Skip to main content

The Struggle for Hope in Harlan Ellison's "I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream"

Tony Caro enjoys writing about all things pop culture, especially movies and television.


What horrible, inescapable nightmares jar a panicked slumberer awake in the worst way? The real ones. When trapped in a nightmarish existence bereft of hope, the nightmare goes on and on, and the nightmare doesn't only haunt dreams. The horrible existence, both physical and psychological, represents reality. Nightmares exist chaotically in mind, while a living hell involves a nightmare come to life.

Science-fiction tales are rife with horrid visions of a nightmarish future. Are there any depictions more frightening than Harlan Ellison's Hugo Award-winning "I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream"? The short story shocked readers' sensibilities upon debuting in the March 1967 issues of IF: Worlds of Science Fiction. Anyone expecting pulp era tales of trips to far off, magical future worlds got something unexpectedly devilish.

Nightmares on a Leftover Earth: Now, Then, and Soon to Come

"I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream" takes place in earth's future. The future might be a century away, but it exists due to actions people took during the present day. Consider the work a cautionary tale. And what happens in the tale?

Named "AM," the "Allied Master Computer" represents a fusion of three computers, supercomputers employed by Russia, China, and the United States to carry out the complexities of fighting World War III. Realizing a kinship with one another, the three computers fused into one and wiped out the entire human race, except five humans. These five humans now exist solely for AM to torture. AM altered four humans' minds and left one person, Ted, mostly untouched so he could stay lucent to the situation. AM wanted him sane and healthy to experience the full effect of psychological horror.

For AM hates humans so much, it desired to keep five alive to forever carry out its angry, vengeful, and jealous rages. Poor Ted, he suffers the most because his sharp and seemingly sane mind digests the full scope of the living nightmare.

He understands the nightmare is no nightmare. It's life.


The Torturous Existence with No Escape

The short story takes place in the world that was. Civilization long ago collapsed, and no reminders remain. Cities don't lie in ruin; the structures and memories don't even appear as rubble anymore. The story takes place underground in a maze-like "housing complex" where the five humans go experience endless tormenting tasks. Starving, they seek canned food in subterranean ice caves, a journey that doesn't lead to even the slightest happy ending.

What makes "I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream" so bleak is the "established finality." AM, the supercomputer, cannot suffer defeat. The world it created won't change. The humans living in the world cannot escape. They could die, but AM knows how to prolong their life and their suffering.

Hopelessness permeates through the tale, and Ellison does not provide any Deus ex machina ending to leave the reader with an upbeat note before turning the page to the next story. The unnerving impact may have left the magazine's readers with a lingering uneasiness that broke their concentration when flipping to the next speculative tale.

Dystopia becomes psychological artistry in Ellison's story, but why read it? When inescapable hopelessness takes over a story, does the story have a purpose?

Yes, because "I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream" does offer a sliver of hope. While minuscule, downbeat, and painfully sad, the ending does evoke some hope.

The will to defeat the supercomputer exists, but nothing can defeat the new god The machine can suffer disappointment, and an attempt to disrupt and disappoint the device becomes Ted's goal. The ignoble options does give the character a new goal with meaning and purpose, along with a chance at slight revenge against AM.

As awful as things may become, hope exists as long as the survivors have some options available to them. No one would confuse a slightly-less-abysmal situation with a pleasant one, but improving the human condition, even marginally, represents progress.

In "I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream," hope springs abysmal, but still springs.

Scroll to Continue

Related Articles