“I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” continues to thrill readers

Hope Brusstar, Copy Editor

Perhaps one of the most digging questions which comes forth upon reading Harlan Ellison’s short story “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” is “what did Ellison mean by this?” Clearly intended not only to stretch the imagination but also to stimulate contemplation, the single-draft story written in just one night in 1966 has continued to thrill readers for decades.

Ellison is well known for his gripping short stories, works so unique that they were categorized in a genre described as science fiction, but formally called speculative fiction. However, “I Have No Mouth” is his most famous piece, and it received a well-deserved Hugo Award in 1988.

The story has one setting: the interior of a massive supercomputer, one so advanced that it seems to have attained consciousness and a personality. It was invented as the ultimate war machine by the leading countries of one final, devastating world war: the United States, China and Russia. After civilization followed through with its predictable, mutually assured destruction, the computer was left to integrate itself into one being.

From what the story describes, it seems to have built up its subterranean structure enough to dominate much of the Earth’s crust. It calls itself AM after Descartes’ famous “I think, therefore I am.” This quotation is sprinkled through the story in the form of images of punchcode tape messages which divide its parts. AM is responsible for eliminating all that remains of humanity, except for five unlucky chosen ones. They are kept alive in the computer’s dungeon-like bowels for 109 years for one purpose: to be AM’s playthings.

Having been created without anything to live for, without creativity, and seemingly without the ability to love, all that AM knows is how to destroy and how to hate. As he states over and over in the story, he loathes humanity with every fiber of his being, and he takes it out on the poor handful of people trapped in his chambers.

If that introduction seemed gruesome, the story itself is certainly tenfold more so. Ellison shirks no opportunity to chill the reader, describing excruciating detail after detail, hooking the reader in the same way that onlookers might be lured by a devastating car wreck. What keeps the pages turning is the compelling plot; exploration of AM’s hell-world; and descriptions of the characters, their flaws, and how being kept alive by AM has drastically changed them. AM takes enjoyment in their pain. He is their god and he is their destruction.

Does the story have a happy ending? Of sorts. But the lasting effects of this short-lived yet seemingly endless glimpse into Ellison’s abyssal imagination are considerable. First and most obvious is the reader’s immediate horror upon reading the first few pages.

Second is the the pull of curiosity: the desire to understand what this story implies about the dawn of artificial intelligence, human nature, the perseverance of the human spirit, the personality changes experienced by those in great misery, the limits of human aggression and warfare, and much, much more. Readers will ruminate on the implications of this story for far longer than it takes them to read it.

As master storyteller Neil Gaiman said, “Short stories are tiny windows into other worlds and other minds and other dreams. They are journeys you can make to the far side of the universe and still be back in time for dinner.” This account is more than true for “I Have No Mouth.”

The story can be found online with a quick search, but there are other ways to enjoy its material. Youtube videos documenting the BBC radio play and Harlan Ellison’s own audio rendition of the story are both available online. Avid fans can also find a very retro point-and-click adventure adaptation (in which Ellison voices AM) on PC game platforms such as Steam for just a few dollars.

Ellison has written numerous other pieces published in a plethora of volumes including his popular “Deathbird Stories” anthology and a “Dream Corridor” comic book series. New readers will find themselves engrossed in this captivating, unique genre of speculative fiction, and thrilled to partake in further exploration of Ellison’s unfathomable mind.