I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream


Harlan Ellison

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I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Harlan Ellison's I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Harlan Ellison

Born to Jewish parents, Ellison and his older sister, Beverly, were raised in Cleveland and Painesville, Ohio. Ellison worked an eclectic series of odd jobs as a young man, including a lithographer, a personal bodyguard, and a nitroglycerine truck driver. Before he made a name as a fiction writer, Ellison was a Hollywood screenwriter. After being fired from Walt Disney Studios on his first day for making an inappropriate joke, Ellison continued to publish fiction and nonfiction pieces, and his work gradually gained a cult following. Famously combative, Ellison is just as notorious for his personality as he is for his prolific writing career. Over his six-decade career, Ellison wrote more than 1,700 short stories, novellas, screenplays, and essays, including a controversial Star Trek episode, “The City on the Edge of Forever.” Ellison was involved in multiple lawsuits against directors and movie studios he believed had ripped off his work. He later helped adapt his story “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream” into a videogame of the same name, providing the voice of AM. Ellison is the winner of eight Hugo Awards, four Nebula Awards, five Bram Stoker Awards, and many other honors and accolades. At Stephen King’s request, Ellison briefly described himself and his writing career as follows: “My stories go out from here and raise hell. From time to time some denigrator or critic will say of my work, ‘He only wrote that to shock.’ I smile and nod. Precisely.” Ellison suffered a stroke in 2014 and passed away at his home in Los Angeles in 2018.
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Historical Context of I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream

“I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” was written during the late 1960s, when Cold War tensions were high. Weaving some of the key players (the U.S., Russia, and China) into the backstory of the apocalypse in “I Have No Mouth,” Ellison played on Western society’s fear of mutually assured destruction through nuclear weapons. In addition, much like his sci-fi and fantasy predecessors, Ellison plays with the public’s growing concern about technology’s growing presence in daily life, as AM’s total control over the humans in the story provide a harrowing picture of what humanity’s relationship to artificial intelligence could look like in the future.

Other Books Related to I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream

Harlan Ellison exists alongside an impressive array of science fiction writers, including the prolific Ray Bradbury (Fahrenheit 451), Isaac Asimov (“The Fun They Had”), and Philip K. Dick (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?). “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” and Ellison’s other stories are precursors for some of today’s most inventive speculative fiction and television. Ellison wrote the script for arguably the most famous Star Trek episode, “The City on the Edge of Forever.” His influence can also be seen in Netflix’s Black Mirror series, which highlights many of the dark themes woven through Ellison’s short stories such as artificial intelligence and human subservience to technology. Ellison’s didn’t want to be boxed in by the “sci-fi” genre during his career, and his influence opened the door for a new wave of experimental speculative fiction writers.
Key Facts about I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream
  • Full Title: I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream
  • When Written: 1966
  • When Published: 1967
  • Literary Period: Postmodernism
  • Genre: Short story, science fiction, post-apocalyptic fiction, speculative fiction
  • Setting: Post-apocalyptic
  • Climax: In extreme hunger, Benny cannibalizes Gorrister’s face. Seeing the window of opportunity to save his companions, Ted stabs both Benny and Gorrister. Ellen follows suit, stabbing Nimdok. Ted then kills Ellen, consigning him to an eternity alone, tormented inside AM.
  • Antagonist: AM
  • Point of View: First Person

Extra Credit for I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream

Drawing Inspiration. In 1965, Ellison came across a doodle drawn by his friend, cartoonist Bill Rotsler. The drawing featured a rudimentary doll-like figure, sitting slumped with the words “I have no mouth and I must scream,” scrawled on the bottom. With Rotsler’s permission, Ellison used this as the inspiration and title for one of his best-known literary works.

Crack the Code. The black rectangles interspersed with the text in “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” are computer tape time-breaks, created by actual programmers. Ellison wanted to experiment with the limits of the printed page, and to present the reader with what it’s like to be stuck inside the mind of a computer.  In reference to Descartes and the name the computer takes for itself, “AM,” the time-breaks read “I think, therefore I am” and the same phrase in Latin, “Cogito, ergo sum.”