The Plot

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The seven stories in I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream , originally published in science-fiction and mens magazines between 1958 and 1967, include both science fiction and fantasy. They are united by Harlan Ellisons introductions for each of the stories, in which he discusses their personal significance to...

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The seven stories in I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream, originally published in science-fiction and mens magazines between 1958 and 1967, include both science fiction and fantasy. They are united by Harlan Ellisons introductions for each of the stories, in which he discusses their personal significance to him, as well as by their focus on powerful emotions. In each story, people are confronted with their deepest fears or desires.

“I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream” is narrated by Ted, one of five people trapped below the surface of the earth in a sentient computer called AM. The computer has taken over the world and killed everyone except these five people. Programmed to wage war, the nearly omnipotent AM has kept these five alive and tortured them for 109 years. Ted relates their brutal sufferings, revealing in the process his extreme paranoia. He is capable of love for Ellen, the only woman in the group, and of self-sacrifice. When the group arrives at an ice cavern in search of food, he seizes a moment of confusion to initiate a mercy killing of the others. In rage, the computer reduces Ted to a hideous blob, able to be tortured for eternity and to think but not to act. In his reflections, Ted hopes he did the right thing.

The narrator of “Big Sam Was My Friend” is also tested but falls short. A member of an intergalactic circus, Johnny Lee befriends a teleporter named Sam, who believes that heaven is in space and is looking for a dead girl he loved on Earth. When the circus performs on Giuliu II, its employees are invited to a royal ceremony, which to their surprise involves a virgin sacrifice. Sam mistakenly thinks the girl to be sacrificed is his lost love and rescues her, offending their host. He agrees to take the girls place. The narrator bitterly notes how neither he nor anyone else tried to prevent Johnny Lees sacrifice.

In “World of the Myth,” three explorers crash on an alien world and encounter antlike beings that project the characters inner thoughts. Although the protagonist feels weak throughout the story, his rival cannot face his true self and commits suicide.

The fantasy stories also deal with characters facing their true selves. In “Lonelyache,” a philanderer recently separated from his wife watches a threatening black beast take shape and grow in his living room as he engages in meaningless one-night stands. He finally commits suicide in a combination of courage and despair. In “Delusion for a Dragon Slayer,” the protagonist, shortly before being crushed by a wrecking ball, gets the opportunity to earn the heaven of his dreams. Transformed from a mild-mannered man into a Teutonic demigod, he sails through a phantasmagoric landscape and learns from a wizard that he must defeat a demon and win the love of a fair maiden. In his overconfidence, he wrecks his ship, killing his crew; and in his cowardice he allows the demon to take the maiden and then slays it from behind. Having fallen short, he loses his chance at heaven.

Other stories in the volume are allegorical. “Eyes of Dust” is set on a planet where everything is beautiful except a couple who defy the law to produce a hideous son with the soul of a prophet. The authorities kill the couple and destroy the son, but in doing so they mar the beauty of their world. Set in Las Vegas, “Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes” involves a man, down on his luck, who plays a slot machine possessed by a woman. Manipulating his need for love, she manages to free her own soul while trapping his in the machine.

Historical Context

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The Cold War
From the end of World War II through the mid- 1980s, the world endured a period commonly known as ‘‘The Cold War,’’ a standoff between nuclear superpowers which constantly threatened each other with mutual destruction. During this time, both the United States and the former Soviet Union built up huge arsenals of nuclear weapons aimed at each other. It was clear that if the weapons were ever unleashed, all life on Earth would end. Consequently, although there were many ‘‘brush fire’’ wars in remote corners of the globe, there was not a world war of the scope of either World War I or World War II. Nevertheless, there was a great deal of posturing and mutual fear. Many young people growing up during this time were convinced that their world would end in a nuclear firestorm.

The Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 did nothing to allay fears. When the Americans discovered that the Soviets were installing nuclear missiles in Cuba, just ninety miles off the Florida coast, the world was thrown into near panic. For seven days President John F. Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev played a high-stakes game, each waiting for the other to blink, their fingers poised above the nuclear triggers that would send the world into oblivion. Only at the last possible moment did the Soviets recall their ships and begin dismantling the missile site. This close call convinced many that Doomsday was at hand.

Concurrently, the technology boom was in its infancy. During the time this story was written, the physical size of computers began shrinking as the capacity of computers increased. Further, the military began to rely on computers to help fly planes and control bombs. Indeed, computers controlled the American nuclear arsenal, a fact that created cultural anxiety as evidenced by the movies and best-sellers of the time. The greatest nightmare was that a computer gone amok would launch the world into World War III, a war no one would win. The 1962 bestseller Fail-Safe by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler, and the subsequent 1964 movie version, described just such a war, as did the 1964 Stanley Kubrick black comedy, Dr. Strangelove. Indeed, it appears that American fear of technology and nuclear war nearly equaled American fear of communism during the Cold War years.

The Vietnam War
At the height of the Cold War and American fear of communism, a series of events took place that led to American involvement in the Vietnam War. The French defeat in the 1954 battle of Dien Bien Phu in Vietnam opened a vacuum of power in this southeast Asian country—a vacuum quickly filled by the communist nationalists led by Ho Chi Minh. American presidents from Eisenhower to Nixon found themselves enmeshed in the struggle to avoid a communist Vietnam. By 1967, the date of the publication of ‘‘I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream,’’ American military involvement in Vietnam had mushroomed into a full-scale war. The war, however, was filled with ambiguity. In the early 1960s, American participation in the war was sold to the public on the basis of the ‘‘domino theory’’—if Vietnam fell to the communists, then all of Southeast Asia would fall, followed by the rest of the world. By 1967, however, the American public was split in its opinion of the war. In the United States, protest marches and the burning of draft cards came to be regular occurrences as many citizens doubted the morality and cost of U.S. involvement.

The public unrest and upheaval, coupled with the high-tech military might unleashed on the Vietnamese and the evidence of Soviet and Chinese involvement with the North Vietnamese further contributed to the cultural anxiety noted above. Many Americans saw the war and the social crisis it precipitated as evidence that the United States was entering its last days.

The Space Race
Competition with the former Soviet Union took on yet another face during the 1960s. Early in the decade, President Kennedy vowed to put a man on the moon by the close of the decade in response to the 1957 Soviet launch of an unmanned satellite, Sputnik. Also in response to Sputnik, the U. S. government put American schools on notice that they must prepare students in math and science in order to meet the Soviet threat of dominance in outer space. The U. S. space program grew rapidly during the 1960s. While it was a program born out of fear of Soviet domination, the program still captured the hearts and minds of Americans. The race for the moon and beyond became an expression of American optimism, that it might be possible to spread the American way of life out into the galaxy. Moreover, by looking out into space, Americans could look away from Vietnam. When Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon’s surface in 1969, for a few moments, the American people were united in their admiration for space and technology.

Not surprisingly, science fiction enjoyed a resurgence of popularity at this time. America’s fascination with the space race is evident in the number of books published by Ellison, Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Ben Bova, and others during the 1960s. During this decade, Gene Rodenberry began the perennially popular television series, Star Trek, a series to which Ellison contributed a number of scripts. An essentially optimistic expression of American individualism, courage, and commitment to democracy, Star Trek and its later television incarnations, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and Star Trek: Voyager, as well as a host of movies and sequels devoted to the legend, provided an ongoing cultural barometer of values and philosophy. The influence the 1960s series had on the American public was such that the first space shuttle launched was named ‘‘Enterprise,’’ the name of the spacecraft in Star Trek.

Literary Style

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Point of View
Ellison has provided ‘‘I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream’’ with a limited, first-person narrator. Thus, all of the events of the story must be filtered through the mind and voice of Ted, one of the humans trapped by the computer AM. Because everything is told from the ‘‘I’’ perspective, the reader cannot ascertain what other characters are thinking or their motives for what they do. The reader can only know what the first-person narrator provides.

There are certain advantages to the use of a first-person narrator. In the first place, the use of the first-person pronoun makes the story seem immediate and compelling. It is as if a real person is telling the story directly to the reader, almost as if the narrator and the reader are engaged in a meaningful conversation. In addition, the use of the first-person encourages the reader to trust the account. Thus, when the narrator reports that there is a hurricane created by a big bird, the reader believes him. However, Ellison’s story is fraught with ambiguities and layers. The reader is trapped within the narrator’s mind, just as the narrator is trapped within AM. Consequently, there is no objective outside source with which the reader can ground him- or herself. Although what Ted tells the reader seems to be true, there is no way for the reader to judge this, just as there is no way for Ted to judge the reality of his surroundings. Thus the reading experience becomes akin to Ted’s living experience.

Science Fiction
Science fiction as a genre had its roots with H. G. Wells during the nineteenth century. Since that time, readers and writers alike have found science fiction to be a compelling and attractive mode of storytelling. It allows a writer to make comments on contemporary society by creating and critiquing a society of the future. Although the popularity of science fiction has waxed and waned over the years, it continues to hold an important position in American literature and film.

To be considered science fiction, a story generally needs to have at its core some reference to science or technology, and it needs to be fiction, or imaginary. Indeed, nearly all science fiction begins with the question ‘‘What if?’’ and goes from there. Some science fiction writers, including Ellison, prefer to call their work ‘‘speculative fiction,’’ emphasizing that their stories take some feature of contemporary life and extend this feature into the future.

Nevertheless, ‘‘I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream’’ is in many ways a classic science fiction story. It begins with a premise that has its roots in the growth of technology during the 1960s, the premise that putting supercomputers in communication with each other and in charge of defense will lead to Armageddon. In the 1960s, the potential of linked computer systems was still only potential; however, Ellison and others hypothesized about what such computers could create.

Further, the story explores the ground between humans and machines, popular territory for writers and filmmakers alike. In Ellison’s own time, Isaac Asimov created a series of very popular robotic novels that took as their subject the relationship between people and their robotic creations. More recently, the writers of Star Trek: The Next Generation, a popular television series, created the Borg, a race of part-human/part-machine beings. Further, in movies such as The Matrix, the role of supercomputers in control of everyday life is explored.

Ellison’s science fiction or speculative fiction continues to speak to audiences years after its initial publication. This story in particular seems destined to haunt readers who see in the growth of the Internet a potentially lethal connection between humans and machines.

Social Concerns

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"'Repent, Harlequin' Said the Ticktockman" delivers an almost whimsical warning about dangerous tendencies in society, but in his second Hugo-Award winning story, "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream," Ellison describes a nightmarish future in which man has literally become the slave of his own creations. However, unlike its predecessor "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream" is a more problematic story, partly because Ellison creates a more

I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream complex narrator-protagonist who gives a warped view of a horrifying world. The pain one sees in "'Repent, Harlequin' Said the Ticktockman" is mitigated by a trace of optimism, but the world of "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream" is one of total despair.

Compare and Contrast

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1960s: The military use of technology grows exponentially during the Vietnam War. Precision bombing, napalm, and night vision are all introduced, and the American military dependes on its machines to wage war.

1990s: The Gulf War, waged during the closing decade of the twentieth century, demonstrates the growth of American war technology with stealth bombers and ‘‘surgical’’ bombing of military sites.

1960s: Computers become an increasingly important part of American military defense and American life. This is the age of so-called supercomputers that are able to handle a nearly incomprehensible amount of information. It is the first time computers are linked together to increase their power.

Today: Computers have found their way into nearly every American home. The birth of the Internet as well as the development of Webbrowsing technology allows for individual personal computers to be linked to computers all over the globe.

1960s: Locked into a policy of mutual mass destruction as the only deterrence to war, the United States and the Soviet Union stockpile nuclear weapons.

Today: The United States leads the call for the disarming of nuclear warheads throughout the world.

1960s: The Cold War reaches its height as the United States and the Soviet Union face off in the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. Fear of the Soviets as a nuclear power continues into the coming decades.

Today: The breakup of the Soviet Union during the closing decade of the twentieth century removes the fear of Russian nuclear might. However, there is widespread fear of biological and chemical warfare as well as nuclear attack by terrorists who could potentially gain control of the Russian nuclear arsenal.

1960s: Books and films such as Fail-Safe, On the Beach, and Dr. Strangelove reflect cultural anxiety over the growth of nuclear arms and the concurrent growth of technology.

Today: Films such as The Matrix and Enemy of the State demonstrate continuing fear of the pervasiveness of computer technology.

Adaptations

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In 1996, the publisher Cyberdreams brought forth a computer game version of "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream."Computer Gaming World gave it a rave review, declaring that the game has an "Outstanding story which breaks free from every overused adventure game device. It really is Ellison" (no. 140, March 1996: 118, 127). The game player must guide the story's five human characters through their personal nightmares which have been made into individual hells. Varying from the short story, the game seems to allow for a possible positive ending, although it is a dark work that intense and not for the faint of heart or anyone who gets nightmares easily. Harlan Ellison not only participated in the creation of the game, he is featured in it as the voice of AM.

Media Adaptations

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‘‘I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream’’ was recorded on audiocassette in October 1999 by NewStar Media. The short story was also rendered into a computer game on CD-ROM for Macintosh or PC computers in 1995 by Cyberdreams of Calabasas, California. A companion guide, I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream: The Official Strategy Guide (1995), was written by Mel Odom and Harlan Ellison and published by Prima Publishing.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources
Cobb, Joann P., ‘‘Medium and Message in Ellison’s ‘I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream,’’’ in The Intersection of Science Fiction and Philosophy: Critical Studies, edited by Robert E. Myers, Greenwood Press, 1983, pp. 159–67.

Dillingham, Thomas F., ‘‘Harlan Ellison,’’ in Dictionary of Literary Biography,Vol. 8: Twentieth-Century American Science Fiction Writers, edited by David Cowart and Thomas L. Wyner, Gale Research, 1981, pp. 161–69.

Dowling, Terry, with Richard Delap and Gil Lamont, eds., The Essential Ellison: A 50 Year Retrospective, rev. ed., Morpheus International, 2000.

Francavilla, Joseph, ‘‘Mythic Hells in Harlan Ellison’s Science Fiction,’’ in Phoenix from the Ashes: The Literature of the Remade World, edited by Carl B. Yoke, Greenwood Press, 1987, pp. 157–64.

Harris-Fain, Darren, ‘‘Created in the Image of God: The Narrator and the Computer in Harlan Ellison’s ‘I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream,’’’ in Extrapolation, Vol. 32, No. 2, Summer 1991, pp. 143–55.

Myers, Robert E., ‘‘Introduction,’’ in The Intersection of Science Fiction and Philosophy: Critical Studies, Greenwood Press, 1983, pp. 159–67.

Slusser, George Edgar, Harlan Ellison: Unrepentant Harlequin, The Borgo Press, 1977.

Sullivan, Charles W., ‘‘Harlan Ellison and Robert A. Heinlein: The Paradigm Makers,’’ in Clockwork Worlds: Mechanized Environments in SF, edited by Richard D. Erlich and Thomas P. Dunn, Greenwood Press, 1983, pp. 97–103.

Further Reading
Dillingham, Thomas F., ‘‘Harlan Ellison,’’ in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 8: Twentieth-Century American Science Fiction Writers, edited by David Cowart and Thomas L. Wyner, Gale Research, 1981, pp. 161–69. Dillingham gives an excellent overview of Ellison’s major works and includes a helpful bibliography.

Dowling, Terry, with Richard Delap and Gil Lamont, eds., The Essential Ellison: A 50-Year Retrospective, rev. ed., Morpheus International, 2000. This collection of most of Ellison’s major works includes short stories, essays, interviews, and screenplays.

Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Vol. 53, July 1977. The entire issue of this science fiction standard is dedicated to Harlan Ellison.

Slusser, George Edgar, Harlan Ellison: Unrepentant Harlequin, The Borgo Press, 1977. Slusser’s book-length study of Ellison’s work remains a classic critical work.

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