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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, 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.

The story is set against the backdrop of World War III, where a sentient supercomputer named AM, born from the merging of the world's major defense computers, eradicates humanity except for five individuals. These survivors—Benny, Gorrister, Nimdok, Ted, and Ellen—are kept alive by AM to endure endless torture as a form of revenge against their creators. The story unfolds through the eyes of Ted, the narrator, detailing their perpetual misery and quest for canned food in AM's vast, underground complex, only to face further despair.

Written in one night in 1966, Ellison's narrative was minimally altered upon submission and tackles themes of technology's misuse, humanity's resilience, and existential horror. "I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream" has been adapted into various media, including a 1995 computer game co-authored by Ellison, a comic-book adaptation, an audiobook read by Ellison, and a BBC Radio 4 play where Ellison voiced AM. The story is critically acclaimed for its exploration of AI's potential perils and the human condition, underscored by Ellison's innovative use of punchcode tapes as narrative transitions, embodying AM's consciousness and its philosophical ponderings on existence.

The story 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 of American Fantastic Tales.


As the Cold War progresses into a nuclear World War III fought between the United States, the Soviet Union, and China, each nation builds an "Allied Mastercomputer" (AM), needed to coordinate weapons and troops due to the scale of the conflict. These computers are giant, underground machines which permeate the planet with caverns and corridors. Eventually, one AM emerges as a sentient entity possessing an extreme hatred for its creators. Combining with the other computers, it subsequently exterminates humanity, with the exception of five individuals, whom it tortures inside its complex. The humans, four men (Benny, Gorrister, Nimdok, and Ted) and one woman (Ellen), have been rendered virtually immortal and unable to die by suicide.

The story, narrated by Ted, begins 109 years after the start of the humans' imprisonment. They are kept half-starved by AM; when Nimdok has the idea that there exists canned food in the complex's ice caves, they begin a 100-mile journey to retrieve it. Through the journey, AM tortures the humans: Benny's eyes are melted after attempting escape, a huge bird that creates hurricane gales with its wings is placed at the North Pole, and Ellen and Nimdok are injured in earthquakes.

When the five finally reach the ice caves, they find a pile of canned goods, but no tools with which to open them. In an act of rage and desperation, Benny attacks Gorrister and begins to eat his face. In a moment of clarity, Ted realizes that even though they cannot kill themselves, there is nothing AM can do to stop them from killing each other. He fatally impales Benny and Gorrister with a stalactite of ice and Ellen kills Nimdok in the same manner; he then kills Ellen. Unable to resuscitate the others, AM stops Ted from killing himself and focuses the entirety of its rage on him. Several hundred years later, AM has transformed him into a gelatinous, amorphous blob, unable to harm himself. AM alters his perception of time to cause him further anguish. However, Ted finds some comfort knowing that he was able to spare the others further torment. The story ends with his thought: "I have no mouth. And I must scream."


  • AM (Allied Mastercomputer, Adaptive Manipulator, Aggressive Menace), the supercomputer which brought about the near-extinction of humanity after achieving self-awareness. It seeks revenge on humanity for its own creation.
  • Gorrister, formerly an idealist and pacifist, made apathetic and listless by AM. He tells the history of AM to Benny to entertain him.
  • Benny, formerly a brilliant and handsome scientist, made to resemble a grotesque simian with oversized sexual organs. Having lost his sanity and his homosexuality altered, Benny frequently has sex with Ellen.
  • Nimdok (a name AM gave him for amusement), an older man who convinces the rest of the group to go on a journey in search of canned food. He occasionally wanders away from the group and returns traumatised.
  • Ellen, the only woman in the group. Formerly sexually inexperienced, AM has altered her mind to make her desperate for intercourse – she has sex with all of the men, who alternate between abusing her and protecting her.
  • Ted, the narrator and youngest of the humans. Believing he has not been mentally altered by AM, he thinks the others hate him.


Ellison wrote the 13-page short story in a single night in 1966 while making almost no changes from the first draft.[1][2] Afterwards, his editor Frederik Pohl dealt with the story's "difficult sections", toning down some of the narrator's imprecations and eliminating mentions of sex, penis size, homosexuality, and masturbation; said elements were nonetheless eventually restored in later editions of the story.[3] Ellison derived the story's title, as well as inspiration for the story itself, from his friend William Rotsler's caption of a cartoon of a rag doll with no mouth.[4]


  • Ellison adapted the story into a video game, published by Cyberdreams in 1995. Although he was not a fan of video games and did not own a PC at the time, he co-authored the expanded storyline and wrote much of the game's dialogue, all on a mechanical typewriter.[5] 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.[6]
  • 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.[7]


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 punishing their sins, similar to Dante's Inferno.[9] However, in spite of its magnificent feats, AM is just as trapped as the five humans it tortures: as Ellison puts it, "AM is frustrated. AM has been given sentience, prescience, great powers" and yet "it's nothing but plates and steel and gauges and other electronics", which means "it can’t go anywhere, it can’t do anything, it’s trapped. It is, itself, like the unloved child of a family that doesn’t pay it any attention."[10]

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'.[11]

According to Ellison, the short story is a warning about "the misuse of technology" (especially military technology),[12] and its ending is meant to represent how there's "a spark of humanity in us, that in the last, final, most excruciating moment, will do the unspeakable in the name of kindness", even sacrificing oneself for others' sake.[10]

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, 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"



  1. ^ "Harlan Ellison "I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream" interview". YouTube. Interactive Entertainment CD-ROM magazine. I wrote 'I Have no Mouth and I Must Scream' in one night, in one blue-white fit of passion...and it's remained virtually unchanged from that first draft
  2. ^ Odom, Adam (1995). I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream, the Official Strategy Guide (PDF). Prima Pub. p. xxxi. ISBN 0761503595.
  3. ^ 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.
  4. ^ 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.
  5. ^ Ellison, Harlan (May 1995). "Harlan Ellison "I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream" interview" (video). youtube.com. Interactive Entertainment. Retrieved 2023-02-19.
  6. ^ "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.
  7. ^ "I Have No Mouth, And I Must Scream". bbc.co.uk. BBC. Archived from the original on April 13, 2024. Retrieved 13 March 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. ^ a b Toperzer, Jensen (September 10, 2013). "Interview with Harlan Ellison". nightdivestudios.com. Night Dive Studios. Archived from the original on February 26, 2024.
  11. ^ 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.
  12. ^ "Webderland HE Interview". harlanellison.com.

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