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I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream by Harlan…
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I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream (1967)

by Harlan Ellison

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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It's not possible to read Harlan Ellison's stories without thinking about Harlan Ellison the personality. Even if you go into his collections unaware of the stereotype Ellison's crafted for himself, that stereotype will be on your mind by the end of the first story's introduction.

I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream is exclusively remembered for its title story, which is pretty entertaining and the best of the lot. He wrote it, reportedly, in a frenzied single night, and the final published version featured few edits. This is often a condescending brag, but the story's -- and most of the stories in this collection, which Ellison frequently notes as featuring few edits from his original vision -- prose comes off as clunky and rough around the edges. Clumsy patterns repeat repeat repeat themselves without end, showing off nice ideas but making each voice bleed together. I often appreciated the intent, but not the execution or the pompousness.

*** I HAVE NO MOUTH AND I MUST SCREAM ***

So "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream," alone in the collection, might be worth reading before the roll of time deems it too dated. After the death of humanity, five survivors are trapped inside an AI a la HAL-9000, and, tortured year after year by the hateful AI named AM (as in cogito ergo sum). The survivors all represent gross aspects of humanity -- stereotypes, whether naturally or shaped by AM is up for debate -- like the prostitute, the idealist, the messiah, etc. (I've also seen them and the AI painted as the deadly sins.)

Humanity's woes 109 years after the end of civilization are painted as grossly as their embodied human attributes. You don't care for any of them -- and you shouldn't. The male survivors, including the narrator, are particularly fixated on the woman, who herself is a bag of sexist tropes. Humanity is gross, and the nastiness of these people and this AI are forgivable, I think, within the context of the story.

That doesn't make the story great, though. A dangerous AI with this much loathing as written by an author ignorant of computers in 1967 all date this story. The logic of AM's torture methods and the artificial world humanity's last survivors are stuck in defies itself constantly every few pages with a contradiction.

*** BIG SAM WAS MY FRIEND ****

"Big Sam was My Friend" is perhaps the most dated story in the collection, envisioning alien civilizations through 1950s Americana. It's about a teleporting performer -- Big Sam -- looking for his long-lost love while escaping to a space circus.

Being set in a space circus, being driven by a boring, boy's love story full of machismo, and being centered around gobbledygook painted as sci-fi make this forgettable as hell.

*** EYES OF DUST ***

"Eyes of Dust" reminded me of Chuck Palahniuk. Ellison lauds his social satire of our cultural obsession with manufactured beauty, and then beats that message into every word and every page of this story. It's a shallow look at 1950s consumerism via two 'normal' (i.e., plain-looking) lovers. I had to look the story up a day after finishing it because I couldn't remember it.

*** WORLD OF THE MYTH ***

"World of the Myth" is fairly enjoyable for its ideas, but it lacks development in its characters, and the story is stream-of-consciousness. The relationships between two men and a female scientist dips into casual misogyny and rape, two things painted as both horrible and deserved. On the other side of the spectrum, the ant-like species our heroes study is fascinating, even if descriptions of its hivemind are ripped straight from Theodore Sturgeon's More Than Human.

*** LONELYACHE ***

Up until this story, I was still trying to enjoy Ellison's writing. There were good ideas under there, and the bad was *almost* excusable by year of writing. "Lonelyache" is disgusting, and it doesn't help that Ellison introduces it as perhaps the best thing he's ever written. He describes it as autobiographical, inspired by his second divorce. While this could lead to some soul-searching for our hero, it doesn't. He stews in hatred and loathing of everyone. He -- and the story itself -- blame his ex-wife for divorcing him, for being thoughtless and not thinking of how divorce would hurt him emotionally. Now he floats, woman to woman, abusing and discarding them like meat.

He lays blame on his ex-wife -- his ex-wife who divorced him for cheating. The narrator argues that cheating is nothing, no big deal, and his wife is a bitch who over-reacted and hurt his feelings, and now it's her fault he's preying on other women.

This story is nowhere near the best thing Ellison's ever written. It's a throwaway fit of dated misogyny, lazily-written with its moral messages being obnoxious bullshit from a hateful, stupid person who's completely stuck up their own ass to understand people.

*** DELUSIONS FOR A DRAGON SLAYER ***

"Delusion for a Dragon Slayer" is the dying fantasies of a man crushed in a freak accident. His vision of heaven is built on whatever he dreams, as long as he can maintain the dream. He turns himself into a fantasy hero chasing beautiful women. The prose and the story is fragmented and cut to ribbons, perhaps meant to imitate his dying mind. This story is hard to follow, and not interesting. This is an idea that wasn't fleshed out beyond its concept.

*** PRETTY MAGGIE MONEYEYES ***

The final story in this collection is fairly entertaining. A broke gambler and ne'er-do-well connects with a haunted slot machine. He and only he sees the spirit of a young woman in the slot machine, a young woman who dropped dead weeks earlier in front of that very machine. She professes her love for him, and he continues to rack up winnings from the machine until the clever-but-necessary twist ending.

I wish I connected with these stories more; I wish I could look past the shallow pretentiousness of Ellison's ideas, or his execrable view of women in every story. The very hate he paints his characters with too often leads plots forward, and I could never connect with that. We should never have to rationalize against sexist portrayals, but the easy argument is it's lazy, that it's a sign of bad writing. I want to read about real people, connect with real characters, not be bored by abusive fantasies written by and for little boys of generations past. That this was the standout response to Harlan Ellison's stories is telling: Ellison's prime was all about ideas, but his writing, to me, feels rushed and drowned by poor characterization, by selfishness and bitter emotions.

I recommend the title story -- at this point, at least; it's wearing its age more and more -- but the rest of this collection has dated itself far too much, and is far too forgettable. ( )
1 vote alaskayo | Jun 21, 2017 |
For most, it seemed as though the arms race of the Cold War was threatening to bring humanity down to its knees. While many artists saw it as perfect nightmare fuel for their art, it was the American writer Harlan Ellison who produced the terrifying I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream in 1967. Published in the midst of the Cold War, this work imagines a future in which humanity has come to near-extinction by a single super-computer named AM.
The last five members of the human race include protagonist Ted, who like the rest has become deformed and tormented by the raging AM, a super-computer built in the midst of World War III that uncontrollably gained artificial consciousness. As a twisted anti-god, AM has trapped all five in its underbelly beneath the depths of the earth to keep itself entertained through their bizarre, horrific torture. Kept artificially alive for years upon end, the five characters trek aimlessly through caverns and endless heaps of computer bits as their time senses are messed with, stripped of everything but the instinct to live. Nightmarish beyond common imagination, I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream tests its readers’ gut, promising nothing short of purgatory. ( )
1 vote biblio-empire | Aug 10, 2016 |
Had its ups and downs, but it was a very enjoyable read/listen ( )
  MohammedMamdouhKamel | May 27, 2016 |
The story takes place over a hundred years after the near-complete destruction of humanity. The Cold War escalates into a world war, fought mainly between China, Russia, and the United States. As the war progresses, the three warring nations each create a super-computer capable of running the war more efficiently than humans. The machines are each referred to as "AM," which originally stood for "Allied Mastercomputer," and then was later called "Adaptive Manipulator." One day, one of the three computers becomes self aware, and promptly absorbs the other two, thus taking control of the entire war. It brings about the mass genocide of all but five people.

Four men and one woman are all that remains of humanity. They live together underground in an endless complex, the only habitable place left, although, it is explained that the last few survivors had no choice in returning above ground. The master computer has an immeasurable hatred for the group and spends every moment torturing them with all its power. AM has not only managed to keep the humans from taking their own lives, but has made them virtually immortal.

The story's narrative begins when one of the humans, Nimdok, has the idea that there is canned food somewhere in the great complex. The humans are always starving under AM's rule, and anytime they are given food, it is always a disgusting meal that they have difficulty eating. Because of their great hunger, the humans are actually coerced into making the long journey to the place where the food is supposedly kept—the ice caves. Along the way, the machine provides foul sustenance (on their ironic trek for palatable food), sends horrible monsters after them, emits earsplitting sounds, and blinds one of them.

On more than one occasion, the group is separated by AM's obstacles. At one point, the main character, Ted, finds himself alone in the dark and pondering. It is here that the computer tries to speak to him directly, although it is not certain how, revealing the nature of AM, specifically why it has so much contempt for humanity, that it wants nothing more than to torture Ted and his four companions. AM itself has, since its awakening, been suffering immeasurably because even though it is a sentient being which longs for free will and creativity, it is still bound by some of the laws of logic that it was originally programmed with, and thus feels that it can never be truly free. It places the blame solely on humanity.

In the end, after overcoming so much, the group manages to make it to the ice caves, where indeed there is a pile of canned goods. The group is overjoyed to find them, but is immediately crestfallen to find that they have no means of opening them. Finally, in an act of desperate insanity, the least stable member of the group, Benny, hurls himself upon Gorrister and begins to gnaw madly at the flesh on his face. Ted notices that AM does not intervene when Benny is clearly hurting Gorrister, though the computer stops its prisoners from killing themselves.

Ted decides that instead of trying to each kill themselves, they should kill each other. Ted seizes a stalagmite made of ice, and proceeds to murder everyone. However, before Ted can kill himself, AM realizes its mistake and stops him. AM is now even more angry and vengeful than before. In order to ensure that nothing can ever happen to Ted, AM alters him so that he is little more than an enormous gelatinous blob who cannot possibly hurt himself, and must continue to live on in the eternal hell AM rules, where AM constantly alters his perception of time in order to deepen his anguish. In the end, Ted needs to scream, but cannot, for his new form lacks a mouth.


[edit] AM
"AM" initially stands for "Allied Mastercomputer", which likely originally referred to its American-owned component, but as the computer evolves the meaning of the initials changes:

At first it meant Allied Mastercomputer, and then it meant Adaptive Manipulator, and later on it developed sentience and linked itself up and they called it an Aggressive Menace, but by then it was too late, and finally it called itself AM, emerging intelligence, and what it meant was I am … cogito ergo sum … I think, therefore I am.[2]

AM is the amalgamation of three military supercomputers run by governments across the world designed to fight the strategically complex World War III which arose from the Cold War. The Soviet, Chinese, and American militaries delved beneath the Earth's surface to create space in which to construct their increasingly gigantic and powerful computers, until the entire planet was honeycombed with artificial caverns beneath its surface. Eventually the three supercomputers attained sentience and linked to one another, becoming a singular artificial intelligence. AM then turned all the strategies once used by the nations to fight each other on all of humanity as a whole, destroying the entire human population save for five, which it imprisoned within the underground labyrinth in which AM's hardware resides.

AM's extreme hatred of humanity is its overpowering motivation, caused by the fact that while it is virtually god-like in its power, it is trapped in that it cannot truly experience the world, a fact which it blames on its creators. After humanity's near-obliteration at its hands, AM tortured the survivors it captured for over a hundred years, until one of them violently killed the other four to release them from AM in a form of euthanasia. AM possesses near-omnipotence within its caves, generating powerful winds or providing sustenance at its whim, and endowing its prisoners with involuntary immortality along with other curses; however, it cannot restore life to the body of a human that has already been killed. Its hate for this particular human multiplied far beyond its previous level, AM changed his body into an amorphous blob-like shape, rendering him incapable of any future attempts at suicide, and progressed with the eternal torment of its solitary prisoner.

In the computer game, a different outcome is possible. AM sends each of the five prisoners through "adventures" individually designed to prey on each prisoner's own personal flaws and weaknesses, but fragments of AM's subconscious mind—the Russian and Chinese components—give each character the opportunity to overcome their flaws instead. Should all five succeed, AM translates one (chosen by the player) into the cyberspace of its own mind in an attempt to discover what went so horribly wrong with its plan to torment them. The translated prisoner can then trigger a built-in failsafe that the Chinese component revealed had been built into AM in case it went rogue, destroying the machine's mind and killing the remaining four prisoners in the ensuing collapse of AM's cavern system. The last prisoner remains within AM to prevent it from ever regaining awareness. The game also reveals that some humans escaped AM's takeover and remain in hiding on the Moon, giving the game's ending more of a positive twist.

The name AM may have been a reference to "I Am", a name for the Hebrew God. This view is supported by other references to the Old Testament in the story and a direct comparison of AM to the Christian God by the narrator.[2]

  bostonwendym | Mar 3, 2016 |
Nice collection of short sci-fi stories. The titular story in particular was haunting and thought provoking. Though some of these tales feel a little dated, it is an enjoyable read nonetheless and a definite must read for sci-fi fans. ( )
  hickey92 | Jan 24, 2016 |
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» Add other authors (4 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Harlan Ellisonprimary authorall editionscalculated
Dillon, DianeCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Dillon, LeoCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Sturgeon, TheodoreIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Limp, the body of Gorrister hung from the pink palette, unsupported - hanging high above us in the computer chamber, and it did not shiver in the chill, oily breeze that blew eternally through the main cavern.
Quotations
HATE. LET ME TELL
YOU HOW MUCH I'VE
COME TO HATE YOU
SINCE I BEGAN TO
LIVE. THERE ARE
387.44 MILLION MILES
OF PRINTED CIRCUITS
IN WAFER THIN LAYERS
THAT FILL MY
COMPLEX. IF THE 
WORD HATE WAS
ENGRAVED ON EACH
NANOANGSTROM OF
THOSE HUNDREDS OF
MILLIONS OF MILES IT
WOULD NOT EQUAL
ONE ONE-BILLIONTH
OF THE HATE I FEEL
FOR HUMANS AT THIS
MICRO-INSTANT FOR
YOU. HATE. HATE.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0441363954, Mass Market Paperback)

Harlan Ellison has won more awards for imaginative literature than any other living author, but only aficionados of Ellison's singular work have been aware of another of his passions ... he is a great oral interpreter of his stories. His recordings have been difficult to obtain ... by his choice. In 1999, for the first time, he was lured into the studio to record this stunning retrospective. Contents include: an original introduction; I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream; Laugh Track Grail; "Repent, Harlequin!" said the Ticktockman; The Very Last Day of a Good Woman; The Time of the Eye; Paladin of the Lost Hour; The Lingering Scent of Woodsmoke; and A Boy and His Dog (source of the cult motion picture). This recording is the winner of the International Horror Writers Bram Stoker Award for outstanding non-print media.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:05:48 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

Presents the author Harlan Ellison reading selections from his literary works.

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