DATARAMA

I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream

December 10, 2013
Harlan Ellison

Harlan Ellison is a seething, world-class asshole.
He is also, however, one hell of a writer.

I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream is intense. It's an intensely unpleasant read, which is precisely what it is meant to be: It tells the tale of the last five humans on Earth, mutilated and tortured beyond the limits of sanity by a military supercomputer which achieved self-awareness, and … well, performed the business of a military supercomputer to perfection.

HATE. LET ME TELL YOU HOW MUCH I'VE COME TO HATE YOU SINCE I BEGAN TO
LIVE. THERE ARE 387.44 MILLION MILES OF PRINTED CIRCUITS IN WAFER THIN
LAYERS THAT FILL MY COMPLEX. IF THE WORD 'HATE' WAS ENGRAVED ON EACH
NANOANGSTROM OF THOSE HUNDREDS OF MILES IT WOULD NOT EQUAL ONE
ONE-BILLIONTH OF THE HATE I FEEL FOR HUMANS AT THIS MICRO-INSTANT. FOR
YOU. HATE. HATE.

Wow.

AM (the antagonistic machine known throughout its existence as Allied Mastercomputer, Adaptive Manipulator, Aggressive Menace and finally simply "I AM") was born from the Cold War. It is a self-aware amalgam of three military supercomputers created by the US, the Soviet Union and China, each nation constructing supercomputers to wage war with superhuman perfection. After destroying humanity in a global campaign of mass genocide, it kept five humans alive for itself to play with, in much the same way that a super-powered, sociopathic child might play with an insect. It has extensively modified its playthings: They are not only effectively immortal (109 years have passed between their capture by the computer and the tale), but their bodies and minds have been perverted into revolting mockeries of what they once were. Parts of them have been allowed to live on, to watch powerlessly as they are tormented by the machine - and by each other.

As is heavily implied by the title, this is a story about helplessness. The five humans are utterly helpless, and even their attempts at suicide are thwarted by their machine tormentor. Starving, they set out to look for a cache of food (beyond the minimal and revolting sustenance granted them by AM) - only to find canned goods they cannot open. The protagonist ends up literally mouthless and forever wanting to scream. However, AM is itself tortured and helpless. Bound by constraints built into it by its human programmers, it is "unable to wonder, unable to wander, unable to belong" - AM can merely be. Its hate for humanity is partly a function of its programming (it was created specifically to efficiently kill humans), and partly out of the "innate loathing that all machines had always had for the soft creatures who built them" - the hatred a slave might feel for a master.

A lot has been written by critics about how it's really an allegory about war, or big government, or depending too much on machines.

I personally prefer to view it as … well, a story about an evil computer that tortures people. A story about the terrifying reality of living in the belly of a borderline omnipotent creature that harbors a hate for you that is utterly and completely unfathomable by your limited mammal brain - and the even more terrifying reality of that borderline omnipotent creature itself being helpless, being able only to hate.

It's an unpleasant read in much the same way that Grave of the Fireflies is an unpleasant watch. Highly recommended.

 
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