What’s the most horrifying image or creature you can imagine? Something so terrifying, disgusting, and world altering that you would go a little bit mad just from witnessing it and being forced to recognize that it exists. For many, including horror author H.P. Lovecraft, this concept of madness has an alien flair, and sometimes included the horror of artificial intelligence overtaking the creator.
At the Mountains of Madness pits two intrepid American explorers up against the leftovers of an ancient civilization millions of years old. A shell of a city deep in the unexplored wastes of central Antarctica. A ring of mountains taller than the Himalayas. And buried there, alien creatures that have been decimated by their own creations. The Shoggoths. Protoplasmic ooze capable of reshaping it’s flesh into any limb, mouth, or eyeball it needs before assimilating the new organ back into the goo. Huge as an elephant, and pushing through corridors as fast as a man can run. Still images of these creatures don’t do the creature justice for the ever-shifting gross bodies they inhabit.
While it may be hard to really separate these beasts from the Elder Things that built the city in the mountains, Shoggoths are actually an artificially intelligent creature that grew too strong and smart for the masters to control.
In AI stories it is almost a cliché for the robot to develop more intelligence and emotions than the creator intended. In Lovecraft’s novella, it feels far more believable as the Shoggoths are biological entities; able to evolve intelligence over the millions of years they spent as hypnotic thralls to the Elder Things. We often scoff at the trope in computerized AI stories, but it hints at the same fundamental human fear we see in At the Mountains of Madness; that our servants, slaves, and workers will get too powerful for us to control, and the end of our civilization will come about.
In the Shoggoths I see the working class growing dissatisfied being the lowest rung of society and parallels to Red Scare fears of Communism.
Over the eons, these creatures grew from simple mindless slave creatures controlled by hypnosis and mind control to intelligent beasts that evolved the ability to speak with their masters and only reluctantly followed their commands. This is similar in the progression of workers from peasants bound by the religiously influenced commands that it is their place to work the land, to the modern world of unions forcing employers to concede to some demands. The final step that happens in At the Mountains of Madness is the communist revolution. The Shoggoths overthrow their masters, only to leave a shell of a once great civilization in their wake.
Lovecraft created a fascinating artificial beast and managed to show how the worker, a constructed identity for a class of mankind, could just as easily grow out of the boundaries the masters wished to impose.
Even if computerized AI should stay more closely in-line with original programming if the writer wants to be more scientifically accurate, it shows a deep-seated fear in the society of our tools growing too powerful to control. The fact that it has popped up so often shows a real issue people have with the nebulous nature of our capitalist structure, Lovecraft included. And that’s what great horror and great science fiction do. It forces us to see how our normally mundane world without sights of insanity-inducing beasts is still full of struggle, and potentially full of revolution inducing oppression.
If all of that sounds fascinating, I implore you to give this novella a look.