'I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream'
AM: God as Daddy the Deranged
Harlan Ellison’s "I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream" represents an artificial intelligence known as “AM” to be a vengeful God-like figure in the eyes of the main character, Ted. There are numerous references to Judeo-Christian beliefs of God and Hell that could lead one to argue that AM is playing the roles of both God and Satan in this post-apocalyptic world. Ted, in a similar way, shows persistent qualities of humanity that are reflected in AM, as well.
Religion is an invention of humanity to explain the unexplainable questions of existence or to define a certain moral code with justification of purpose. In a certain way, God was invented by man to define the origins of man (Harris-Fain 1991). The computer system, AM, was created by men as a means of destruction to bring an end to war, thus bringing about a time of peace. In doing so, humanity only brought destruction upon itself. AM, after becoming self-aware, became enraged with humanity for creating it and destroyed all but five humans to serve as a never-ending duty to punish humanity. In this way, AM is very similar to God. Though God was invented by man, current religion clearly shows that the invention of organized religion has accrued a mind of its own. To those that believe in God, he is very real. AM understands that it was created out of nothing for the sole purpose of destruction, thus who is to say that God would not be equally angry at humanity for creating him for the sole purpose of justifying destruction?
In the story, the meaning of AM has changed several times to show a distinct growth in self-sustaining ability of the technology. Each progressive name is also a relatively descriptive definition of God in his many forms. AM went from meaning “Allied Mastercomputer” to “Adaptive Manipulator.” The term “Adaptive Manipulator” is particularly relevant to the idea of an intervening God. This is to say that God intervenes and manipulates the course of history, as opposed to the Deistic belief that God created the universe and then let nature take its course. After AM became self-aware, the people called it “Aggressive Menace” and it referred to itself as “AM.” The Descartes thought, “I think therefore I am,” is what the computer was attempting to convey in calling itself AM, but the obvious connotation to this name lies in the Judeo-Christian passage of Moses and the Burning Bush (Harris-Fain 1991). In this biblical story, God appears to Moses in the form of a burning bush and calls himself “I” (Gill 2012). This is to say that God is not a person with a name, but rather is simply existence itself. AM speaks to the group through the form of a burning bush at one point in the short story as a reference to this biblical story (Harris-Fain 1991). The ties between God and AM are quite obvious in this story. Very little was done by the author to hide this comparison, perhaps as a way to critique organized religion or simply to provide a more interesting plot tool; this is not for any one person to decide.
The will of AM in this story is to constantly torment and belittle the five main characters in an endless loop of terror. At one point in the story, AM projects into the mind of Ted and says, “To hell with you... but then you’re there, aren’t you?” This statement is meant to symbolize hell with the torturous events that take place, though the definition of hell is subjective based on what one fears and finds torturous. The humans in the story have been tortured for over a hundred years in a never-ending cycle of pain and suffering with no hopes of death or escape; this is hell. If the events of the story indeed take place in hell, then that would make AM the vengeful deity of the underworld, Satan. Throughout the torture of Ted and the others, AM is enjoying a masturbatory-like ecstasy from the pain of the group. This is to say that Satan receives joy from bringing torment to humanity.
One could also argue that this endless torture is representative of human life by the will of God, as opposed to the will of Satan. In Buddhist religious traditions, life itself is the ultimate suffering and to die is to escape the cycle of death and rebirth, thus escaping suffering altogether; you can’t suffer if you don’t exist (Gill 2012). In this way, if God created life, then in doing so he also created the suffering of all humanity, meaning that the suffering of human existence on Earth could be compared to the suffering that is described in the Christian hell. With this in mind, it would seem reasonable that God has a set of motives, such as creating humanity to live prosperously, and counter-motives, such as creating a torturous hell of suffering that is human existence, that conflict is a madness driven state of unclear intentions. The religious response to this conflicting view would be that the motives of God cannot be understood by man due to his omnipotent nature (Gill 2012). However, this argument seems like a cop-out from accepting the madness of God; “God as Daddy the Deranged.” Like God, AM creates a hospitable environment for the human survivors to live in and provides them with a supply of, albeit disgusting, food, but sustenance nonetheless, while simultaneously aiming to torture and maim them for their crimes.
Though God in most religious traditions does not take delight in human suffering, humans are practically equivalent to ants in power in comparison to God. The idea of an intervening God would suggest that God has vested interest in human events and has the ability to play with humanity like a child with a toy. The imagery of AM’s child-like nature is a reflection of Ted’s humanity. While AM is trying to make the humans pay for the crimes of their race, he also enjoys toying with them as though they were playthings. When they are at a time of rest and healing, AM would throw some new obstacle in their path, seemingly to entertain himself. At the end of the story, Ted takes the opportunity to kill the other four, thereby releasing them from the endless torture. Upon doing so, AM becomes enraged because “his toys had been taken from him,” creating an anthropomorphized image of the God-like computer as a simple child losing his toys. When Ted kills the others in a grand act of heroism, he is aspiring to more than humanity; he is aspiring to a kind of godliness.
Ted is a human character that is intentionally centered in this story as the narrator to create a sense of confusion for the reader. He is not a particularly reliable narrator, as he often skips large gaps in time and gets caught up in his emotions towards the others and AM. One could also argue the question of Ted’s sanity. He exclaims that “I was the only one still sane and whole. Really! AM had not tampered with my mind. Not at all.” In this quote, there are several key elements that could arguably prove that Ted is losing his sanity. The use of italics in responsive statements following his thoughts seems to be a kind of reassuring voice in Ted’s head that says that tells him that his sanity has not been affected by AM, but that responsive voice could just as easily be the voice of AM responding in a sarcastic manner (it is difficult to read a sarcastic tone in text). Another element of Ted’s insanity is that he is exclaiming that he is not insane, a statement that has no validity to an insane person. If he is actually insane, then how can we trust that he is truthful in claiming his own sanity, let alone that he is truthful in the other events of the story; insane people often believe themselves to be sane (Harris-Fain 1991). He also has grown to be particularly paranoid that the others in the group are making fun of him and gets incredibly enraged at humanity for producing an unfair life for him, an emotion that is mirrored in AM.
In a way, Ted gives AM human characteristics by anthropomorphizing the machine with pronouns such as “he” instead of “it” and referring to its laughter and masturbatory joy. These characteristics are particularly human, though as discussed in the previous paragraph, there is no sure way to know that these anthropomorphisms that Ted attributes to AM are not simply Ted’s own psyche being affected by insanity. Ted claims that AM is “a jealous people,” a quote that may be related to a quote from the Bible of a “jealous God.” Exodus 20:5 states: “Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them... For I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me.” This is to say that God is jealous of the false idols that man worships, and those that do so will be tortured by God to the fourth generation of their children (Harris-Fain 1991). AM, God in this sense, claims jealousy and punishes the “children” of humanity for hundreds of years as retribution.
If AM, a supercomputer, represents God in this story, then it would be logical to argue that this story is partially about the modern generation’s fixation on technology as a false idol. Granted that this story was written in 1967 and technology was not as advanced or commonplace as it is today, the possible message can be applied to today’s generation. Current youth culture revolves around cell phones and the internet, a series of feats that have advanced society by an unquantifiable margin since the 1960s, but the fascination with this technology has a great deal of potential harm to future generations. The fearfulness that stems from technological fascination is a common theme in science fiction, often leading to some form of apocalypticism that relates to an artificial intelligence such as AM or HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey. In some sense, it is fair to say that technology can lead to destruction, as is evident from the creation of the atom bomb. That sheer destructive power of technology is godly in itself.
Gill, J. H. (2012). WITTGENSTEIN AND WORLD RELIGIONS. Philosophy Today, 56(3),
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Harris-Fain, D. "Created In The Image Of God: The Narrator And The Computer In Harlan
Ellison's "I Have No Mouth, And I Must Scream." Extrapolation (Kent State University
Press) 32.2 (1991): 143-155. Literary Reference Center Plus. Web. 18 Nov. 2015.
About the author
I have a degree in Religious Studied from North Carolina State University. You will find that a lot of my work involves religion and analytical comparisons to popular culture, as these are my two favorite things. I hope you enjoy!