Book review of I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream, by Harlan Ellison
This review contains no spoilers.
I didn’t expect much going into this because this short story was originally published 1967 and most of the older sci-fi stories I’ve read in the past few years have disappointed me. Not because their core stories fell short of the mark, but for the dehumanizing ways in which anyone that wasn’t a white male, particularly women, were depicted.
At first, I thought Harlan Ellison’s most famous work had fallen on its face in this regard as well, for the way in which the one female character, Ellen, who is also black, was portrayed. But after reading the "memoir" chapter about the writing of I Have No Mouth..., which at 19 pages was actually longer than the story itself, I realized my initial interpretation was incorrect. Apparently, quite a few readers over the years have made the same mistake, but once you realize the narrator is unreliable (which Mr. Ellison acknowledges he may not have made obvious enough) it becomes clear Ellen is in fact a very noble character.
The story depicts a post-apocalyptic world in which a sentient and omnipotent computer called "AM" has destroyed all of humanity except for five people it chose to keep alive and torture in a variety of ways as a means of amusing itself. Given its brevity, I can’t say any more about the plot without spoiling the whole thing, but suffice it to say it’s totally worth the 20-30 minutes it will take you to read it. I will repeat the opening line here, however, because it had me hooked right from the start.
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.
I love this sentence for how it instantly immerses you in the disorientation and terror felt by the characters in the story. I also love it because it has to be the only time in the history of writing when someone used two semicolons and an em dash in the same sentence and got away with it. Seriously, even the ancient Sumerians must have had rules against grammatical structures like that. Nonetheless, whatever editor allowed it to pass inspection did the right thing because it totally works.
Certainly, this wasn’t the first conception of a powerful computer that gains sentience and turns against humanity. However, it is impossible not to think this particular vision didn’t significantly influence many subsequent stories of technological hellscapes such as 2001 and The Terminator. I also think Mr. Ellison must have been influenced himself by contemporary works such as Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle In Time, which came out just three years earlier. The AM computer in his story to me seems very much like an R-rated version of IT in the latter.
I always enjoy stories about computers gaining sentience and turning against humanity, but it is one science fiction trope I personally believe is truly fictional. My next book, the sequel to The Infinet, will depict a future in which the real problem is not superintelligent computers that become conscious, but superintelligent computers that don’t become conscious. The latter scenario raises the rather harrowing possibility of…well, you’ll have to wait until the book is published to find out. 😛
Science fiction writer