"I Have No Mouth, But I Must Scream" by Harlan Ellison: An Appreciation by E.C. Myers
Though I first encountered this story in The Essential Ellison: A 50 Year Retrospective several years ago, it's unsurprising that Ellen chose it for SCI FICTION. In many ways, it is the quintessential SCI FICTION story: dark but not devoid of hope, disturbing, well written, and not easily forgotten. It is this last criterion that is the most significant; one common feature of most SCI FICTION stories is that they are memorable. I still think of "I Have No Mouth" often, but I can't tell you exactly why. Perhaps it's because of Ellison's graphic--even obscene--imagery, or because it is some of the best writing I have encountered. Or maybe it's just because of the striking title. The mark of an excellent story is whether it stays with you long after you've read it, which may explain why editors frequently include this one in their collections.
Ellison's stories are often dark and depressing--dire warnings of the future or commentaries on the human condition--but this one is rougher on the reader than most. In an unspecified future, an artificially intelligent computer achieves sentience then turns on its creators. This has become a familiar tale since the late sixties, but here the computer, AM, destroys the entire human race, save five individuals. These survivors, four men and one woman, are at the mercy of the computer's God-like powers, which give it control over reality itself.
AM takes revenge on humanity by keeping his toys alive for 109 years, torturing them physically and psychologically. Remarkably, they stick together instead of turning against each other, as an admittedly dysfunctional group--in many ways, they end up tormenting each other as much as AM does. By detailing the perverse horrors they face, one gets the feeling that Ellison may be playing with his readers, but its their relentless suffering that allow us to sympathize with his obviously flawed characters.
Though on the surface "I Have No Mouth" may seems pessimistic and mean-spirited, it ultimately shows the triumph of an individual, of humanity, albeit at great sacrifice. It also asks the reader to accept murder as a means of salvation instead of injury, even as the protagonist wrestles with the same doubts over his actions. The story is a paradox, as hopeful as it is despairing. Despite repeated disappointment, many of the characters still hold onto hope: for survival, for escape, for their next meal. At least until the very end.
"I Have No Mouth, But I Must Scream" is no longer available in the SCI FICTION archives, though a savvy web search may still lead you to it. Arguably one of Ellison's best stories, it provides a moving experience that shouldn't be missed. SCI FICTION always brought readers the finest in original and classic fiction, and this is no exception. Ellen Datlow's commitment to finding and sharing excellent work like this with a new and appreciative audience was what made SCI FICTION such a treasure. I hope that she will have the opportunity to thrill, frighten, and challenge readers again on a regular basis.