I have no Mouth and I must Scream: Harlan Ellison

DreamCorridor1-B_600px– Review by Paul Ewbank-

Since this website exclusively covers end-of-the-world type media I get the feeling a lot of the stuff we talk about is going to be pretty jolly depressing. There isn’t much scope for life to get any better after the world has already been destroyed by zombies or taken over by Big Brother or whatever, so there’s only one way it can go, really, and you’d be surprised how much worse things can get from a starting point of total world annihilation. Even works with a so called “happy ending” will still spend a pretty long time lingering on how horrible things are first, and the ending is likely to be more bittersweet than outright positive.

Still, whenever I think about the MOST depressing, most unrelentingly bleak and morose stories I’ve experienced, one book always springs to mind instantly, and I thought I’d kick off my contribution to this website with a look at this absolute gem of an apocalyptic vision.

Harlan Ellison has been crossing boundaries and violating minds with his works since the 1940s, writing speculative fiction short stories, episodes of classic TV shows like Star Trek and The Outer Limits, and putting together some of the most mind boggling anthologies of fiction ever devised (next time you find yourself with a few hours to kill check out Dangerous Visions). Yet it is indisputably his 1967 short story I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream which wins the award for the most depressing, harrowing, most downright nasty work of his career. Not just a really messed up story, it’s also a really good story, and a very profound one, even if what it tries to tell you is something you really, really don’t want to hear.

(spoilers from this point on)

I Have No Mouth is told from the view of Ted, a normal guy who is one of the last remaining humans on earth. In this world the cold war escalated to the point where the fighting became so all-encompassing it had to be controlled by giant supercomputers which, since this is the 60s, are ridiculously large and go literally hundreds of miles into the earth. Predictably, these giant AIs turned against their human creators and the American, Russian and Chinese computers merged into one giant being known as AM, which promptly wiped out all of humanity save for Ted and his four companions, who it keeps alive purely for the sake of torturing them endlessly. AM’s powers are pretty much limitless as it artificially keeps its five human toys alive, conjures hurricane winds and giant monsters to torment them, and fiddles with their minds as he pleases. I think, therefore I am a massive jerk.

The five humans are powerless to combat AM, and so they wander hopelessly through the tunnels under the earth through which its endless computer drives run. The story begins 107 years into their predicament, which shows no signs of ever being stopped, not even by death.

This is the starting point of the story. From here, it gets worse.

Religious themes are highly prevalent in I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream; the whole thing can be interpreted as an analogy for hell, and AM often takes on a godlike form as he interacts with the only humans left in the world he created. He appears at one point as a burning bush, and later provides ‘manna’ for them to eat, which apparently tasted like ‘boiled boar urine’. Nice. The story really does convey a sense of what the world could be like if instead of a benevolent God, we had a massive, massive prick calling the shots. It’s an interesting thought, but not one I like to dwell on too much. AM goes to great lengths to explain just how much he hates humans during the course of the story, and some interesting points are raised about how he hates them because even though he is virtually omniscient and all powerful, he still cannot enjoy the basic freedoms of walking around and interacting with similar beings which humans take for granted.

One of the most horrifying aspects of the book is how the human characters react. The five survivors do not band together in the face of adversity and try to combat their oppressor- they instead hate and suspect one another, frequently laughing at the sufferings of their fellows and regularly abusing Ellen, the sole female in their company. Each has been mentally scarred and mutilated by AM, so cannot even take comfort in each other, confined instead to their own personal hell seemingly for all eternity.

The sense of hopeless, endless suffering builds to a climax when Ted realises that AM really does intend to keep the five of them alive in agony for all of time. In the sole act of generosity in the whole book, Ted takes it upon himself to set his companions free by stabbing them through with icicles. He then tries to kill himself but AM stops him before he can do it. A furious AM then takes his revenge on Ted, the last remaining man on earth, by altering his very body. At the end of the book Ted describes himself as a soft, formless blob of jelly; able to wander the endless corridors alone forever but unable to escape or even to scream since he has no mouth. He is left to endure AM’s unrelenting tortures alone for all of time, in a body not his own, with a perception of time which AM has artificially slowed to a crawl, just for good measure. The book ends with the title drop and one is left feeling as though one’s mind has just been hit by a freight train.

Ellison’s writing style is suitably harsh and vulgar, and he writes in broad, imprecise strokes which leave your mind free to fill in all the lovely details. His view of the world and of humanity is uncompromisingly dark, but he writes with such power about how mankind failed to take responsibility for the earth and so unconsciously gave control to machines that it’s hard to argue with him. The story is available in a collection of the same title, with a collection of other good (if not great) stories by Ellison. There was also a point and click adventure game adaptation (yes, really) with hilarious narration from Ellison himself, which by all accounts sucks massively. I would say I wouldn’t recommend this book for the squeamish, but I’m pretty much the most squeamish person I know and whilst I found the book horrifying (that’s kind of the point), I also found it uplifting in a weird kind of way. I’d recommend I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream to anyone who doesn’t mind having their mental framework shaken to the core by a book less than 100 pages long, and who would enjoy seeing just how bad the end can really be. Certainly puts all other apocalyptic fiction into perspective.

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