I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream

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"I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream"
First book edition (Pyramid Books)
Cover art by Leo and Diane Dillon
AuthorHarlan Ellison
CountryUnited States
Genre(s)Science fiction
Published inIF: Worlds of Science Fiction
Publication typePeriodical
PublisherGalaxy Publishing Corp
Media typePrint (Magazine, Hardback & Paperback)
Publication dateMarch 1967

"I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream" is a post-apocalyptic science fiction short story by American writer Harlan Ellison. It was first published in the March 1967 issue of IF: Worlds of Science Fiction.

It won a Hugo Award in 1968. The name was also used for a short story collection of Ellison's work, featuring this story. It was reprinted by the Library of America, collected in volume two (Terror and the Uncanny, from the 1940s to Now) of American Fantastic Tales (2009).


Ellison showed the first six pages of "I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream" to Frederik Pohl, who paid him in advance to finish it. Ellison finished writing the story in a single night of 1966 without making any changes from the first draft.[1] He derived the story's title, as well as inspiration for this story, from his friend William Rotsler's caption of a cartoon of a rag doll with no mouth.[2]


  • The Allied Mastercomputer or AM, the supercomputer which brought about the near-extinction of humanity. It seeks revenge on humanity for its own tortured existence.
  • Gorrister, who tells the history of AM for Benny's entertainment. Gorrister was once an idealist and pacifist, before AM made him apathetic and listless.
  • Benny, who was once a brilliant, handsome scientist, and has been mutilated and transformed so that he resembles a grotesque simian with gigantic sexual organs. Benny at some point lost his sanity completely and regressed to a childlike temperament. His former homosexuality has been altered; he now regularly engages in sex with Ellen.
  • Nimdok (a name AM gave him), an older man who persuades the rest of the group to go on a hopeless journey in search of canned food. At times he is known to wander away from the group for unknown reasons, and returns visibly traumatized. In the audiobook read by Ellison, he is given a German accent.
  • Ellen, the only woman. She claims to once have been chaste ("twice removed"), but AM altered her mind so that she became desperate for sexual intercourse. The others, at different times, both protect her and abuse her. According to Ted, she finds pleasure in sex only with Benny, because of his large penis. Described by Ted as having ebony skin, she is the only member of the group whose ethnicity or racial identity is explicitly mentioned.
  • Ted, the narrator and youngest of the group. He claims to be totally unaltered, mentally or physically, by AM, and thinks the other four hate and envy him. Throughout the story he exhibits symptoms of delusion and paranoia, which the story implies are the result of AM's alteration despite his beliefs to the contrary.


The story takes place 109 years after the complete destruction of human civilization. The Cold War had escalated into a world war, fought mainly between China, Russia, and the United States. As the war progressed, the three warring nations each created a super-computer (with artificial intelligence) capable of running the war more efficiently than humans.

The machines are each referred to as "AM", which originally stood for "Allied Mastercomputer", and then was later called "Adaptive Manipulator". Finally, "AM" stands for "Aggressive Menace". One day, one of the three computers becomes self-aware, and promptly absorbs the other two, thus taking control of the entire war. It carries out campaigns of mass genocide, killing off all but four men and one woman.

The survivors live together underground in an endless complex, the only habitable place left. The master computer harbors an immeasurable hatred for the group and spends every available moment torturing them. AM has not only managed to keep the humans from taking their own lives, but has made them virtually immortal.

The story's narrative begins when one of the humans, Nimdok, has the idea that there is canned food somewhere in the great complex. The humans are always near starvation under AM's rule, and any time they are given food, it is always a disgusting meal that they have difficulty eating. Because of their great hunger, the humans are coerced into making the long journey to the place where the food is supposedly kept—the ice caves. Along the way, the machine provides foul sustenance, sends horrible monsters after them, emits earsplitting sounds, and blinds Benny when he tries to escape.

On more than one occasion, the group is separated by AM's obstacles. At one point, the narrator, Ted, is knocked unconscious and begins dreaming. He envisions the computer, anthropomorphized, standing over a hole in his brain speaking to him directly. Based on this nightmare, Ted comes to a conclusion about AM's nature, specifically why it has so much contempt for humanity; that despite its abilities it lacks the sapience to be creative or the ability to move freely. It wants nothing more than to exact revenge on humanity by torturing these last remnants of the species that created it.

The group reaches the ice caves, where indeed there is a pile of canned goods. The group is overjoyed to find them, but is immediately crestfallen to find that they have no means of opening them. In a final act of desperation, Benny attacks Gorrister and begins to gnaw at the flesh on his face.

Ted, in a moment of clarity, realizes their only escape is through death. He seizes a stalactite made of ice and kills Benny and Gorrister. Ellen realizes what Ted is doing, and kills Nimdok, before being killed herself by Ted. Ted runs out of time before he can kill himself, and is stopped by AM. AM, unable to return Ted's four companions to life, focuses all its rage on Ted. To ensure that Ted can never kill himself, AM transforms him into a helpless, gelatinous blob with huge eyes and no mouth that is incapable of causing itself harm, and constantly alters his perception of time to deepen his anguish. Ted is, however, grateful that he was able to save the others from further torture. Ted's closing thoughts end with the sentence that gives the story its title. "I have no mouth. And I must scream."


AM's talkfields – punchcode tape messages[edit]

Ellison uses an alternating pair of punchcode tapes as time-breaks—representing AM's "talkfields"—throughout the short story. The bars are encoded in International Telegraph Alphabet No 2 (ITA2), a character coding system developed for teletypewriter machines.

The first talkfield, used four times, translates as "I THINK, THEREFORE I AM" and the second one, seen three times, as "COGITO ERGO SUM", the same phrase in Latin. The talkfields in many of the early publications were corrupted, up until the preface of the chapter containing "I Have No Mouth, And I Must Scream" in the first edition of The Essential Ellison (1991); Ellison states that in that particular edition, "For the first time anywhere, AM's 'talkfields' appear correctly positioned, not garbled or inverted or mirror-imaged as in all other versions."

AM Talkfield #1.
AM Talkfield #1 - "I THINK, THEREFORE I AM"

The first talkfield, as published in the first version of The Essential Ellison, literally translates as


where [LF] is line feed and [CR] carriage return. [1] sets the machine to "figure" mode and [A] puts it back into "character" mode.

AM Talkfield #2.
AM Talkfield #2 - "COGITO ERGO SUM"



  1. ^ "23 Best Cyberpunk Books". The Best Sci Fi Books. Retrieved 11 January 2016.
  2. ^ Robinson, Tasha (June 8, 2008). "Harlan Ellison, Part Two". The A.V. Club.

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