The Cold War
From the end of World War II through the mid1980s, the world endured a period commonly known as “The Cold War,” a standoff between nuclear superpowers which constantly threatened each other with mutual destruction. During this time, both the United States and the former Soviet Union built up huge arsenals of nuclear weapons aimed at each other. It was clear that if the weapons were ever unleashed, all life on Earth would end. Consequently, although there were many “brush fire” wars in remote corners of the globe, there was not a world war of the scope of either World War I or World War II. Nevertheless, there was a great deal of posturing and mutual fear. Many young people growing up during this time were convinced that their world would end in a nuclear firestorm.
The Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 did nothing to allay fears. When the Americans discovered that the Soviets were installing nuclear . . . Read More
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 . . . Read More
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 . . . Read More
Although not human, the computer, which calls itself AM, is perhaps the main character in the story. Originally, AM was one of several national computers designed to fight wars for the nation that owned it. Eventually, the computers learned to link themselves to each other, forming one supercomputer. When this supercomputer awoke, or became sentient, it called itself AM. AM hates all human beings, according to Ted, because “We had created it to think, but there was nothing it could do with that creativity.” AM killed all the humans on the face of the Earth, save five. Then AM brought the humans inside itself and created a hellish world for them in which it could torture and torment the survivors, but not let them die. During the story, AM plays with each of the survivors in turn, seemingly enjoying their pain and suffering.
One of the survivors, Benny, was a brilliant theoretician and . . . Read More
“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 . . . Read More
The Things They Carried, the collection in which “How to Tell A True War Story” appears, received rave reviews from critics and readers alike when it appeared in 1990. Many of the stories in the collection, including “How To Tell A True War Story,” had previously won awards following publication in periodicals such as Esquire, Ploughshares, and Atlantic Monthly. Indeed, critics such as Robert R. Harris, writing in the New York Times Book Review, called the volume a must-read for anyone interested in the Vietnam War.
The Things They Carried followed O’Brien’s National Book Award for Going After Cacciato, another novel which has as the subject a soldier’s Vietnam War experience. The Things They Carried was also nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critic’s Circle Award. In addition, the book won the Chicago Tribune Heartland Prize, the Melcher Book Award, and the Prix du Meilleur Livre Stranger (The Best . . . Read More
The Reagan Years: 1981-1988
In 1980 Ronald Reagan defeated Jimmy Carter for the presidency of the United States. Although the country could not yet know it, this was the year that the Gulf War really began, when Iraq invaded Iran. Because Iran held a group of Americans hostage, the United States initially favored Iraq in the conflict and provided arms to both Iraq and to Saudi Arabia. Throughout the decade, military concerns focused on the Middle East.
At this time, registration for the military draft was reinstated. Although there were some protests against registration, the protests did not come close to the scope of protest mounted against the draft and the Vietnam War in the previous two decades.
During the Reagan years, the president cast the Soviet Union as “The Evil Empire,” and urged Congress to pass funding for his Strategic Defense Initiative, commonly called “Star Wars.” Reagan wanted . . . Read More
Point of View and Narration
One of the most interesting, and perhaps troubling, aspects of the construction of “How to Tell a True War Story” is O’Brien’s choice to create a fictional, first-person narrator who also carries the name “Tim O’Brien.” Although the narrator remains unnamed in this particular story, other stories in the collection clearly identify the narrator by the name Tim. Further, the other stories in the collection also identify the narrator as a forty-three-year-old writer who writes about the Vietnam War, ever more closely identifying the narrator with the author.
On the one hand, this connection is very compelling. Readers are drawn into the story believing that they are reading something that has some basis in the truth of the writer Tim O’Brien. Further, the authorial voice that links the story fragments together sounds like it ought to belong to the . . . Read More
Memory and Reminiscence
Because “How to Tell a True War Story” is written by a Vietnam War veteran, and because Tim O’Brien has chosen to create a narrator with the same name as his own, mosl readers want to believe that the stories O’Brien tells are true and actually happened to him. There are several reasons for this. In the first place, O’Brien’s so-called memoir, If I Die In a Combat Zone, contains many stories thai find Iheir way into his later novels and short fiction. Thus, it is difficult for the reader to sort through what is memory and what is fiction.
There are those, however, who would suggest thai this is one of O’Brien’s points in writing his stories. Although most readers would believe thai their own memories are ‘ ‘true,” this particular story sets out to demonstrate the way that memories are at once true and made up.
Further, as . . . Read More
Slink Harris has a very small role in this story, although he figures in other stories in The Things They Carried.
Dave Jensen is a minor character in this story, a fellow member of Tim’s platoon.
Ral Kiley is another member of Tim’s platoon. The story opens with Tim telling the story of how Rat wrote a letter to the sister of Curt Lemon, one of Ral’s buddies who was killed. The sister never writes back and Rat calls her a “dumb cooze.” A second story involving Rat concerns a “baby VC water buffalo.” The event occurs soon after Curl’s death. The platoon captures the buffalo and takes it with them. However, when il refuses to eat the food Rat offers it, Rat begins shooting the buffalo. The narrator attributes this action to Rat’s grief and anger over the death of his . . . Read More