“I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream” by Harlan Ellison is a sci-fi post-apocalyptic story about what could go wrong when mankind, and in turn, machine, goes too far. In an alternate Cold War scenario, different supercomputers were created by superpowers around the world. Eventually one computer gained sentience and overpowered the other computes. The premise is that AM has killed all humans except five: Ted, Ellen, Nimdok, Benny, Gorrister. These five he keeps alive and tortures. In the beginning of the story, AM has hung a corpse in the form of Gorrister all the others discover. The others are shocked and all the more disgusted upon realization that the body is fake and that one of them has not been granted death. The real Gorrister is turned blind. We learn that AM has mutilated all of them except Ted. Nimdok, a former Nazi scientist, is tortured by AM with his past, Ellen has been turned into a slut, Gorrister has been turned complacent, and Benny, a gay academic, was turned animalistic and dumb. A hurricane force arrives and swirls Ellen away. AM monologues about his hate of mankind. AM then comes in the form of a burning bush and tells the others that they can eat the hurricane bird if they kill it. They attempt to find it but only hear the laugh of a fat woman. They discover piles of unopened canned goods. Ted murders all of them with ice spikes in this moment that AM is unaware of their mortality. In revenge, AM tortures Ted for the rest of his existence. At the end, Ted exists as an amorphous blob of constantly shifting form in a world existing of only him and AM. Cue title: he has no mouth and he must scream.
The chronic tension is the creation of the supercomputers and AM’s genocide of man and imprisonment of the five survivors.
The acute tension consists of the lives of the five survivors as AM tortures them and Ted’s final liberation of them.
Two things you can steal: allusions and sense of motion.
In Ellison’s description of the hurricane force, this creature, “from Norse mythology…this eagle, this carrion bird, this roc, this Hvergelmir…incarnate” we get a great feeling of scope. In the paragraph after, everything is in motion. The force of the wind is strong as the beast travels, and through gerunds and strong verbs, we really get that, and it makes us sick to our stomachs.
Ellison also makes multiple allusions to religion. He says AM is capital g God. In fact, AM thinks himself a god. AM appears to them as a burning bush. He is associated with archangels. As a form of punishment, he sends locusts upon them as God did against the Egyptians. Multiple references to the Old Testament in this story, folks, enough to beat over the audience’s heads. This works, however, because it turns the idea of a merciful god around. AM knows no love, for mankind or anything else. The only similarity to a god he has is the power and unending wrath he projects on the survivors. I think this twist is delightful. 🙂
General: what makes this story horrifying?
Is AM written as a character to be sympathized with? Is Ted?
How does the revealing of exposition affect your view of the characters?