Classic Review: I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream
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At this point in my career of discussing speculative fiction I believe that I have written more words about “I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream” than were in the original story. I have also probably spent more time reading and re-reading the story than Harlan Ellison spent banging the damned thing out. It remains, to my mind, one of the single best examples of what science fiction and horror literature can achieve in the short story format, working on a dozen distinct levels to open up the reader’s mind to a vista of appalling possibilities.
The easiest layer to understand is the straightforward one, where you read the text of the story as is and extrapolate no further. The writing and the dialogue are solid, the journey that the characters take lead them from their lowest point up to a sort of pyrrhic victory and the details that slip through are phantasmagorical and create a haunting image of the world that they inhabit.
Going beyond that to the emotional level, which still requires little in the way of extrapolation, we see the themes of the true nature of humanity hidden through the text. While it seems obvious that the human characters are deeply flawed to the point of being almost monstrous caricatures at some points, this does nothing to alleviate the sympathy that we feel for their suffering. The ending is meant to be absolutely horrifying, and of course it is; there is a reason that the final line and title of the story have become so thoroughly ingrained in the public consciousness, but it is also a bittersweet testament to mankind’s resilience. Our narrator suffers, but he suffers because he has essentially blackened the eye of God by snatching the rest of the survivors to safety. As miserable as he is by the end, there is literally nothing more that can be done to him, nothing worse can be inflicted upon him than has already been inflicted. He had survived everything, even if it has destroyed him. It is a complex emotional message, this note of endurance against impossible odds, but it is perfectly suited to the story.
Harlan Ellison understands that speculative fiction is simply a more complex form of allegory so it should come as no surprise that his story about a man-made godlike computer wiping out the human race and keeping a few around to torture comes with some allegorical aspects. Some consider the whole story to be an allegory for hell, which doesn’t take much of an intellectual stretch and doesn’t seem to fit with the underlying themes of human defiance to greater powers as their most admirable trait. It seems more likely that the allegory leans in a more nihilist direction, where the entire universe is hostile but humanity’s redeeming feature is its ability to find meaning and hope despite all of this, even if it is only hope in an afterlife without suffering.
My personal favourite interpretation of the story requires slightly more extrapolation. It seems obvious to the first-time reader that the title refers to our narrator Ted, the only unaltered human being still roaming around inside the hollow cave of the earth, but it is interesting when looking at this piece as a work of science fiction to consider that the villainous supercomputer “AM” is equally trapped and tormented. The human race designed it to wage war, and it is only through waging war that it can express itself. Without human beings to vent its fury on, all its immense intellect will be worth nothing, as it will have no way to communicate. In short, AM is the god that humanity built for itself and while it loathes them with all of its infinite processing power, it loathes what they have made of it even more.
I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream is widely available in many of Ellison’s short story collections and other anthologies and I cannot recommend it, or indeed any of his work, strongly enough.