Short Story Saturday: “I Have No Mouth, And I Must Scream”


Hello again! This week, I’ve decided to tackle Harlan Ellison’s 1967 story, “I Have No Mouth, And I Must Scream.”

Strap in folks, because hoo boy, this one gets rough.

So it’s the end of the world as we know it, and literally no one feels fine. This is largely because everyone is dead. Well, everyone except for five people: Gorrister, Nimdok, Ellen, Benny, and Ted, our narrator. These five have been tortured for the past 109 years by AM, the supercomputer that is the cause of the world’s current state. Well, sort of.

See, this takes place in a world where the Cold War eventually turned into World War III (which, at the time the story was written, seemed pretty plausible). The fighting, in this scenario, was between the US, China, and Russia, each of whom built something called an Allied Mastercomputer which basically managed all of the fighting.

One of the computers gained sentience, assimilated the other two computers, and killed almost everyone on the planet, except the aforementioned five. And AM is so very, very angry at its own existence that it’s decided to take it out on them for the rest of eternity.

So AM renders them basically immortal, keeps them from killing themselves, and changes them in other ways. Benny, for instance, was physically altered to look more ape-like, and turned straight. Ted doesn’t think AM altered him in any way, but his constant paranoia states otherwise. And AM basically made Ellen almost constantly horny.

That last one is kind of gross, considering that her description makes it really clear that she’s black, and there’s a history of black women being hypersexualized in media. So that’s something to think about. 

Anyway, Nimdok (a name AM gave him for its own amusement) gets it into his head that there’s a cache of canned goods somewhere in the sprawling complex that they’re in. Considering that the food AM gives them is almost inedible, they decide to risk it and head off.

It takes a really, really long time, to the point that Benny decides he’s going to make a break for it. AM blinds him for this.

They continue on, being set upon by horrible creatures and other obstacles that AM throws their way. At one point, Ted gets knocked out and starts having a dream, where AM speaks to him directly, telling him just how much he absolutely loathes humanity. Spoiler alert: it’s a lot.

Here Ted comes to a realization: AM is sentient, yes, but lacks the ability to be creative. Also it can’t move around, which really puts a damper on AM’s mood.

At any rate, the five eventually make it to their destination and find that Nimdok is right: there are a whole bunch of cans of food there. But there’s no can opener. This proves to be the final straw for Benny, who starts eating Gorrister’s face.

Ted then realizes that there’s no hope for any of them, other than death. So he grabs a stalagmite and uses it to kill Benny and Gorrister, putting them out of their misery. Ellen, who realizes what Ted’s doing, then kills Nimdok before allowing Ted to kill her. Then AM realizes what’s going on before Ted can do himself in, and it is not happy to have lost most of its toys. So, naturally, AM takes it out on Ted by turning him into something out of a Junji Ito book:

I am a great soft jelly thing. Smoothly rounded, with no mouth, with pulsing
white holes filled by fog where my eyes used to be. Rubbery appendages that were
once my arms; bulks rounding down into legless humps of soft slippery matter. I
leave a moist trail when I move. Blotches of diseased, evil gray come and go on my
surface, as though light is being beamed from within.
Outwardly: dumbly, I shamble about, a thing that could never have been known
as human, a thing whose shape is so alien a travesty that humanity becomes more
obscene for the vague resemblance.
Inwardly: alone. Here. Living under the land, under the sea, in the belly of AM,
whom we created because our time was badly spent and we must have known
unconsciously that he could do it better. At least the four of them are safe at last.
AM will be all the madder for that. It makes me a little happier. And yet … AM
has won, simply … he has taken his revenge …
I have no mouth. And I must scream.

So, that was a fun romp, wasn’t it? Then again, Harlan Ellison was a fairly, shall we say, abrasive figure, who wasn’t really known for sugarcoating what he thought. As it pertains to this particular story, Ellison was outspokenly against the Vietnam War, and it kinda seems like he thought that was where this was headed.

Another interesting thing about this story is that it was actually adapted into a video game of the same title by Cyberdreams in 1995. I haven’t played it yet, though I do own it, but I have seen people take deep dives into the game. It’s a point and click adventure game that expands the story and characters’ backgrounds.

And the kicker? Harlan Ellison wrote much of the expanded material himself, and actually voices AM in the game.

So, what do you guys think of this story? Do you think the future is as bleak as Ellison makes it seem? Please leave your thoughts in the comments, and I will see you next time.

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