Individual versus Machine
Any number of critics have noted that one of Ellison’s favorite themes is the relationship between humans and the machines they create. Certainly, “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream” explores what happens when people create machines “because our time was badly spent.” Like other dystopian writers of the 1950s and 1960s, Ellison extrapolated trends he saw in his own culture and carried them to their extreme conclusions in an imaginary future he envisioned. Unlike a Utopia (an imaginary, ideal world), a dystopia is a form of literature that describes a future, imaginary world that is far from ideal. In a dystopia, current trends are carried out to their most horrifying conclusions.
In “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream,” humans have created computers as weapons of mass destruction. Although they have given the computers the ability to reason and think, they have not given the computers a sense of ethics or values. Consequently, when the computers link with each other, thus magnifying their ability to reason and think, the resulting supercomputer awakes into sentience. Unfortunately, the lack of ethics, or what some might term “soul,” results in a machine that is virulent in its rage against its human creators. The machine finds itself in a world not of its own making with almost unlimited power, but without the ability to create life or move about the universe. In many ways, AM considers itself to be trapped within its own self-awareness.
AM is thus a machine without a purpose. Once it has killed its creators, there is nothing left for it to do. Without purpose, without spirituality, without soul, the machine can only play and replay endless revenge upon the creatures in its power. The only thing it lacks is also the only thing that it cannot create—humanity.
Like many other writers of speculative fiction, Ellison is concerned with the ability of one person to assert his or her own individualism in the face of a culture that is becoming increasingly mechanized. At the heart of this issue is one of two questions raised by Arthur Lewis in the introduction to the book Clockwork Worlds: Mechanized Environments in SF: “What does it mean to be human?” Although the five survivors are tormented and tortured, there is no doubt that they are of a different substance than the computer that ravishes them. AM asserts its own individuality by calling itself AM; self-naming is the first step in individuation and identity. Ironically for AM, without peers or companions, this individualism is inescapable. It calls attention to the fact that being human requires not only a sense of oneself as an individual, but also a sense of oneself in relation to others.
Perhaps more to the point, it seems likely that Ellison is also questioning just what it takes to render human beings inhuman. How much torture and change can a person endure before losing the essential quality that defines him or her as human? Ellison takes great pains to question the individuality of each of the survivors. Ellen is the lone woman and the lone person of color among the survivors, but Ted’s rendering of her does not reveal an individual, but rather a type, a woman who is defined by her sexuality, not her individuality. Like wise, Benny is transformed into an ape-like creature with huge genitals who, in the penultimate scene, turns into an animal who cannibalizes another human.
Thomas F. Dillingham, writing in the Dictionary of Literary Biography about Ellison’s work, argues that “While individuality makes survival worth fighting for, it also makes a fight inevitable. In some cases, a gesture of defiance, no matter how self-defeating, may be the only self-authenticating effort an individual can make.” Certainly Ted’s final human gesture is a defiant one, and also a self-defeating one. When he kills the other survivors, he removes at least part of what defines him as human— his social group. By the last scene, Ted has been transformed into a creature who has sentience, consciousness, and self-awareness, but who is unable to partake of even simple human activities. Like AM, he is peerless, unable to practice both individualism and social connection. Thus, like AM, it would seem that Ted’s individuality is both futile and essentially not human, and he is permanently locked within his own self-awareness.
; Carol Ullmann (Editor) Short Stories for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, Volume 15, Harlan Ellison, Published by Gale, 2002.