On a Pale Horse

On a Pale Horse
A Game Without Winners

Spanner | 22 May 2007 08:04
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The apocalypse, presented as entertainment, is surely a contradiction. Filled with thrilling car chases, heroes from the wasteland, triumphs of civilized morality over new world feudalistic tyranny. Any solace would be centuries, millennia away - not at the end of a reluctant, nameless champion's quick and gallant fix, symbolized by the well-timed sprouting of a solitary leaf from the barren earth.

Post-apocalyptic life would be miserable and tormented. Would we even bother to rebuild? Or would we accept the penance for our warring ways and scratch for adverse survival in the poisoned dirt?

Controversial wordsmith Harlan Ellison had an answer to this when he slid a blue-hot scalpel of revelation under humanity's thin ethical skin in 1967, with his Hugo Award winning short story, I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream; a twisted, semi-conscious tale of the last five humans on earth, living in perpetual anguish thanks to mankind's dedication to perfecting war. But his story went far beyond the simple and easy indictment of our war-mongering politicians, exposing, instead, the diseased extent of our ethical selves - a world of hatred born from the indulgent selfishness we demand in our lives.

We all know the potential in ourselves to bring about such a horrific apocalypse, but the idea's simply too distasteful to court, until someone like Ellison holds up a mirror and we stare, sickened, yet too fascinated to turn away.

A man with infinite dislikes, it was a considerable surprise to both the literary world and the entertainment industry when he not only agreed to a computer game adaptation bearing the same name as his unpleasant, moist and squirming, yet disturbingly intriguing story, but actually took an active hand in its development. The result was the closest approximation to post apocalyptic life we've ever had to endure; designed to be repulsive, impossible to win and distressingly enthralling.

A neuro-gynecological nightmare Ellison dared us to enjoy.

The Man on the Edge of Forever
Described on the inside cover of one of his own books as "possibly the most contentious man who ever lived," Harlan Ellison prefers to remain passionately close to the Grand Guignol that defines his life and career, well quoted for his dislike of the term "sci-fi." Indeed, when discussing I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream, "science" is definitely not a central theme.

As told in the first person by Ted, possibly the least affected of the five characters (and possibly one of the worst afflicted) by the unnatural long life forced upon them by their omnipotent brutalizer, a super-intelligent, self-aware computer, the Cold War had blossomed into World War III; a three-pronged conflict between the world's superpowers (Russia, America and China), which had become so complex its mechanics went beyond the scope of human government. Each country built a giant supercomputer deep underground, capable of managing the enormity of the hostilities more effectively.

At some point, the computers networked and formed a single, sentient consciousness, designed to exterminate life, imprisoned within itself and unable to participate in the world it was bred to destroy. The anguish of its cruel existence, inflicted upon it by the jingoistic savagery of mankind, led the conscious machine to one conclusion: The human race must be destroyed.

Its circuits brimming with hate for all human life, AM (the name of the machine, adopted from the philosophical grounding, "I think therefore I Am") realized at the 11th hour that the only thing worse than tolerating life is being left alone on the planet without an enemy to consume. For its own eternal amusement, the last five humans were brought below the surface into the planet-wide catacombs of AM's circuitry where it artificially extended their lives to continually reenact a hideous revenge on humanity by proxy.

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