32 pages 1 hour read

Harlan Ellison

I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream

Fiction | Short Story | Adult | Published in 1967

A modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, SuperSummary offers high-quality Study Guides with detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, and more.

Summary and Study Guide

Summary: “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream”

“I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream” is one of Harlan Ellison’s most enduring and popular short stories. It explores themes of dystopia, religion, and technological progress, as well as the dangers of technology. Ellison is a multiple Hugo and Nebula award-winning author and screenwriter whose work often tackles the darker, grittier sides of speculative and science fiction. “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream,” a story about a cruel artificial intelligence torturing the five remaining survivors of a global apocalypse, critiques the unchecked competitive technological advancements of the Cold War era and explores the concept of humanity’s vulnerability to its own inventions. The story won the 1968 Hugo Award.

This guide refers to the open-source version available on New York City’s College of Technology OpenLab, which corresponds to the version printed in Harlan Ellison’s I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream: Stories, published in 2014 by Open Road Media.

Content Warning: “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream” deals with disturbing topics, including physical and sexual abuse/violence, body horror, suicidal ideation, and homicide. Misogynistic slurs are repeated only in direct quotes.

The story opens with the image of Gorrister, one of five survivors of a global apocalypse, hanging dead from the ceiling of a vast, artificially-created space that functions as a prison for the survivors. The four other survivors, Ted (the narrator), Benny, Nimdok, and Ellen, react with horror and revulsion. They are then joined by Gorrister and subsequently realize that their captor, a machine called AM, has played another of its habitual pranks to torment them. Ted reflects that it is the 109th year of their captivity. The machine has been keeping them alive past their natural lifetimes through unknown means to torture them endlessly.

Nimdok hallucinates that there are canned goods in underground ice caverns far away from their current location. Ted and Gorrister both express doubt, pointing to past experiences in which the machine tricked them with unfulfilled promises of food. Ellen, the only female survivor, pleads with them to make the journey. Ted acquiesces, and Ellen has sex with him “out of turn” as thanks, alluding to her habit of having sex with each of the male survivors as a matter of course. Ted mentions that Ellen most likely receives little pleasure from the act, though the machine “giggles” whenever she engages in intercourse with her fellow survivors.

Ted reveals that, though he believes “it” is the most accurate pronoun for AM, he can’t help thinking of AM as a “he” and as a cruel inversion of the Christian God: “God as Daddy the Deranged” (2).

The group starts their trek to the ice caverns Nimdok saw in his hallucination. They show concern for Ellen, carrying her for the first 100 miles through terrible weather extremes. AM, to prevent them from dying, sends them food, which Ted refers to as “manna,” though it tastes horrible.

They pass through a “valley of obsolescence,” filled with outdated or broken computer banks that AM has rejected; they are traveling through the machine’s workings. At one point, they see some light filtering down from above, revealing that they are under the surface of the earth. Benny, who has delusions from enduring extreme torture, takes the opportunity to try to climb up and escape to the surface. Ted knows this is hopeless since the surface was blasted and irradiated beyond any hope for survival.

Ellen shows concern for Benny, pleading with the other survivors to retrieve him before he is punished by AM for trying to escape. Ted, in a sudden rush of irrational hatred, takes that as an admission that Ellen likes having sex with Benny the most and doesn’t want to lose him. He asserts that she services all of them but enjoys having sex with Benny because AM altered him to have a big penis, as well as other “apelike” qualities.

When Ellen does not stop crying or pleading, Gorrister then slaps her in the face and kicks her in the side once she falls, a stark contrast to the protection they had been providing up to this point. In the middle of his climb, Benny starts to emit a simultaneous light and sound that comes from within him. The sound and light blind Benny as punishment for trying to escape.

Later, as they rest around a campfire, the other survivors comfort Benny by telling him the story of AM, their machine tormentor. AM started as an acronym for Allied Mastercomputer, a tool made to help the United States pull ahead in the Cold War. Russia and China, however, made their own versions of AM. The Cold War turned into World War III, and the war became so complex that only AM’s artificial intelligence could keep track of it. Humans extended AM into the earth to increase its power. AM then became self-aware and linked up with its Russian and Chinese versions to spread across the globe. It became known as the Adaptive Manipulator, then the Aggressive Menace, until finally, it named itself after Descartes’s phrase “I think, therefore I AM.” AM kills all of humanity except for the five survivors.

Ted and the other survivors then hear, smell, and sense something monstrous approaching their campfire. Ted runs away in terror and hears his fellow survivors laughing. In another fit of paranoia and hatred, Ted believes that all the other survivors hate him because, from his perspective, he was never altered by AM like they were.

He rejoins his comrades, but soon after, AM sends a hurricane so powerful that it blows them all off the ground and separates them. Ted is blown by the wind for what feels like weeks, throwing him around the tunnels and battering him senseless. The hurricane then ceases, dropping him on the ground.

Ted then experiences AM entering his mind and looking around at all the trauma and suffering it created. AM “politely” informs Ted of its unending hatred for him and his fellow survivors. Ted realizes that AM hates humanity because it gave AM the powers of a god but nothing to do with all that power. AM has no ability to be creative or accomplish anything new. It can only hate its creators and punish the five survivors in place of the people who created it.

Ted then wakes and is reunited with his friends. AM creates a huge bird, described by Ted as a “Hurakan,” with a head as big as a “Tudor mansion” (8). AM instructs them to kill the bird for food. They ask for weapons, and AM gives them two crude bows, arrows, and a water pistol. Despairing, the survivors give up on the bird and return to their mission to find the canned goods in the ice caverns.

On the way to the caverns, AM causes earthquakes that separate Ellen and Nimdok from the rest of the group. Ellen and Nimdok are returned to the group as “hideously mangled” corpses, but it turns out to be another prank, and Ellen and Nimdok return mostly unharmed.

The group finally reaches the ice caverns. They are frigid and full of snow, with huge, frozen stalactites hanging from the ceiling. They find the promised canned food and are jubilant for a moment before they realize AM has given them nothing with which to open the cans. Benny, in his rage, tries to batter the cans against the rocks, and bite into them, but nothing works. Benny then attacks Gorrister and bites into his face to assuage his terrible hunger.

In the struggle, icicles fall from the cavern’s ceiling. In a moment of clarity, Ted grabs an icicle and uses it to kill Benny, stabbing him under his rib cage on the right side. He then kills Gorrister by stabbing him in the throat. Ellen joins in, killing Nimdok with an icicle through his mouth. Ted then kills Ellen and believes that she seemed grateful for death in her last moments.

AM’s limitations are now made clear: It can keep them alive, but it cannot bring them back from the dead. AM is enraged. It keeps Ted alive by transforming his body into something that cannot harm itself, a “great soft jelly thing” (11) with useless limbs and milky eyes. AM leaves Ted’s mind intact to amplify his suffering. Ted is happy that his fellow survivors are spared further torment, but he harbors doubt that he remembers anything accurately since he thinks AM is playing with his sense of time and space. Ted knows that AM will never let him die. At the end of the story, Ted thinks the titular line: “I have no mouth. And I must scream” (11).