(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

This story carries the theme of man's subjugation to his own systems to a nightmarish conclusion. The warring nations of the world had each created giant computers, called AMs, the purpose of which was to destroy their enemies. Unfortunately, however, these computers had linked themselves into one monstrous AM, which systematically used its "killing data" to wipe out all but five of the entire human race. AM now imprisons these five wretches, four men and a woman, in its belly and tortures them repeatedly in bizarre and humiliating ways. According to the narrator, Ted, the youngest of the five, the only way out is death but AM would certainly prevent any suicides,

A major Ellison theme, vengeance, is also graphically depicted in "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream." Even Ellison's early fiction, such as the violent street gang stories in The Deadly Streets (1958), are centrally concerned with revenge. These stories seem to celebrate gang "justice," and even more morbid variations on the revenge theme occur in "Rat Hater," a grotesque version of Poe's "Cask of Amontillado," in which a wounded victim is left in a warehouse to be devoured by rats. In "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream," however, as in many of the later works, revenge appears to be the projection of a fundamentally deformed human consciousness. AM's hideous revenge upon the human race is traceable directly to those who created it. When AM punishes the narrator for killing the others by...

(The entire section is 284 words.)


(Short Stories for Students)

Individual versus Machine
Any number of critics have noted that one of Ellison’s favorite themes is the relationship between humans and the machines they create. Certainly, ‘‘I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream’’ explores what happens when people create machines ‘‘because our time was badly spent.’’ Like other dystopian writers of the 1950s and 1960s, Ellison extrapolated trends he saw in his own culture and carried them to their extreme conclusions in an imaginary future he envisioned. Unlike a utopia (an imaginary, ideal world), a dystopia is a form of literature that describes a future, imaginary world that is far from ideal. In a dystopia, current trends are carried out to their most horrifying conclusions.

In ‘‘I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream,’’ humans have created computers as weapons of mass destruction. Although they have given the computers the ability to reason and think, they have not given the computers a sense of ethics or values. Consequently, when the computers link with each other, thus magnifying their ability to reason and think, the resulting supercomputer awakes into sentience. Unfortunately, the lack of ethics, or what some might term ‘‘soul,’’ results in a machine that is virulent in its rage against its human creators. The machine finds itself in a world not of its own making with almost unlimited power, but without the ability to create life or move about the universe. In many ways, AM considers itself to be trapped within its own self-awareness.

AM is thus a machine without a purpose. Once it has killed its creators, there is nothing left for it to do. Without purpose, without spirituality, without soul, the machine can only play and replay endless revenge upon the creatures in its power....

(The entire section is 730 words.)