Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 925

The story ‘‘I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream’’ originally appeared in IF: Worlds of Science Fiction in March 1967 before appearing as the title story of the collection I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream . The story was well received by critics and readers alike, garnering...

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The story ‘‘I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream’’ originally appeared in IF: Worlds of Science Fiction in March 1967 before appearing as the title story of the collection I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream. The story was well received by critics and readers alike, garnering a Hugo Award in 1968. Because of its social commentary and its cultural significance, the story is taught at many universities and colleges.

A number of critics have developed important readings of the story. George Edgar Slusser released a book-length study of Ellison’s work in 1977, Harlan Ellison: Unrepentant Harlequin, in which he spends considerable time with the story. Slusser’s treatment of the story is largely plot summary. However, Slusser does develop an interesting insight into the narrator Ted. Slusser argues that Ted is the ‘‘thinker’’ among the survivors. Further, it is Ted who ‘‘decides death is the only way out, and executes his decree.’’ In so doing, Ted becomes one with AM. Slusser further suggests that it is unclear whether Ted is motivated by ‘‘misguided love or disguised hate.’’ Such reasoning throws into doubt the reliability of the narrator. Should readers sympathize with Ted for his heroic decision to render himself alone with AM? Or should they loathe him for the murder of his compatriots?

In 1983 Robert E. Myers edited a collection of essays titled The Intersection of Science and Philosophy: Critical Studies. The collection demonstrates the way that science fiction can offer illustration of philosophical positions. In the introduction to the collection, Myers argues,

The intersection of science fiction and philosophy begins with the ideas and concepts within science fiction that are philosophically interesting in the sense that they initiate thought and critical examination of the concepts, basic assumptions, and consequences that follow from them.

This description defines some of Ellison’s best work. Later in the book, critic Joann P. Cobb, in a chapter called ‘‘Medium and Message in Ellison’s ‘I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream’’’ closely examines this intersection.

Drawing on philosopher Marshall McLuhan’s famous formulation that ‘‘the medium is the message,’’ Cobb argues that ‘‘Ellison contrasts the abstract language of the computer with the concrete, sensory experience of the humans and illustrates the surrender of human purpose and value that is inherent in contemporary attitudes toward technological progress.’’ Cobb’s point of interest in the story is the intermittent computer tapes that typographically render AM’s voice. The reader is unable to decipher these intrusions into the text, and thus must depend on the narrator for translation. As Cobb argues, however, Ted is not a reliable narrator. She concludes that the story is a cautionary tale, designed to remind readers of the ‘‘harrowing consequences of the surrender of human purpose and freedom.’’

In a short essay from Clockwork Worlds: Mechanized Environments in SF (1983), Charles Sullivan compares Ellison to another science fiction icon of the 1960s, Robert A. Heinlein. Specifically, Sullivan examines Ellison’s ‘‘I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream’’ and Heinlein’s The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, tracing the ways that the two authors build their fictional machines. Sullivan argues that there are two paradigms about machines present in these works, one positive, one negative. There are, Sullivan writes, ‘‘machines that hinder man (and his progress) and machines that help.’’ Clearly, Ellison’s work reflects the former paradigm. Sullivan closes by arguing that the two computers in these stories are ‘‘paradigms rather than symbols’’ because they are a ‘‘representation of what people hope or fear computers will become.’’

In an interesting essay, ‘‘Mythic Hells in Ellison’s Science Fiction,’’ critic Joseph Francavilla argues that Ellison’s heroes, including the narrator Ted, offer a ‘‘radical’’ departure from the hero as described by Joseph Campbell in his classic The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Francavilla further demonstrates how Ellison both uses and subverts other mythic constructions of hell, most notably from the Prometheus legend. He also details the similarities between AM and the Old Testament god. For Francavilla, Ellison’s use of biblical imagery is potent, particularly since there is no sense that the post-holocaust world will rebuild itself. Rather, the biblical imagery contributes to a timelessness in Ellison’s story that points toward myth rather than the historicity of traditional Christianity. Francavilla asserts that the end of the story locks Ted in an ‘‘eternal struggle’’ between the ‘‘utterly irreconcilable forces.’’ Such construction is, as Francavilla points out, Manichean in origin. As a vision of the future, it suggests a world where resolution and redemption are impossible.

Another critic who draws on biblical imagery and the construction of god is Darren Harris-Fain. In his journal article, ‘‘Created in the Image of God: The Narrator and the Computer in Harlan Ellison’s ‘I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream,’’’ Harris- Fain focuses on the religious nature of the narrator, Ted. In addition to tracing the religious references found in the various texts of the story, Harris-Fain also locates allusions to John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress and the nod to H. G. Well’s classic story, ‘‘The Country of the Blind.’’ Perhaps most notably, Harris-Fain identifies Ted with Christ, suggesting that his murder of his fellow survivors is an act of supreme love. He argues that this act demonstrates the ‘‘potential of the human spirit.’’ Clearly, Harris- Fain’s position sets him apart from other reviewers and critics who see the story as one without hope. For this critic, at least, Ellison’s vision of a possible future, while bleak, still holds out remnants of human dignity.

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