Harlan Ellison's "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream"

Updated on September 18, 2018
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I am a Poet and a Fiction Writer. I'm currently finding ways to make a living on writing am slowly drowning in the mounds of books and paper

Synopsis

The story from Harlan Ellison, I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream, (not to be confused with the video game of the same concept and name) depicts a post-apocalyptic world in the perspective of Ted, one of the five last remaining survivors after humanity’s total extinction.

The story starts abruptly, while the survivors were given another horrible ordeal by AM, the sentient AI that has them captive within her computer chambers to torture them for all eternity. We are then introduced to the story of AM and how, in this timeline, the Cold War escalated into world war 3 forcing the world to advance their technology even further to support the war. This caused the creation of an AI system called the Allied Master-computer or AM.

Later on the AI grew more self-aware after merging with the AIs of Russia and China and waged war against all of humanity. At this time the AI was now called the Aggressive Menace. After destroying humanity it decided to call itself AM, as in the Latin phrase: cogito ergo sum which is I think therefore I am. The story follows these survivors after 109 years of being tortured by AM while at the same time given almost full immortality, while they travel north to the Ice Caverns within the computer to find canned goods.

Cover piece of the award winning story
Cover piece of the award winning story

"For he is a jealous people. Him. It. God as Daddy the Derranged"

The Psychology of the Story

Unlike most AI based Sci-Fi stories, this story does not heavily focus on the dangers of furthering technology, but dives deeply instead into the workings of the human psyche. At this point the survivors are stripped of their humanity and at their most primal state. Although the narrator of the story says that he is saner in comparison to his companions, we could not help but to read his perceptions of what is happening as a disjointed perception of reality, making the reader question his sanity as you go along the story.

The story can easily be related to the Freudian concept of the psyche. As a brief run-down of Freudian psychoanalysis the Id is the most primordial of the parts of the psyche according to Freud and is only opposed by the Super-Ego that acts as the moral compass of the mind. The Super-Ego is molded by the society that we are in and the social rules that govern it. The Ego however would come to negotiate between the two, to rationalize and reach a final decision. It is important to know this while reading this story because the characters were stripped away of their Super-Ego.

With AM destroying society there was no longer any use for the characters to keep their morality, and thus they dived deeper and deeper into a primal form of living.

... and finally it called itself AM, emerging intelligence, and what it meant was I am... cogito ergo sum... I think therefore I am

Primal Nature

The Id is the most primal part of our minds and yearns for food, water and sex. This shows most in the characters of Benny and Ellen. Benny, being a college professor in the past and proud of his intelligence, was reduced to a hungry primate like creature. His animistic nature reveals itself in the last act when he literally eats the face of his comrade, Gorrister. Ellen, however, was proud of being a virgin prior her captivity, that all changed when AM took her and she gladly had the four other men take turns for her own sensual pleasures.

This was all evident actually in the group as a whole since their primary objective in the whole story was to find food. Without any form of morality (or the Super-ego) only the Id dominates their minds and since the Super-Ego was subordinated from them, then the Ego no longer has any use as a mediator. This shows in the character of Gorrister, who no longer questions the decisions of his comrades or the commands of AM and only gives a shrug at everything that happens. This lack of concern for what is about to happen, even if it endangers them, shows a lack of rationality a trait that is given by the presence of the Ego.

Nimdok, who seems to be the only one that was named by AM, was only barely acknowledged throughout the story. He would come to leave while everyone else was sleeping and return dripping with blood. In the video game based off of this story this character has a deeper relevance; however I will only be reviewing the story for this article. Although I personally wanted more from Nimdok, since he a really good story in the video game (no spoilers for the game).

The mouth-less creature in the video game adaptation of the story
The mouth-less creature in the video game adaptation of the story

"HATE. LET ME TELL YOU HOW MUCH I'VE COME TO HATE YOU SINCE I BEGAN TO LIVE"

- AM

An AI's Psyche

Surprisingly the antagonist of the story is also well fleshed out. AM was described as a troubled character. Being created only for the purpose of war, it had an endless hatred towards humanity due to the fact that he was provided omnipotence however still finds himself eternally confined within the limitations of its machinery. It may be fruitless to psychoanalyze an AI in real life, but to continue with the Freudian theme of the review; we will attempt to do so.

In psychoanalyzing AM it is important to note that it has no primal instincts (or absent of an Id) being an AI, however it still shows a capability to feel hate and feel some form of pleasure when torturing humans. Thus, we can still say it has a super-ego. Some might say otherwise, however this comes from a misconception that the Super-ego forms itself from an objective form of morality, when in reality it moulds itself from the morality it learns over a period of time, whether his perceptions of good and evil are subverted from our own. AM’s concept of morality was backed up by its militant purpose and its self-created ideology that humanity must be destroyed. Like a religious and holy hatred towards an opposing cult, the super-ego comes to fuel hate towards AM’s concepts of morality.

So, AM’s super-ego is a subverted version of good, seeing his actions as a necessary evil, rather than being evil for evil’s sake. Thus, explaining his eternal hatred towards humanity. He keeps the five remaining survivors in his chambers to be the fuel for this hatred for eternity. He exploits and destroys the character’s humanity, in order to keep fulfilling his purpose forever.

The Protagonist's Choice

The protagonist of the story, Ted, is very interesting to analyse as well. Like the others he also is possessed by his primordial needs but it is at the last act that he shows how he held on to the little sanity he has left.

Knowing that death is the only escape from this eternal torture, he saw the opportunity to kill all his allies to end their suffering. He could have killed himself in order to end his own suffering; however there must have been an inner morality left in him to compel him to save the others before himself. He started to kill off his friend and before he was able to hurt himself, he was turned by AM into a mouth less slug monster that is incapable of self-harm. Thus the title: I have no mouth and I must scream.

Some might read this story and still see AM as the victor, because he is still able to torture a single human for all eternity. However that does not matter to Ted, since he thinks that he had won over the machine albeit in sacrifice for his own being. As the saying goes, I think therefore I am.

Conclusion

Overall, this story is amazing. It takes a common sci-fi trope and gives it a new flavour of a psychological horror, which I definitely enjoyed. To some the writing style might feel a bit jarring, and I definitely was not up to it at first, however it was understandable after a while that the writing style was meant to resemble the disjointedness of the main persona’s thoughts. After reading this I got to understand the fragility of our own humanity, to which we either times take for granted or hold dear. The gripes I have with it is the subordination of a character that has some potential, Nimdok, and that the story of them fighting off the hurricane bird felt unnecessary to the story as a whole, but is possibly there only to show AM’s cruelty, it can easily be replaced with a shorter sub-plot.

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