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.