ellison, 29).As much as the reader can trust Tedís paranoid point of view, supposedly put in him by AM, he maintains a dual perspective in viewing AM alternately as impersonal force and personal demon; AM actualizes its punishments within the context of Tedís narrative, implicating Ted as "the true creator of this hate machine" (Slusser, 360). An underlying irony to this relationship is that AMís name evokes the Hebrew concept of God, existing outside of human comprehension, as being self-defined: "I am who I am." Ellison clearly plays around with this notion, including the wrath of the Old Testament Yahweh. Appearing as a burning bush, using celestial choruses that sing "Go Down Moses," and strolling through Tedís mind, the machine emulates a deity but never fully possesses the omnipotence of a god:
There was an eternity beat of soundless anticipation. I could hear AM draw in his breath. His toys had been taken from him. Three of them were dead, could not be revived. He could keep us alive, by his strength and talent, but he was not God. He could not bring them back. (Ellison, 46)Somewhere within the anthropomorphization of the computer lies a connection between the torturous machine and the humanity which created it, an "innate loathing that all machines had always held for the weak, soft creatures who had built them" (Ellison, 40). This connection, however, goes both ways, and the data which was originally fed to AM taught it only of the darker side to human nature until it is consumed by the protocols within its memory banks; "in its hatred for mankind, this machine has acquired a human heart" (Slusser, 360). Ellison re-encodes this sentiment in an interview where he states, "The only thing that can make machines hurt us is ourselves. Garbage in, garbage out. If we program them and we have madness, then they will be programmed mad" (Wiloch, 175).
Ted further strengthens this symbiotic bond by referring to AM and its actions in human terms. AMís tortures become a sexual outlet equivalent to masturbation, while a range of emotions cruise through the systemís data processing angstroms at light speed. Even the derivation of AMís name from the cogito ergo sum postulate demonstrates the capacity for thought, although not always what the human mind of Ted might call rational. AM likes to have sardonic fun with the characters: giving them toy bows and arrows and water pistols to fight monsters, providing them with canned food but no way of opening the cans, and manipulating Bennyís genetics to make him sub-human but the most well-endowed, and thus phallicly potent, male of the group. A considerable amount of AMís humor gravitates toward the sexual, possibly because "AMís degradation of the sexual lives of his subjects reveals his jealousy of the physical pleasure and [the] fulfillment of human love" (Ower, 59-60). Due to the violent content of its programming, AMís attitude regarding the sexual aspect of human nature becomes a crude transaction of raw data, something to be ridiculed because it exists beyond the realm of its experience, like William Gibsonís vision of meat in Neuromancer:
It belonged, [Case] knew - he remembered - as she pulled him down, to the meat, the flesh the cowboys mocked. It was a vast thing, beyond knowing, a sea of information coded in spiral and pheromone, infinite intricacy that only the body, in its strong blind way, could ever read. (Gibson, 239)Case, the narrator of Gibsonís novel, prefers cyberspace (or virtual reality) within a massive computer system over that of the analog, everyday world; only after his experiences does Case realize that there is something within the physical realm that the digital can never emulate. This sort of limitation once again manifests itself not only in AMís ability to reanimate life but also in its failure to fully comprehend its tortured humans.
AM does try to force a type of intimacy upon its human subjects. Although it either keeps the characters sterile or has no way to regenerate that ability in them, AM maintains a maternal posture, in addition to its paternal one, by keeping the humans safe within its subterranean complex, repeatedly referred to as AMís belly (Harris-Fain, 148). Ted even refers to AM as "Earth" and the humans as "the fruit of that Earth" (Ellison, 40). AM goes one step further with Ted during its intrusion into Tedís mind, a "rape, a mental sodomy of sorts" (Harris-Fain, 147):
AM went into my mind. AM touched me in every way I had ever been touchedÖAM withdrew from my mind, and allowed me the exquisite ugliness of returning to consciousness with the feeling of that burning neon pillar still rammed deep into the soft gray brain matter. (Ellison, 38-40)In some ways, Ted has become the adopted and abused son of AM - "Daddy the Deranged" - by being favored enough to avoid any physical change, although his mind is repeatedly fondled by the machine. During these excursions into his mind, could AM somehow have missed Tedís continual references to death as the only avenue of escape for the humans? As an unreliable narrator, Tedís motivations and commentaries must constantly be questioned, particularly concerning the supposed hatred the other victims direct toward him. Are they, like Ted, eager to die in order to escape their fate? Even at the moment where he finishes killing the others and feels some measure of triumph at thwarting AMís plans, his thoughts betray a sense of doubt and remorse:
It struck her and she folded toward me, bleeding from the mouth. I could not read meaning into her expression, the pain had been too great, had contorted her face; but it might have been thank you. Itís possible. Please. (Ellison, 46).In a final rage born of impotence, the irony of AMís humor reaches a meltdown with its final jest that reveals the meaning behind the title. For committing the sin of disobedience, Ted finally does suffer a transmogrification at the hands of AM, becoming "a thing that could never been known as human", a manifestation of his inner nature, and a corrupted file within the pathways of AMís data banks (Ellison, 47). In this respect, AM has replicated itself in Tedís new form, becoming father and mother after all: both of them exist as acutely sharp minds trapped in worthless bodies. These bodies themselves are devoid of gender, further problematizing the identity of either one; AMís failure to understand the sexuality of its human toys has caused it to delete this problematic routine. Through its continual abuse and violation, AM has transferred part of its essence to Ted. Their thoughts are constantly looping through routines of hatred and paranoia. We as readers are alone with Ted as he revisits his story, telling it repeatedly to himself, with the fragile format of memory his only recordable medium. In his memoir to "I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream," Ellison sees Ted in a more upbeat light, demonstrating "his uncommon courage and transcendentally human sense of self-sacrifice, overcoming the core derangement in him, by performing a final act of love and self-denial" (Ellison, 61). While each readerís interpretation regarding the conclusion of the story will already differ to a certain extent, the forms of the graphic novel and computer simulation encourage an even greater plurality of response.
Now we tend to say "writing" for all that and more: to designate not only the physical gestures of literal pictographic or ideographic inscription, but also the totality of what makes it possibleÖand thus we say "writing" for all that gives rise to an inscription in general, whether it is literal or not and even if what it distributes in space is alien to the order of the voice: cinematography, choreography, of course, but also pictorial, musical, sculptural "writing."
- Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology
Although "I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream" was reprinted multiple times with a few editorial revisions by Ellison, it did not significantly change until it was adapted into a graphic novel format by the artist John Byrne. The genre of the graphic novel became formally defined in the 1980s as the content of some comic books became geared for more mature readers, typically eighteen and older as opposed to the teenagers buying the comic books, and as the length of the storyline increased. Noted speculative fiction writer and theorist Samuel R. Delany prefers to think about the genre distinction in this fashion:
I like 'comics,' myself. In this kind of situation, it's best to hold on to the classical, conservative, demotic term and reinform it with meaning by the way you talk about it...You have to attack the problem of changing meanings by exerting effort at the places where meanings can be changed: at the critical level and at the creative level. (124)Visually, both comics and graphic novels are done in similar ways, incorporating written text with pictures in a printed and bound format - "juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer" (McCloud, 9). Byrne had established a strong reputation in the comic book field, and when Dark Horse decided to make Harlan Ellisonís Dream Corridor into an ongoing series, the inclusion of "I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream" seemed like an obvious choice. Byrneís textual style predominantly comes out of the super-hero tradition; this has shaped his narrative, causing him to concentrate more on depicting the action elements of the story in addition to influencing his kinetic style and color palette. As an example of visual art, a comic book incorporates the same style of perception required when reading a newspaper or a watercolor:
The intense and committed silence with which one looks at a comic - or even the cursory silence with which one looks through a comic...that range of silences is terribly important. That silence is what allies comics with the novel, with painting, with sculpture, with philosophy, with pornography, and with historiography. (Delany, 92)This duality of perception cues the reader to the multiplicity of readings which may be enacted with the text. Both actions involve looking, a type of textual voyeurism which leads to participation, although the target of this gaze alters the perception of the text.
Since Ellisonís stories are often a quest of exploration between "moral and mythical levels of existence" (Slusser, 5), attempting to convey the psychological states of AM, Ted, and the other characters becomes a question of transforming the mental pictures evoked by Ellisonís text, which are unique to each reader, into a more universally recognizable form. Issues of thematic interpretation remain present, however, due to the intersecting perspectives of Ellisonís companion text, Byrneís own artistic vision, and the readerís various levels of visual recognition; "comics readers are also conditioned by other media and the Ďreal timeí of everyday life" (McCloud, 106).
Byrneís style is somewhat stark, using a limited color palette and including a minimal amount of background information; this is particularly illustrated when compared with the graphic portions of the CD-ROM adaptation. Within the graphic art field, "the modern comic has grappled with the problem of showing motion in a static medium" (McCloud, 110). In allowing this convention of the art form to come into play, Byrne manipulates the narrative and privileges certain aspects of the story over others, performing in this operation just the sort of work that Eco suggests is part of all textuality: "[t]exts are the human way to reduce the world to a manageable format, open to an intersubjective interpretive discourse" (Eco, 21). The visual adaptation adds another interpretative field to the storyís constitutive makeup:
In movies, television, and comics, the operative factor is what some film theoreticians have taken to calling "the gaze." The gaze is a combination of the gaze of the viewer at the comic book page...modulated and directed by the looks the characters give to each other or to various objects. (Delany, 92)Alteration of the narrative also transpires within the textual perception of the graphic novel as a manuscript artifact. Just as Ted experiences some sort of temporal distortion, so too can the readers of the graphic novel:
But unlike other media, in comics, the past is more than just memories for the audience and the future is more than just possibilities! Both past and future are real and visible all around us! Wherever your eyes are focused, thatís now. But at the same time your eyes take in the surrounding landscape of past and future! (McCloud, 104)The simultaneity of focusing on a specific panel to gain information as well as looking at the tableau which the collected panels create induces a multi-layered overlay of textual information; "the text becomes a present tense palimpsest where what shines through are not past versions but potential, alternate views" (Joyce, 3). As the story unfolds (or perhaps refolds) within the graphic format, both the text of the words and the text of the images cohabitate in the readerís inductive mind. Hypertext theoritician Richard A. Lanham views this textual movement as a duality which permits two initial readings of the text: "The textual surface has become permanently bi-stable. We are always looking AT it and then THROUGH it, and this oscillation creates a different implied ideal of decorum" (5). In remodeling the ways that information is associated, the change in textual surfaces allows for additional forms of relation, such as electronic texts and hyperlinks. The thoughts to be shared between the writer(s) and the reader(s) can retain a familiarity while engaging in additional modes of discourse:
What makes the comics gaze the privileged one in my estimation is that the gazer has the greatest control over the comic book gaze...In comics, the gazer can control the speed his or her gaze travels through the medium. The gazer can control how far away or close up to hold the page. The gazer can control whether to go back and regaze - and going back to a panel or a page in a comic book is very different from going back in a novel to reread a previous paragraph.Ö(Delany, 93)This empowerment of the writer, the reader, and the text within a re-visioning of the data allows for new associations to arise. By skipping around between the various visual nodes, the reader can combine elements in different sequences, permitting many new texts. Changing the implications of ideas permits the reader to access the text with alternate informational strategies.
The machineís argument is a simple extension of the traditional philosophical debate over determinism; but put into the mouth of a computerÖthe 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?One of the integral steps in applying Barthesí 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.
- Adam Frisch and Joseph Martos, "Religious Imagination and Imagined Religion"
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 AMís machinations. The reader, if in accord with Ellisonís 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 readerís 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 Ė 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 humanityís 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 jawÖit 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 lightÖwas being abandoned in favor of a new, frighteningly subjective approachÖan honest expression of the internal turmoil these artists just could not repress. (McCloud, 122)The contorted bodies of Byrneís subject closely emulate that of Munchís. More importantly, the thematic content Ė a scream Ė is shared between the two works. The psychological emotion conveyed by The Scream clearly connects with Tedís mental state not only at the end of the story but also throughout his narrative. In Ellisonís 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 Byrneís 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 Ellisonís 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 storyís representative narrative but also an arena for new textual exploration and development.
I suggest to [our older, more print-oriented members] that while they may think the only good sf is that which comes writ in lines on paper, that to several succeeding generations, the visual interpretations of imaginative fiction are equally as potent.One of the principal challenges of adapting "I Have No Mouth, And I Must Scream" to an interactive medium stemmed from the fact that the primary antagonist of the story is a computer, albeit a distant relation to the models being used to run the game program. Being challenged by AM continually makes the user aware of the computer interface. While the characters in the story must endure the horrors that AM inflicts, the game player can turn off the machine at any point. Therefore, to preserve the story's nightmarish mood, Ellison wanted to create a game that a player could not possibly win; instead, there are a number of ethical levels at which one may lose, everything from the heroic and sacrificial to the ignominious and selfish. Changing the nature of the goal - to lose the best way possible - I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream puts an intriguing twist on the typical "point-and-click" adventure scenarios as well as circumventing the more popular first-person maximum carnage games dominating the current market.
- Harlan Ellison, "Defeating the Green Slime"
By definition, a game is generally defined as any form of play, usually involving physical or mental competition under specific rules; most of the elaborations typically invoke some type of connotation toward a win or victory. The computer game does follow a certain set of protocols, such as interaction with the virtual world only through the mouse, limiting the amount of actions a player can execute, and restricting the movement to a particular set of screens or scenarios. It also deviates from the standard definitions by forcing the player, in order to complete the game, to make a series of choices such that the loss - which is inevitable within the confines of the game - is the least detrimental of the possible outcomes. This rethinking of the entire strategy for the game not only altered the original storyline and generated new ones but also caused a fundamental shift in the construction of the narrative, moving it from a single center of creation to a multiple one.
While John Byrne had his own particular artistic vision when it came to visually adapting "I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream," his work received minimal additional attention by a very small group of individuals. On the other hand, creating an interactive electronic storyline involved a complex hierarchy of many people. The unifying thread of the design materialized when David Sears, a game designer employed by the Cyberdreams company, asked Ellison something he had never considered before: why does AM choose these particular five people? Although Ellison has previously said that he had no idea about the story's plot when he sat down and wrote it in one night, Sears' question caused Ellison's imagination to stretch back over the years and develop the prequel stories for each of the humans, creating a 130 page draft (MGM, HTML). The suicidal tendencies of Gorrister, the deformities of Benny, the phobias of Ellen, the secrets of Nimdok, and the paranoias of Ted now exist within a more fully developed relational construct. The "quests" that await each character not only help to explain the motivations of each one but also present the information in such a fashion as to cause the game player to begin constructing a narrative from non-linear nodes of information; "it ends up being more a game of moral exploration than actual problem-solving" (Hachem, HTML). This narrative construction begins by presenting the player with a series of objects that must be used in a specific order. This order is not initially known, but rather is revealed as the player moves the character from one situation to another. Additionally, depending upon the situations chosen, more conventional plot points about the character are revealed, but once again these are presented in no particular order. It is up to the gamer to begin to piece a narrative together, and often two or more competing narratives can be generated and simultaneously considered thematically viable. Delany sees a proliferation of information arising from a production site involving any sort of game playing: "develop[ed] out of misread gestures, the bias that comes from a particular angle of observation, personality conflicts and personal goals as interpreted or misinterpreted within the game" (Delany, 45).
Producer David Mullich, having created a 1980 computer game based upon The Prisoner television series, replaced Sears and began annotating Ellison's draft for adaptation by the programmers and artists (over sixty people); Mullich added over 600 pages and 2000 additional lines of dialogue to Ellison's treatment (MGM, HTML). Woven into the fabric of the story are profound ethical dilemmas dealing with emotionally charged issues including the horrors of insanity, selfishness, rape, racism, paranoia, and genocide - the darker aspects of human behavior that underlie the parameters of AM's original programming:
even while making progress through the game's puzzles, the player feels an omnipresent umbrella of doom throughout the game, since a "happy" ending is difficult, if not impossible, to fathomÖ[one] soon gets the sense that this is more a game of redemption than of victory, the goal being to see each character develop past their fatal flaw (Hachem, HTML)One of the major changes in terms of storyline dealt with the ending of game. By definition, the game is goal-oriented and thus needed some sense of closure, yet Ellison wanted to deviate from the conventions of adventure games; "I did not want to build yet another stupid shoot-'em-up arcade monstrosity to aid and abet the popular culture activity of keeping people stupid and distracted from important matters of life and thought" (Ellison, xiii). The god-like AM's personality is now a holy trinity of the original American, Russian, and Chinese computers, with the Russian and Chinese sub-systems trying to help the humans overthrow the totalitarian rule of AM; suddenly AM is not merely delusional and psychotic but afflicted with a multiple personality disorder as well.
Given the power of AM's mind coupled with its extensive database, the art team chose a variety of styles for each of the scripts, ranging from German Expressionist films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari to pure visual fantasy (Odom, 191); this melange of artistic styles often borders on the surreal, invoking the sense of seething chaos which Ted seemed to experience at almost every turn within AM's cybernetic pathways. Ellison himself agreed to perform the voice of the demented computer AM, adopting the god-like role he had created, for as Ellison puts it, "in all the dialogue you will hear my smartmouth, and the cadences in which I speak, and the way my stories read" (MGM, HTML). More use of visual arts involved the packaging of the game, particularly as it included a mousepad imprinted with a 3-D image of Ellison's face entangled in a web of computer circuitry, created by Barclay Shaw for an Ellison anthology showcasing the original short story.
The various changes enacted in translating the story into an interactive
CD-ROM ripple across many aspects of the text, from its content to its
presentation. Changing certain conventions of the plot is linked to alternate
ways to package the material; just as an author may choose to revise a
story, provide some sort of annotation, or add a personal note, so too
do stories receive new fonts and illustrations and books are reissued with
new covers and different combinations of text. For some time, writers have
been simultaneously bound by the social and economic conventions of publishing
and liberated within these restrictions by playing with the possibilities
that arise between form and content. "Just as a robot is bound by its programming,
so a writer is bound by language, genre, and theme, limited by the program
of a medium that is the culture's design, not his own" (Rose, 157). If
a writer frees the text from the constraints of one particular genre and
enters it into another, then a new cultural interpretation and a way of
reading becomes possible. By entering the electronic medium, the thematic
elements of "I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream" are reconfigured enough
to find a place within a computerized realm while exhibiting a textual
lineage with its predecessors.
Media language - contextless, monologic, self-referential - invites the recipient to play with the process of self-constitution, continuously to remake the self in "conversation" with differing modes of discourse.
- Mark Poster, The Mode of Information
In switching between different media genres, the text can be played with - "the function Barthes assigns to literature inside the system of linguistic power" - by its writers and readers (Eco, 252). When Barthes began to formulate his theories of text, he was interested in the effects of cutting codes across one another. In moving between the narrative frames of the short story, graphic novel, and interactive game, Ellison also projects the different slides of "I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream" in a blended collage against the canvas of literature. Even though Ellison seeks to retain a fair amount of control with each of his constitutive movements, his authorial monologue is challenged as he moves outward into the other media. One year after the publication of "I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream", Barthes declared the Author to be dead. Although George Slusser wants to know "why should a story not have a guardian presence to guide it through the world, to mediate between it and its audience," authorial presence is a mystical entity invested with belief. Much like Ted invests AM with a significant belief system, so too does Ellison, even adopting the persona of his creation in the interactive adventure. The collaborative exercises that have resulted in the additional interpretations of "I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream" causes Ellison to exist not as the omnipotent creator of the text, but rather as an other continually surrounded by the midst of creation, overseeing but not totalizing the ideas moving within a multi-discourse space.
In "From Work to Text," Barthes explains that this spatial relativity of reference frames moves from the work to the text. The work is a fragment of substance (a word, sentence, or paragraph), while the text is a methodological field of discursive ideas. The work can be seen (on library shelves, in the hands of subway commuters, across a computer screen), but the text is a process of demonstration arising from the act of perception. The work - like a book - can be held in the hand, yet the text only in language. Because of its physicality, the work could cease; a paper can burn. Due to its constitutive movement, the text cannot stop; ideas that are put into motion via the act of perception tend to stay in motion. Within this action, the text becomes a crossing and recrossing of meanings; instead of integration and interpretation, the text answers in an explosion and dissemination through codes which are known but which synthesize in unique combinations. In choosing to view "I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream" in its various forms, the reader can derive various admixtures of text and, through analysis, produce many discoveries. While Ellison may be loath to relinquish the lion's share of his authorial stake, within the stereographic plurality of the texts, he no longer becomes the source for the text but rather a life contributing to the text. Ellison has a strong control fetish when it comes to his own work, including several instances of removing his name from a project and inserting the pseudonym "Cordwainer Bird," publicly lambasting editors who change his stories, and legally instructing his wife to destroy all his extant manuscripts upon his death. In a rather important example directly related to this project, Ellison's authority definitely asserted itself with respect to the graphic novel adaptation by John Byrne. In a telephone conversation, Ellison related how he was extremely displeased with Byrne's work, despite his reputation as one of the most respected illustrators in the graphic novel and comic book industries today. Ellison wanted Dark Horse, the publisher, to pay Byrne for his work (Ellison is always fiercely protective of the rights of other authors in whatever capacity their work manifests itself) but to not run the adaptation. This would have resulted in an almost immediate cancellation of the series due to financial problems, so Ellison made a concession and allowed Dark Horse to run Byrne's story provided that they also reprint Ellison's original text alongside the visual art (Ellison, interview). Providing two principal texts to read (and a third when reading the original story and the comic at the same time) provides some interesting textual opportunities to the reader. The text, by its nature, interacts with its reader. Barthes does not mean a specific text morphed across genres, editions, and information formats, but rather his theory is designed to be applied to any text considered by any reader. The text, however, resists boredom because, as Barthes says, "to be bored means that one cannot produce the text, play it, open it out, set it going." Certainly the subsequent treatments of Ellison's story directly involve the notion of play. Plot elements have been altered, visual depictions have been changed, and even the methods of physically accessing the information are different. Participants in the interactive plot of the CD-ROM are, though in a limited way, nevertheless engaged in writing the story. Because text cannot be divorced from writing, people must learn to experience both, because the text gives pleasure without separation. The destruction or doubt of metalanguage is part of a Theory of the Text.
Published two years after "From Work to Text," "Theory of the Text" is an extension of previous speculations. In Barthes' estimation, text evolves out of a site of production, a space between the relations of the reader and the written. Consumers of "I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream" have moved from passive recipients of the original short story to active participants within the CD-ROM. Although the differences described in "From Work to Text" can be framed in a series of dichotomies - work/text, product/process, signified/signifier - the theory of text restates that these forces are inseparable and further elaborates on the idea that their framework is non-oppositional; areas of seeming ideological incongruity are rather places for production of text. Text then becomes an entity which transcends the author to enact its own meanings, nomadic in wandering significations and resistant to adhering to fixed definition; this investigation into "I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream" arises from the combination of roving implications which arise from the various forms of the story. This sort of play creates "jouissance": enjoyment that meanders and redoubles on itself to lose the subject in a combination of textual and sexual pleasure - "textasy."
Literary pleasure is not a new idea. In Christopher Butler's essay, "The Pleasures of Experimental Text," he talks about how pleasure from linguistic play - through creation and interpretation - is diffused between conventions of mastering standard literary conventions (such as the five paragraph essay and the research paper with sources) and experimenting with new ones (like a collaborative hypertext or a video documentary). Ellison himself has commented that "I operate at a level where I can best produce materialÖIt fits my need. I get pleasure out of it" (Ellison, 2). Explicit or implicit erotic pleasure within the text serves as one model for reading experimental text. Another model concerns itself with linking linguistic revolution to political freedom. Finally, the concern of tolerance with respect to experimental writing is raised, gesturing towards aesthetic pleasure within society:
Barthes tells usÖsociety [defends] the given language by reciting the literature, which questions the given language's positionÖAestheticism consists of believing that life is art and art, life, confusing the areas. (Eco, 254)Reading advocates the active role of the interpreter of text as much as it necessitates the presence of the text. Since different genres of literature produce different experiences of reading pleasure, the generation of textasy arises from a combination of the act of reading as well as the content of the text. This reconfiguration of the act of composition - creating another text and establishing it within a relational web of previously existing and potentially emerging texts - moves the locus of power into a different relational framework for the writer, reader, and text.
Having played around a bit with Barthes' theories of text, what can be said about the production of text? Obviously, production of text is closely linked with consumption of text:
The gazer is a "coproducer"Öat a level of involvement and intensity, through the nature of the medium itself, that French critic Roland Barthes...has been trying to make happen with words alone for some time - or words along with lines, used in highly comics-like ways. (Delany, 93)Barthes refers to the consumption of text as "cruising." By this he means it is a voyage of desire where an author is going to be "picked up" by a reader, and this is a strange refiguring of Ellison's authorial control, although perhaps he would be somewhat amused at this mode of textual transmission. The measure of pleasure, or "textasy," that a reader then extracts from a text is directly relational to its primacy of content or interest to the reader. Some people will be more or less attracted to the short story, graphic novel, and computer game based on their individual tastes. For Barthes, the "first time" a reader interacts with a text is an act of privilege that exists outside of repetition; thus, while the reader may revisit "I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream," each textual variation could be sufficiently different enough to provide a new sense of adventure. Within this field of diversion, it is possible to avoid standard ideas of repression, authority, and control to instead arrive at a proliferation of meaning.
Escaping into a text is possible through an initial combination of reading and writing (other external factors related to mental as well as physical environment can come into effect). Producing text is not the creation of a paper. Instead, textual production arises from an interaction between reader and additional texts such as essays, advertisements, film, graphic novels, webpages, politics, and a host of other forces; "any act of interpretation is a dialectic between openness and form, initiative on the part of the interpreter and contextual pressure" (Eco, 21). A printed paper is but one of the artifacts through which textual production can be seen and accessed. Interestingly, Barthes refers to a work as "the imaginary tail of the Text" and in grasping too tightly it may break off in a sort of reptilian defense mechanism, leaving the reader holding the paper and not the text(s) and associated ideas it embodies.
A Barthesian theory of the production of text would then be based in a collaborative effort, connecting writers, readers, and texts. In so doing, they become what Harris sees as "simultaneously a part of several discourses, several communities, always already committed to a number of conflicting beliefs and practices." Producing text, then, becomes an exercise in narrative. While this narrative has a moment of germination, it invariably loses any sense of beginning or closure. That is, while the work may certainly be a paper of a definitive quantifiable length, the text exists in a relational web with other texts, however obscure the links. This happens because, as Louise Phelps states, "composing energies disperse themselves fruitfully in many directions, attach[ing] loosely to shifting and shadowy potential texts." The production of text then becomes an interdisciplinary endeavor, an attempt to locate variations on a theme:
a text, once it is separated from its utterer (as well as from the utterer's intention) and from the concrete circumstances of its utterance (and by consequence from its intended referent) floats (so to speak) in the vacuum of a potentially infinite range of possible interpretations. (Eco, 41)The plurality of meaning that suffuses text is a weaving of citations, references, and echoes of antecedent or contemporary cultural language. Ultimately, the production of text is inextricably entwined with the act of communication.
A few years before his death in 1980, Barthes departed from semiotics
and turned towards what he called semiology: "the study of how sign systems
work within the human language." Roland Champagne elaborates on this idea
in his essay, "Resurrecting RB: Roland Barthes, Literature, and the Stakes
of Literary Semiotics." The definition of literature is made purposefully
vague by overtly borrowing from sources such as art, sculpture, and music.
These sources foreground possible extensions into technological innovations
like film, audio cassettes, and electronic mail. The opening of literature
past the boundaries of the written page refers back to Barthes and his
continual engagement with play that leads to liberation of the text - "A
text is an open-ended universe where the interpreter can discover infinite
interconnections" (Eco, 39).
Art's affair with technology has led to more than a marriage of materiality, and more than the augmentation of intelligence that high-speed computing power and ubiquitous networks bring to the human conditionÖIn this reconfiguration of ourselves and our culture, the process of transformation lies between what I call cyberception, technologically extended cognition and perception, and the technoetic aesthetic, art allied to the technology of consciousness.The increasingly manifest use of technology can complicate literature as much as it can aid it; even Ellison acknowledges that "we live in a mixed-media society" (Ellison, 93). For example, with increased computer usage, it is possible to create a text electronically which only exists in the magnetic domain of the computer. If there is no hard copy - no manuscript artifact to point to a definitive work - how can it be evaluated? With all the discussion of moving from work to text, what happens with a shift in the other direction when the text must manifest itself again as a work so that it may be revised? Hypertext may make more seamless and effective connections between various analyses and media by combining the written text directly with the visual and auditory information it discusses. Although Ellison does not hold any real affection for computers or associated tools (with regard to the Internet, Ellison says, "When they say 'Gee it's an information explosion!', no, it's not an explosion, its a disgorgement of the bowels" (Ellison, 3), he did see some merit - perhaps merely in the challenge exploring virgin terrain - in entering an electronic domain. Interestingly, Ellison owns no computer hardware, so he can not even play his own game. In fact, his direct exposure to video games has been limited to just two occasions (both involving spin-offs from films). In 1982 he reviewed The Empire Strikes Back cartridge for the Atari home system and in 1995 he spent three hours on an airplane playing Jurassic Park. In playing a series of active roles, Ellison adopts the position of authority, allowing his text to move through a series of transformations even while he still attempts to control it to some degree; "finally, as in the dystopian fables, man himself, either directly or through machines, may be the agent for his transformation" (Rose, 183).
- Roy Ascott, "Turning on Technology"
Becoming not only one of Ellison's most frequently reprinted stories but also one of the most replicated of the English language, "I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream" emerges as a "mythical allegory which explores the mind and soul of a nation without a long cultural tradition or firm landmarks" (Slusser, 3). The nature of this shifting landscape presented by the story - in whatever form it adopts - points toward the web of forces which imbricates it within a collective experience. "Most typically [Ellison's] stories were about alienation and the struggle between the individual and the all-destroying machine/God/society," but so too are they about the act of creation (James, 174). Ellison manifests his agency through writing, producing a number of significant variations on a theme and at times even changing the manifestations of writing; "[t]he last person to get any public mileage out of the image of the genre-stifled (or genre-unstifled) SF writer was Harlan EllisonÖ[he] forced SF to grow up and realize that genre restrictions were a little more complex that sexually timid editors" (Delany, 45).
Inside this suturing of writing exists the production of text, or as Linda Flower and John Hayes see it, "how writers juggle and integrate the multiple constraints of their knowledge, their plans, and their text into the production of each new sentence." Barthes employs obscurity as a tactical strategy to deal with tactility of literary theory because of its entwinement with language. Creating and articulating these intentional obscurities in language complicates the nature of text where, Lucian Krukowski says, "the space on which all the quotations that make up a writing are inscribed without any of them being lost." Knowing that there are three versions of the story - possessing three different contexts, existing in three different genres, and needing at least three different ways of reading - "a text must invite [its readers] to a relatively easy 'cosmological' task" of semantic and critical interpretation (Eco, 67). Irony aside, the result of this process is a world which the reader fills up with meaning while accepting inner contradictions and limitations within the text. These boundaries provide both a polysemy as well as a unique meaning, located within a specific time and context and accessed by an interpretive authority (the reader). Through engaging in literary transformations, Ellison seeks to suggest alternatives without demarcating answers, to sidestep the simultaneously locating and obliterating "X", to instruct along the journey rather test than at its end:
"I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream" is an exceptionally violent warning about technology as a reflection of humanity. If our machines store our knowledge, is it not possible that they can also store, and possibly succumb to, such things as hatred and paranoia? AM [is] a "god" only in the sense of its godlike powersÖGods and pseudo-gods cannot destroy us without destroying themselves, and the absence of a mouth or scream cannot invalidate the courageousness of the human spirit. (Dowling et al, 165-66)