I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream

June 30, 2014

Harlan Ellison is one of the most respected living authors of science fiction. However, I have not actually read that many of his stories. I decided to remedy this just a little last week, when I stumbled on one of his most famous works freely available on the World-Wide Web.

The short story, “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream,” is quite famous, and it’s available here. (There are other versions online, but beware: some of them are missing a key piece of dialogue, as well as the graphical elements that Ellison inserted as scene break markers.) It’s quite a story—a vision of with some really unusual elements. If you haven’t read it yourself, have a look; it’s not very long.

The narrative tells of the last five survivors of the human race, who are imprisoned by a defense computer network that became sentient and wiped out everyone else. It keeps the final five alive, virtually immortal, to be subjected to every kind of torture that its machine brain can devise. In some ways, that makes it a rather conventional example of the “vision of hell” genre. However, there are a lot of unusually effective elements, and there is also quite a bit of subtext to the narrating character’s account.

One thing I immediately noticed was that the evil computer’s name is AM. To me, this seemed to be a deliberate references to the AC computer series from Asimov’s “The Last Question” (which I have previously discussed). The computers in both stories were seemingly godlike, although with practically opposite temperaments toward humanity. I’m not sure whether Ellison meant this as an homage toward the older story or a jab.

After reading the “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream” a few times, I think it’s quite good, but it wasn’t quite the masterpiece I was expecting based on its reputation. Some of the scenes do not really work that effectively, in my opinion. Most jarring was context of the brief tale told by Gorrister, one of the five survivors, explaining AM’s origin. The way the history is laid out seems too brief; it doesn’t feel like a narrative that is repeated over and over again, becoming almost ritualistic. Ellison presents just enough information for the reader to understand the basics of what is going on, but on that account, it just feels too staged.

The story is also quite sexist. Or, at least, the narrator is quite sexist. To a certain extent, this is certainly intentional. One of the most important ways that AM tortures the five surviving humans is by making them become less than human, in a variety of ways. Their capacities for rationality and civility are impaired; the prisoners are made to hate each other, for the amusement of their even more hated captor. However, I cannot rationalize away the discomfort I have with the way the sexual relationships among the characters is portrayed. The one woman Ellen, whom the four male characters alternately protect and terrorize, has to satisfy them sexually through a hundred and nine years of captivity. There is a tacit assumption that this is the kind of setup the characters would fall into, when left to their base natures. (This is compounded by the fact that Ellison himself is not known for his appropriate behavior toward women.)

On the other hand, some of the tortures the characters endure are quite creative—unexpected. The captives are given filth to eat, and they eat to fill their stomachs. However, when AM prefers to keep them hungry, it can also keep them alive, even as the pangs gnaw at their innards. When AM gives them the opportunity to have some fresh meat, it comes in the form of a live roc—which AM has apparently created in its boredom, just to torment the last survivors of its creator race. The torment of hunger certainly worked on me as reader. (I once went for fifty hours without food; maybe that has something to do with it.) Maybe the other torments worked better on other readers. The opening scene, with a copy of Gorrister’s body hanging from the ceiling, did not seem that strong to me; changing the name of one of the survivors to the absurd-sounding “Nimdok” did not seem like a much to do to an otherwise ruined man.

Finally, the psychological questions raised by the story are somewhat interesting. Ted, the protagonist and ultimate hero of sorts, claims that he is the only one of the survivors who have not been subjected to neurological or behavioral modification. What seems very clear is that Ted is wrong about this—although whether that is because he also has been subjected to some kind of programming, or whether none of them have, is open to question. Ted’s paranoia is obvious, but he knows that he all-powerful entity that controls the Earth really is out to get him. He attributes Ellen’s promiscuity to a fundamental change in her character, but a reader might simply conclude that she had to deal with her situation as best she could.


One Response to “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream”

  1. “Harlan Ellison is one of the most respected living authors of science fiction. However, I have not actually read that many of his stories.”

    I find this strange. I don’t understand your frequent urge toward hyperbole–it can be a dangerous trait in a writer, leading to inaccuracy in nonfiction and possibly correlating with melodrama in fiction. Anyway. Ellison is FAMOUS (in SF circles alone), but hasn’t done notable work I’m aware of for decades, and he’s only ‘one of the most respected’, unequivocally, if you have a distinctly low definition of ‘most respected.’ The political bent of some of his work can be a bit juvenile (as can he), and while he has some awarded work in editing/compilation under his belt, I’m unaware of any notable work he’s done since, oh, 1975 aside from suing a lot, both winning and losing, and getting given a modest settlement and vague acknowledgment for some thin similarities between ‘Soldier’, his TV script, and ‘The Terminator.’ Possibly a better word for him would be ‘notorious,’ or ‘irascible’ or ‘unstable,’ i.e. the time he grabbed a SF editor’s breast onstage as she helped host a roast of him a few years back.

    It’s just, well, he’s written no stories or novels whose names I can remember, despite having read several. There’s much more remarkable prefiguring of ‘The Terminator’ in Saberhagen’s penultimate Johann Karlsen story ‘The Masque of the Red Shift’ than in ‘Soldier.’ I’m willing to accept that Ellison’s Star Trek script (delivered late and modified modestly but without creative damage [maybe improved, actually, considering its point was to preserve a better future], so as to be in keeping with the vision of the future shown in the show) was remarkable in some way for the time, but despite flattering my own intellectual biases perfectly, it frankly does not sparkle at all today. I mean ‘The City at the Edge of Forever.’

    In sum…’one of the best’…I just don’t think his body of work supports that assertion, and it doesn’t entirely seem you feel that way yourself–well, you’re right. Famous, sure, but, again, at this point its a memorable name, suits, and a history of being a very, very prickly iconoclastic personality, I think… I think you’d do better in finding good material, and keeping your own work relevant, by keeping up with contemporary material; the three trade magazines of the larger genre are still the heart of the community. Otherwise, the first Vorkosigan Saga book in which Miles appears sparkles with much more genius and fun, if you want to dip back into the past a bit. I don’t know.

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