“I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream” opens with a terrifying image of Gorrister hanging upside down with his throat slit. Almost immediately, however, Gorrister returns to the group and the reader understands that the opening image has been created by the supercomputer, AM.
Ted, the narrator, continues to describe the situation: five survivors of a nuclear holocaust have been kept alive and tormented by a sentient supercomputer that has destroyed the rest of humankind. Ted tells the reader that they have lived inside the computer for 109 years.
At the time of the story’s opening, the survivors have not eaten in five days and they decide to journey to the ice caverns. Nimdok, one of the group, is convinced that there are canned goods there. Ted then introduces the rest of the survivors to the reader. Ellen, a black woman, provides sex for the four men. Benny, a brilliant university professor in his previous life, is now an insane, ape-like creature. Nimdok has no history except that AM has named him Nimdok because it likes strange sounds. Finally, Gorrister is described as a “shoulder-shrugger,” someone who cannot make decisions or take charge.
During the journey to the ice caverns, Benny is blinded by AM. To comfort him, Gorrister tells the story of how the allied master computers of the Chinese, Russians, and Americans linked together and became sentient. In this way, the reader gradually learns the story of these people and how they came to live inside the computer, hounded and tormented by the machine. After Benny’s blinding, AM “speaks” to the pilgrims, tickling their brains with terrifying sensory images. Ted is particularly hard-hit by this experience, and when he returns to the group, he seems somehow changed. He is sure that the rest of the survivors hate him.
Next, AM sends a hurricane created by a gigantic bird. The survivors are pummeled and sent flying through the air. In the midst of this, AM appears to Ted as a “pillar of stainless steel bearing bright neon lettering.” The message AM gives Ted is one of hatred toward all humans.
The journey continues through unspeakable horrors that Ted only lists:
And we passed through the cavern of rats.
And we passed through the path of boiling steam.
And we passed through the country of the blind.
And we passed through the slough of despond.
And we passed through the vale of tears.
After these trials, they arrive at the cavern of ice and find stacks of canned goods. However, AM has not given them a can opener. Driven mad with rage, Benny attacks Gorrister and begins eating his face. At this moment, Ted realizes that death is their only escape, and that he has the means to kill them all. He rushes at Benny and Gorrister with an ice spear and kills them. Ellen kills Nimdok, and then Ted kills Ellen.
The story closes with Ted describing how AM has changed him. He is now a “great soft jelly thing. Smoothly rounded, with no mouth, with pulsing white holes filled by fog where my eyes used to be.” By so changing him, AM has ensured that Ted will be unable to kill himself. Consequently, Ted is trapped for all eternity with his mind intact, but with no way to be human. What Ted wants most is to scream, but he has no mouth.
Carol Ullmann (Editor) Short Stories for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, Volume 15, Harlan Ellison, Published by Gale, 2002.