From my earliest exposure to science fiction, I was always drawn to the darker elements. I liked the villains for some reason, with Darth Vader being the epitome of cool. And somehow the (post-) apocalyptic scenarios fascinated me the most. The first real post-apocalyptic movie I ever saw (on TV with my grandparents, who let me stay up later than my parents at the time) was The Ultimate Warrior1 (1975) with Yul Brynner and Max von Sydow. The post-civilization scenario somehow spoke to me, and it still does to this day (with The Walking Dead being just one example).
Stephen King’s The Dark Tower books became a special favorite of mine, because they gave me all of the elements I liked and much more: the description of the world that has “moved on,” that starts to come apart at the seams, not just a world in ruins but a world where time and space are literally falling apart in the form of a “Thinny” - a phenomenon where reality itself has been eroded away.
The books of The Dark Tower series are filled with incredible characters from both sides (the red side and the white side), but – to me – no character or part of the story compares to Blaine the Mono: the ancient remnant of a highly advanced society, the artificial intelligence suffering a mental breakdown (or “spiritual malaise,” as Stephen King put it into Blaine’s non-corporeal mouth), the suicidal machine bent on taking the protagonists with it to its grave, the worst possible enemy because he/it actually wants to die.
A cyborg is not a machine.
The concept of an artificial intelligence contemplating/completing suicide was new to me when I first read The Waste Lands (book four of the series), and it is much rarer than the human element of a cyborg2 seeking an end to the augmented existence. Popular examples of the tortured human parts inside the machine ending it themselves are the failed prototypes in RoboCop 23 (1990) and several incarnations of the Cybermen4 in the ever-popular Doctor Who TV show. The actual suicide of the cyborgs to end their existence is not to be confused with an act of sacrifice to help/save someone else, like the cyborg – character Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington) giving up his (human) heart for transplantation to save John Connor (Christian Bale) at the end of Terminator Salvation5 (2009).
Take a ride on the suicidal Starfleet ship.
Eddie Dean could “talk the devil into setting himself on fire,” but Captain Kirk managed to persuade a computer to (try to) complete suicide in the Star Trek TOS episode “The Ultimate Computer”6 (1968). Suicidal (spaceship) computers would pop up again in the Star Trek franchise, for example in the Star Trek: Voyager episode “Dreadnought,”7 in which B'Elanna Torres has to stop the kamikaze mission of a ship steered by an artificial intelligence. These cases are a bit tricky to differentiate, however: Blaine and M-5 (the tactical "M-5 Multitronic System" controlling Kirk’s Enterprise) made decisions to end their existence, whereas “Dreadnought” was trying to fulfill its programmed mission in the same way the unnamed intelligent bomb in John Carpenter’s Dark Star8 (1974) was.
Come on…come on…kill me already!9
Trains, starships, and robots – there’s machine suicide everywhere. Fry meets his new best friend in Futurama’s first episode “Space Pilot 3000”10 (1999) in the queue in front of a suicide booth (which Fry had mistaken for a phone booth): Bender the robot didn’t want to live anymore. And unlike Marvin, the Paranoid Android from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy11 (1979), who just contemplated ending it, Bender actually tried. Bender’s suicide attempt was thwarted by Fry, Marvin was all talk (He actually died of “old age,” being “thirty-seven times older than the Universe itself” due to time travel), but we do know of one beloved robot who took his own life: The T-800 Terminator at the end of Terminator 2: Judgment Day12 (1991). And it is important to make the distinction that the machines from the Terminator franchise are just that – machines! Robots, not cyborgs. And it doesn’t matter that “organic matter is used on the outside” or that the filmmakers insist on using the word. Still the best thumbs-up in movie history - while slowly disappearing into molten steel. What a way to go, Arnie!
A killing machine. Literally.
The world of Roland Deschain is filled with killers of all kinds. Some are mass murderers, but most of the mass murders are things of the past (The book’s protagonists do not witness them first hand.) or are – for lack of a better word – committed by the good guys, like Roland killing all the inhabitants of the town of Tull in the first book. Blaine’s killing of all of the remaining inhabitants of the city of Lud is the only act of murder on a massive scale (and with weapons of mass destruction!) that we as the reading audience experience in real time along with the book’s protagonists. Maybe that makes him appear even darker than The Man in Black, who brought death to so many people in so many worlds. “Blaine is a pain, and that is the truth,” as Jake Chambers wrote in his essay, “My Understanding of Truth.”
Riddle me this!
The only thing keeping the suicidal monorail Blaine from taking the protagonists out right along with the inhabitants of Lud is his love for riddles. This love or thirst, for which Eddie Dean recognizes Blaine as a (fellow) addict, gives the travelling Ka-tet13 a chance to save their lives. If they are able to best Blaine in a riddling contest their lives would be spared, but no riddle, however complicated, could be a match for a highly advanced artificial intelligence with giant memory banks and seemingly more knowledge about the gunslinger’s world(s) than he has. In the end it is actual nonsense that is able to overwhelm (and thus “kill”) Blaine. Humorous riddles, jokes, and finally a combination of two jokes that only make (a kind of) sense if you know the two kinds:
“Why did the dead baby cross the road?”
“It crossed the road because it was stapled to the chicken, you dopey fuck!”
- Eddie Dean in Wizard and Glass
Emptiness, desertion, desolation…death!
The fact that the Ka-tet, consisting of Roland Deschain, Eddie Dean, Susannah Dean, Jake Chambers, and Oy, had to stay in the hands of the diabolical Blaine even through the cliffhanger ending of The Waste Lands made everything about the confrontation worse somehow.14 But on the other hand, it provided an intense opening scene for Wizard and Glass (book five of the series), when the machine and the ghost in it were put to rest by the gunslingers. But even after his “death,” Blaine the Mono continued to haunt the readers and the protagonists (especially Jake Chambers) in Gage Park, as well as in the Emerald City.
I am afraid. That is the truth.15
Many dark and depressing worlds have been created on the screen and in the minds of readers, but to me the ancient machine at the end of the world that is waiting for the travelers to take them with it to an untimely death before the end of their quest… not because it was programmed to do so or it doesn’t mind perishing while fulfilling its duty, but it actively wants to die…that’s the worst nightmare scenario of them all.
“I’m not afraid. Not afraid of you.”
Jake Chambers to Charlie the Choo-Choo in Wizard and Glass
“I know different! I know different my dear little squint!”
Charlie the Choo-Choo (Blaine the Mono)
1. See http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0073835/
2. “Cyb(ernetic) org(anism)”. A person whose physiological functioning is aided by or dependent upon a mechanical or electronic device.
3. See http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0100502
4. First created in 1966 with many redesigns and story arcs. The latest Doctor Who episode (June 24th, 2017) also features (half-converted) Cybermen pleading “kill me.”
5. See http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0438488
6. See http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0708481
7. See http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0708880
8. See http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0069945
9. Quote: Bender to the suicide booth in the first Futurama episode.
10. See http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0584449
11. The first incarnation of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy was a BBC comedy radio broadcast. All other media, books, TV show, movie, comic books, computer games and stage shows followed.
12. See http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0103064
13. Ka-tet = “one (made) from many” or “a group of people summoned by ka.”
14. Stephen King acknowledged the fact that many readers were angry about the cliffhanger ending and that he received a lot of complaints about it at the time.
15. Jake Chambers in his essay, “My Understanding of Truth”.
Marcel Petri has written for a number of magazines and websites dealing with books, films, music, and popular culture. He has also worked as a reviewer for two radio programs in his homeland Germany; one of those programs dealt exclusively with cinematic movies. He works in corporate publishing.
Editor's Note: While the topics discussed in this editorial relate to fictional characters and storylines, we at Fanbase Press recognize that suicide affects millions of lives every day. If you or a loved one are in need of support, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24/7 at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).