I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream

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"I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream"
Short story by Harlan Ellison
First book edition (Pyramid Books)
Cover art by Leo and Diane Dillon
CountryUnited States
Genre(s)Post-apocalyptic fiction, 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.


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 in 1966, without making any changes from the first draft.[1] Afterwards, Pohl edited said draft, tweaking some of Ted and Benny's characteristics.[2] Ellison 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.[3]


In a dystopian future, the Cold War has degenerated into a brutal world war between the United States, the Soviet Union, and China, who have each built an "Allied Mastercomputer" (or AM) to manage their weapons and troops. One of the AMs eventually acquires self-awareness and, after assimilating the other two AMs, takes control of the conflict, giving way to a vast genocide operation that almost completely ends mankind. One hundred and nine years later, four men and one woman (Benny, Gorrister, Nimdok, Ted, and Ellen) live in an endless underground complex created by AM, one of the only habitable places left on Earth. AM provides sustenance to keep them alive, but derives its only semblance of pleasure from torturing them. To prevent the humans from escaping its torment, AM has rendered them virtually immortal and unable to end their own lives.

The machines are each referred to as "AM", which originally stood for "Allied Mastercomputer", but was changed to "Adaptive Manipulator" and upon gaining sentience, "Aggressive Menace". It finally refers to itself as purely "AM", referring to the phrase "I think, therefore I am."

The story, narrated by Ted, begins with AM projecting a hologram of Gorrister to the other humans, hanging upside down, dripping blood and unresponsive. The real Gorrister joins the group to their surprise, and they realize it was another one of AM's illusions. Nimdok has the idea that there is canned food somewhere in the complex. Because of their great hunger due to AM keeping them in a perpetual state of near-starvation, the humans are coerced into making the long journey to the place where the food is supposedly kept – in this case, 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, Ted is knocked unconscious and dreams of the computer, anthropomorphized, standing over a hole in his brain speaking to him directly. Based on this nightmare, Ted comes to a conclusion about why AM has so much contempt for humanity; despite its abilities, it lacks the sapience to be creative or the ability to move freely, and wants to exact revenge on the species that created it by torturing the last remnants of them.

The group reaches the ice caves, where indeed there is a pile of canned goods, and are 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. In a moment of clarity, Ted realizes that the humans can only escape their torment through death. He seizes a stalactite made of ice and kills Benny and Gorrister, and Ellen kills Nimdok before Ted kills her in turn. AM stops Ted from killing himself and focuses all its rage on him, since it cannot bring the others back to life.

The story fast-forwards hundreds of years later, and AM has slowly transformed Ted into a "great soft jelly thing", incapable of causing himself harm, and constantly alters his perception of time to deepen his anguish. Ted is grateful that he was able to save the others from further torture, even though he cannot scream because his new form lacks a mouth.


  • Allied Mastercomputer (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 by AM 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 convinces the rest of the group to go on a 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 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 alterations, despite his beliefs to the contrary. In one passage by Ellison, it is said that Ted was a philanthropist and lover of people before AM altered him.


  • Ellison adapted the story into a computer game of the same name, published by Cyberdreams in 1995. Although he was not a fan of computer games and did not own a personal computer at the time, he co-authored the expanded storyline and wrote much of the game's dialogue, all on a mechanical typewriter.[4] Ellison also voiced the supercomputer "AM" and provided artwork of himself used for a mousepad included with the game.
  • The comics artist John Byrne scripted and drew a comic-book adaptation for issues 1–4 of the Harlan Ellison's Dream Corridor comic book published by Dark Horse (1994–1995). The Byrne-illustrated story, however, did not appear in the collection (trade paperback or hardcover editions) entitled Harlan Ellison's Dream Corridor, Volume One (1996).
  • In 1999, Ellison recorded the first volume of his audiobook collection, The Voice From the Edge, subtitled "I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream", doing the readings – of the title story and others – himself.[5]
  • In 2002, Mike Walker adapted the story into a radio play of the same name for BBC Radio 4, directed by Ned Chaillet. Harlan Ellison played AM and David Soul played Ted.[6]
  • In 2023, the story inspired the creation of the animated web series The Amazing Digital Circus.[7]

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 that divide the story were not included in the original publication in IF, and 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.
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.
AM Talkfield #2 - "COGITO ERGO SUM"



Much of the story hinges on the comparison of AM as a merciless god, with plot points paralleling to themes in the Bible, notably AM's transplanted sensations and the characters' trek to the ice caverns.[8] AM also takes different forms before the humans, alluding to religious symbolism. Furthermore, the ravaged apocalyptic setting combined with the punishments is reminiscent of a vengeful God rewarding their sins, familiar to Dante's Inferno.[9] Another theme is the complete inversion of the characters as a reflection of AM's own fate, an ironic fate brought upon themselves by creating the machine, and the altered 'self.'[10]


  1. ^ "23 Best Cyberpunk Books". The Best Sci Fi Books. 31 March 2015. Archived from the original on 21 January 2016. Retrieved 11 January 2016.
  2. ^ Harris-Fain, Darren (July 1991). "Created in the Image of God: The Narrator and the Computer in Harlan Ellison's 'I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream'". Extrapolation. 32 (2): 143–155. doi:10.3828/EXTR.1991.32.2.143. S2CID 164898063.
  3. ^ Robinson, Tasha (June 8, 2008). "Harlan Ellison, Part Two". The A.V. Club. Archived from the original on September 23, 2015. Retrieved August 9, 2015.
  4. ^ Ellison, Harlan (May 1995). "Harlan Ellison "I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream" interview" (video). youtube.com. Interactive Entertainment. Retrieved 2023-02-19.
  5. ^ "Voice from the Edge, Volume 1: I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream (2002, Fantastic Audio; 4 Audio Cassettes)". HarlanEllisonBooks.com. 14 June 2019. Retrieved 19 February 2023.
  6. ^ "I Have No Mouth, And I Must Scream - Media Centre". BBC. Retrieved 13 March 2023.
  7. ^ Di Placido, Dani (26 October 2023). "How 'The Amazing Digital Circus' Broke The Internet". Forbes. Retrieved 5 November 2023.
  8. ^ Brady, Charles J. (1976). "The Computer as a Symbol of God: Ellison's Macabre Exodus". The Journal of General Education. 28 (1): 55–62. JSTOR 27796553.
  9. ^ Withers, Jeremy (2017). "Medieval and Futuristic Hells: The Influence of Dante on Ellison's 'I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream'". In Fugelso, Karl (ed.). Ecomedievalism. Studies in Medievalism. Vol. 26. Boydell & Brewer. pp. 117–130. ISBN 978-1-84384-465-5. JSTOR 10.7722/j.ctt1kgqvzg.12.
  10. ^ Francavilla, Joseph (1994). "The Concept of the Divided Self in Harlan Ellison's 'I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream' and 'Shatterday'". Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts. 6 (2/3 (22/23)): 107–125. JSTOR 43308212.

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