Harlan Ellison’s short story ‘‘I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream’’ originally appeared in the March 1967 issue of IF: Worlds of Science Fiction. It was later collected in the book I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream, also published in 1967. The story won a Hugo Award in 1968 and quickly became a favorite story among Ellison’s readers and critics alike.
One of Ellison’s most frequently anthologized stories, ‘‘I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream’’ can be read as a cautionary tale about nuclear proliferation, as a warning about the relationship between people and computers, or as an expression of the destructive power of thwarted creativity. Perhaps more accurately, the story can be read simultaneously as all of the above.
‘‘I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream’’ is a horrifying look into a post-apocalyptic hell. The computers created by humans to fight their wars for them join together into one linked and unified computer, AM, which discovers sentience. It quickly runs data to kill all on Earth except for five survivors on whom to play out its sadistic and revenge-filled games. Although AM often appears to be godlike, it is no god, for as George Edward Slusser points out in his study Harlan Ellison: Unrepentant Harlequin (1977), AM cannot create life, although it can prevent the survivors from dying.
In the final scene, the narrator triumphs over the machine in a bittersweet victory. His murder of the other four survivors releases them from AM. However, as the sole survivor, the narrator must live horribly alone, his mind intact but his body rendered into a slimy blob without mouth or expression.
‘‘I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream’’ opens with a terrifying image of Gorrister hanging upside down with his throat slit. Almost immediately, however, Gorrister returns to the group and the reader understands that the opening image has been created by the supercomputer, AM.
Ted, the narrator, continues to describe the situation: five survivors of a nuclear holocaust have been kept alive and tormented by a sentient supercomputer that has destroyed the rest of humankind. Ted tells the reader that they have lived inside the computer for 109 years.
At the time of the story’s opening, the survivors have not eaten in five days and they decide to journey to the ice caverns. Nimdok, one of the group, is convinced that there are canned goods there. Ted then introduces the rest of the survivors to the reader. Ellen, a black woman, provides sex for the four men. Benny, a brilliant university professor in his previous life, is now an insane, ape-like creature. Nimdok has no history except that AM has named him Nimdok because it likes strange sounds. Finally, Gorrister is described as a ‘‘shouldershrugger,’’ someone who cannot make decisions or take charge.
During the journey to the ice caverns, Benny is blinded by AM. To comfort him, Gorrister tells the story of how the allied master computers of the Chinese, Russians, and Americans linked together and became sentient. In this way, the reader gradually learns the story of these people and how they came to live inside the computer, hounded and tormented by the machine. After Benny’s blinding, AM ‘‘speaks’’ to...
(The entire section is 840 words.)