Point of View
Ellison has provided “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream” with a limited, first-person narrator. Thus, all of the events of the story must be filtered through the mind and voice of Ted, one of the humans trapped by the computer AM. Because everything is told from the “I” perspective, the reader cannot ascertain what other characters are thinking or their motives for what they do. The reader can only know what the first-person narrator provides.
There are certain advantages to the use of a first-person narrator. In the first place, the use of the first-person pronoun makes the story seem immediate and compelling. It is as if a real person is telling the story directly to the reader, almost as if the narrator and the reader are engaged in a meaningful conversation. In addition, the use of the first-person encourages the reader to trust the account. Thus, when the narrator reports that there is a hurricane created by a big bird, the reader believes him. However, Ellison’s story is fraught with ambiguities and layers. The reader is trapped within the narrator’s mind, just as the narrator is trapped within AM. Consequently, there is no objective outside source with which the reader can ground him- or herself. Although what Ted tells the reader seems to be true, there is no way for the reader to judge this, just as there is no way for Ted to judge the reality of his surroundings. Thus the reading experience becomes akin to Ted’s living experience.
Science fiction as a genre had its roots with H. G. Wells during the nineteenth century. Since that time, readers and writers alike have found science fiction to be a compelling and attractive mode of storytelling. It allows a writer to make comments on contemporary society by creating and critiquing a society of the future. Although the popularity of science fiction has waxed and waned over the years, it continues to hold an important position in American literature and film.
To be considered science fiction, a story generally needs to have at its core some reference to science or technology, and it needs to be fiction, or imaginary. Indeed, nearly all science fiction begins with the question “What if?” and goes from there. Some science fiction writers, including Ellison, prefer to call their work “speculative fiction,” emphasizing that their stories take some feature of contemporary life and extend this feature into the future.
Nevertheless, “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream” is in many ways a classic science fiction story. It begins with a premise that has its roots in the growth of technology during the 1960s, the premise that putting supercomputers in communication with each other and in charge of defense will lead to Armageddon. In the 1960s, the potential of linked computer systems was still only potential; however, Ellison and others hypothesized about what such computers could create.
Further, the story explores the ground between humans and machines, popular territory for writers and filmmakers alike. In Ellison’s own time, Isaac Asimov created a series of very popular robotic novels that took as their subject the relationship between people and their robotic creations. More recently, the writers of Star Trek: The Next Generation, a popular television series, created the Borg, a race of part-human/part-machine beings. Further, in movies such as The Matrix, the role of supercomputers in control of everyday life is explored.
Ellison’s science fiction or speculative fiction continues to speak to audiences years after its initial publication. This story in particular seems destined to haunt readers who see in the growth of the Internet a potentially lethal connection between humans and machines.
Carol Ullmann (Editor) Short Stories for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, Volume 15, Harlan Ellison, Published by Gale, 2002.