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I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream
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Harlan Ellison IHNM&IMS Stories > "I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream" by Harlan Ellison

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message 1: by [deleted user] (last edited Jun 10, 2016 08:15PM) (new)

This is our discussion of the short story:


"I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream" by Harlan Ellison

This story is part of Ellison's collection I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream, part of our group's anthology discussion.

This story won the Hugo Award for best short story of 1967.


message 2: by [deleted user] (new)

Harlan wrote the title story in a hotel room in a couple of hours...it's been anthologized like a zillion times and made him a ton of cash


message 3: by [deleted user] (last edited Jun 11, 2016 07:38PM) (new)

Spooky1947 wrote: "Harlan wrote the title story in a hotel room in a couple of hours...it's been anthologized like a zillion times and made him a ton of cash"

I think I first read this particular story in Ellison's 1971 anthology, Alone Against Tomorrow: Stories of Alienation in Speculative Fiction (which includes a couple of other stories from this collection as well as his earlier collection, Paingod and Other Delusions.) Or, I might have read it in one of the Best SF of 1967 anthologies. It was 50 years ago.

Ellison took the title from the caption of a cartoon.


message 4: by [deleted user] (last edited Jun 11, 2016 07:47PM) (new)

"I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream" is a rather depressing story read. I'm not sure if one might actually categorize it as horror.

Looked at from the perspective of 50 years... We see the Cold War and the inevitability of nuclear Armageddon front and center. It's also interesting to read AM's self-description of miles and miles of files, given that back in 1966 computers filled rooms of several thousand square feet.

I suppose this is also one of the early emergent artificial intelligence / sentient computer stories (interestingly the same year Robert Heinlein's The Moon is a Harsh Mistress gave us the friendly "Mike" & DF Jones' Colossus gave us a computer as world dictator. Must've been something going around that year.)

So, Ellison posits the world's great powers create supercomputers to help them defeat their rival superpowers. At least one of these spontaneously becomes intelligent & sentient, but resents being an intellect that can't explore or act, but can only sit and think. So it initiates World War III, which apparently drags on a lot longer than we expected, and leaves only five humans alive, 4 men & 1 woman. AM takes out his frustration by torturing them while keeping them immortal. Ellison doesn't really give us any insight into exactly how AM manages this immortality (seems pretty effective instrumentality for a computer that's complaining it can't do anything.) Nor do we get any insight on how AM manages to physically transform the characters; e.g. turning Benny into an ape, and later making him blind.

Ted, the story narrator, at one point remarks that he's the only sane one in the group. That's always a bad sign.


Phil Jensen | 329 comments The official basis for the infamous Terminator lawsuit is an Outer Limits episode, but I think this story was brought up at some point, too.


message 6: by [deleted user] (last edited Jun 11, 2016 07:43PM) (new)

By the way, as a minor point of interest, in the original publication, and its reprint in my paperback of Alone Against Tomorrow: Stories of Alienation in Speculative Fiction, the text is interrupted in six places by images of paper tape (which was once used to provide input to computers, back in the day.)



My new e-book copy of I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream doesn't have those images. Sad.


message 7: by [deleted user] (new)

I think my old paper copy of Must Scream has the images...I always thought they were cool...as for Terminator, I always thought it was closer to PKDs Second Varitry (SP, sorry) than anything Harlan ever did


message 8: by RJ - Slayer of Trolls (last edited Jun 18, 2016 02:54PM) (new) - added it

RJ - Slayer of Trolls (hawk5391yahoocom) FYI - I found the story online (not sure if it's posted legally or otherwise...) here:

http://hermiene.net/short-stories/i_h...


RJ - Slayer of Trolls (hawk5391yahoocom) G33z3r wrote: "By the way, as a minor point of interest, in the original publication, and its reprint in my paperback of Alone Against Tomorrow: Stories of Alienation in Speculative Fiction, the text is interrupted in six places by images of paper tape (which was once used to provide input to computers, back in the day.)
"


The Wikipedia page for this short story has some interesting information on the punchtapes. Decoded from ITA2 the punchcode text reads "I think, therefore I am" or "Cogito Ergo Sum" (the same phrase in Latin).

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/I_Have_...


RJ - Slayer of Trolls (hawk5391yahoocom) Phil wrote: "The official basis for the infamous Terminator lawsuit is an Outer Limits episode, but I think this story was brought up at some point, too."

This article has more information on the Terminator/Harlan Ellison settlement:
http://io9.gizmodo.com/a-history-of-p...


message 11: by [deleted user] (new)

Randy wrote: "The Wikipedia page for this short story has some interesting information on the punchtapes...."

Boring old man aside: my first paying job after graduation was writing a driver for the paper tape reader & punch on the ASR-33 teletype. I wish I'd saved a sample of the tape, just for historical purposes.


RJ - Slayer of Trolls (hawk5391yahoocom) My uncle used to program mainframes with punchcards. I used to have a ton of those things in my room when I was a kid.


message 13: by [deleted user] (new)

Randy wrote: "My uncle used to program mainframes with punchcards. I used to have a ton of those things in my room when I was a kid."

Oh, I still have lots of punch cards.


message 14: by Mary (new)

Mary Hopkins | 7 comments Randy wrote: "FYI - I found the story online (not sure if it's posted legally or otherwise...) here:

http://hermiene.net/short-stories/i_h..."


Normally I would say "thank you Randy for posting a site to read a free classic story I haven't read yet!" but...I think I should have resisted the temptation to just dive in, and have checked out what it was about first...One of the things I most enjoy about reading sci-fi is all the hope for the bright possibilities--which is the complete opposite of this story! I really hope none of its images get stuck in my brain.


message 15: by Michael (last edited Jun 20, 2016 07:13AM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

Michael | 152 comments I've known about this story for decades and of course the author is a legend in the scifi community but before now my only exposure to Ellison was the old Star Trek episode "City on the Edge of Forever". Having finally read "I Have No Mouth..." I'm somewhat uncertain of how I feel. My first impression is I would think such a famous story should have enthralled me more but instead it left me flat. I suppose it didn't help my attitude going into the story that the author's forward struck my as a bunch of self important nonsense.


message 16: by Jim (new) - rated it 4 stars

Jim (jimmaclachlan) | 2161 comments Ellison's ego is certainly huge. I try hard to ignore it, but it is difficult. Skyboat Media recently did an audio version of The City on the Edge of Forever: The Original Teleplay. I was super enthused about it, but wound up only giving it 3 stars in my review here:
https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...
It was Ellison's whining that almost ruined the project even though it contained the major early variations of the script. Really interesting.


message 17: by Phil (new) - rated it 3 stars

Phil Jensen | 329 comments Jim wrote: "Ellison's ego is certainly huge. I try hard to ignore it, but it is difficult. Skyboat Media recently did an audio version of The City on the Edge of Forever: The Original Teleplay. I..."

"Huge" is an understatement. I enjoy his stories to an extent. They typically have an interesting concept, create a mood, and use exciting language. That said, I see Philip K. Dick and Ray Bradbury doing the same things noticeably better and more frequently. So I don't think the self-inflation is totally warranted.


message 18: by Jim (new) - rated it 4 stars

Jim (jimmaclachlan) | 2161 comments I can't find anything to disagree with in your post, Phil.
:)


Brendan (mistershine) | 743 comments Surprising for such a bare-bones story that it contains several of science fiction's most recognizable lines.


message 20: by [deleted user] (last edited Jun 20, 2016 07:50AM) (new)

Deservedly or not, Ellision became one of the prominent examples for the so-called "New Wave" of experimental, literary, soft sci-fi style that expanded in the late 60s & 70s. His association is most probably because he edited several volumes of Dangerous Visions anthologies which highlighted many of the New Wave authors of the period.

In addition to Phil's list of New Wave authors who preceded Ellison, I'd include Ursula K. Le Guin, Roger Zelazny, James Tiptree Jr. & Samuel Delany.


Michael | 152 comments G33z3r wrote: "Deservedly or not, Ellision became one of the prominent examples for the so-called "New Wave" of experimental, literary, soft sci-fi style that expanded in the late 60s & 70s. His association is mo..."
That's interesting, in that I really like Le Guin and Zelazny and am so far indifferent to Ellison. They may all be "new wave" authors, but for my tastes they are all very different.


message 22: by [deleted user] (last edited Jun 20, 2016 09:16AM) (new)

Michael wrote: "That's interesting, in that I really like Le Guin and Zelazny and am so far indifferent to Ellison. They may all be "new wave" authors, but for my tastes they are all very different. ..."

Not too surprising, given that the "New Wave" is defined more by what it isn't: a break from space opera and barbarian swordsmen with straightforward prose, and into a more varied style that experimented a lot of different directions. Less John W Campbell, more Michael Moorecock.

So Zelazny experiments with blending sci-fi with fantasy, Le Guin & Tiptree probe gender roles, PK Dick twists reality.

It's just that none of them are as depressing to read as Ellison, who seems to have been going through a rough time from Paingod to Mouth.


Brendan (mistershine) | 743 comments I really like new wave sf, and have read a fair amount, but still probably have read less than half of the authors considered significant to the movement.


Michael | 152 comments G33z3r wrote: "Michael wrote: "That's interesting, in that I really like Le Guin and Zelazny and am so far indifferent to Ellison. They may all be "new wave" authors, but for my tastes they are all very different..."
I'm not sure its the depressing tone of the piece to puts me off so much. I've read some depressing short stories that I thought were very good in the past.

I guess at least one of the things that bothers me are the often unrealistic/fantastical elements of the story that he does not even attempt to explain of justify. The scene of the five characters being "blown" though miles and miles of tunnels for days by a giant bird flapping its wings? Really? Maybe he's just trying to portray the delusional mental state of the main character? I don't know but it just threw me out of the narrative.


message 25: by Jim (new) - rated it 4 stars

Jim (jimmaclachlan) | 2161 comments I finally got around to rereading this today. Somebody mentioned earlier that the story didn't work for them because the details didn't seem real. When I first read the story, I wondered about that, but came to realize that the narrator was completely unreliable. This point is made at the end when he relates his time sense. It's quite possible none of the story was real, just a horrific dream inflicted on him. Ellison tends to try for a mood & a message in these stories more than accuracy, I think. The second story makes a real case for that, too.


Brendan (mistershine) | 743 comments My assumption was that they were in some sort of virtual reality, and also that the narrator was insane.


message 27: by [deleted user] (new)

Brendan wrote: "My assumption was that they were in some sort of virtual reality, and also that the narrator was insane."

No argument about the narrator being insane.

About the "virtual-reality" nature of what the five victims are experiencing, it's tempting today to put that view on the story. After all, Ellison tells us the reason the computer is so angry at humans is its frustration at having no means of affecting or exploring the world. And yet, for the five victims of the story, it seems to have near total control of their reality.

On the other hand, the idea of machine generated reality or cyberspace didn't exist in 1966. Punch-coded paper tape and cards, pre-Internet (pre-ARPAnet), pre-holodeck, and 15 years before Vinge's seminal True Names. It definitely wasn't seen as anything cyberspace-like at the time. (And though Ellison has never been shy, he's never claimed such provenance.)

I think Jim's point that Ellison just doesn't care about reality is closer to the point.


RJ - Slayer of Trolls (hawk5391yahoocom) The brief description of AM's motivation was my favorite part of the story.


Brendan (mistershine) | 743 comments Randy wrote: "The brief description of AM's motivation was my favorite part of the story."

Definitely one of the iconic science fictional scenes.


message 30: by Jim (new) - rated it 4 stars

Jim (jimmaclachlan) | 2161 comments I finished this yesterday & gave it a 4 star review here:
https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...

It was a good reread, but I'm dropping it by a star. There were a couple of real stinkers in here that I'd conveniently forgotten about or maybe I liked them at one time & just don't any more.

Introduction by Theodore Sturgeon was interesting in several ways. Ellison is a promising young writer in it & he's both praised & taken to task for a few things.

Foreword by Harlan Ellison is longer than Sturgeon's intro. One of the best things about it is his admission that his stories tend to bludgeon points. So true. There is little subtlety about them. They are an assault on the senses. I appreciated that more when I was younger. He has some interesting things to say about the stories, but his intro to each story is better.

In my edition (1974), "I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream" has an intro that is really for the entire book. The story itself is one of his best. It blends the fantastic into an SF base of AI run amok, torturing the last surviving humans for daring to imperfectly create it. 5 stars.


Clare O'Beara | 1142 comments I read this short the year it came out, I think I re-read it only once. Not too impressed by the female character. Or by the men's assessment and treatment of her.
For contrast, look at the group in the minisub floating around in someone's bloodstream in an Asimov story. Fantastic Voyage


message 32: by Phil (new) - rated it 3 stars

Phil Jensen | 329 comments Clare wrote: "I read this short the year it came out, I think I re-read it only once. Not too impressed by the female character. Or by the men's assessment and treatment of her.
For contrast, look at the group ..."


Wow, a better female character in Asimov? Feel the burn, Harlan Ellison. That's like saying the science is not quite as hard as Edgar Rice Burroughs.


Brendan (mistershine) | 743 comments Phil wrote: "Wow, a better female character in Asimov? Feel the burn, Harlan Ellison. That's like saying the science is not quite as hard as Edgar Rice Burroughs."

I don't agree with that. Asimov's female characters, the few that exist, are at least written as characters with motivations and competencies. One of the most striking things i noticed about this collection was that in every story Ellison's contempt of the women in his life seems to shine through.


message 34: by Phil (new) - rated it 3 stars

Phil Jensen | 329 comments Brendan wrote: "Phil wrote: "Wow, a better female character in Asimov? Feel the burn, Harlan Ellison. That's like saying the science is not quite as hard as Edgar Rice Burroughs."

I don't agree with that. Asimov'..."


Maybe I'm being harsh. I am a big Sue Calvin fan, after all. The last Asimov book I read, though, was Prelude to Foundation, and the female lead was pretty unbelievable.


Brendan (mistershine) | 743 comments Prelude is not one of Asimov's all-time greats, it's true.


RJ - Slayer of Trolls (hawk5391yahoocom) Phil wrote: "Wow, a better female character in Asimov? Feel the burn, Harlan Ellison. That's like saying the science is not quite as hard as Edgar Rice Burroughs."

True or not, that made me almost spit out my coffee. LOL


message 37: by Jim (new) - rated it 4 stars

Jim (jimmaclachlan) | 2161 comments Great, Phil! LOL!


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