New Classics: I Have No Mouth, And I Must Scream

8 years ago
Sharona Lin

In 1967, Harlan Ellison published a post-apocalyptic science fiction short story: I Have No Mouth, And I Must Scream. In 1968, it won the Hugo Award.

It’s hard to write about this story without spoiling it, but here goes.

I Have No Mouth… is based in a world where the Cold War never ended. Instead, it turned into a World War mostly fought between China, Russia and the US. Each superpower built a supercomputer (AM, which stands for various things) to run the war, and of course, one becomes self aware and promptly wreaks havoc.

The story follows the five humans that are all who are left. And by God it’s scary. Okay. Not so much scary (although it is) as just awful and insidious. The five humans are endlessly tortured – AM has made them more or less immortal, and spends its days concocting horrible punishments for them.

Not much time is actually spent on the specifics of the war or the science, and that works to its advantage. There’s the bare bones of what has happened, and that’s enough. The story covers a relatively short time span. It begins on the 109th year of their capture, and only briefly alludes to the century of torture they’ve already had to endure. The horrors Ellison details in the short story are nightmarish, and kickstart your imagination – what other kinds of hideous torments have been visited on these people?

If you’re up for thirteen pages of nightmare fuel, this is well worth reading. It’s also interesting to note that Ellison more or less wrote the whole thing in one night. What a cool guy.

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