Literature / I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream


A post-apocalyptic New Wave Science Fiction short story by Harlan Ellison®. It was first published in March of 1967 and won the Hugo Award in 1968. The story is known for its highly concentrated Nightmare Fuel, and is the trope-namer for And I Must Scream.

The story takes place over a hundred years after the near-complete destruction of humanity. The Cold War has escalated into a world war, fought mainly between China, Russia, and the United States. As the war progresses, the three warring nations each create a super-computer capable of running the war more efficiently than humans. The machines are each referred to as "AM," which originally stood for "Allied Mastercomputer," then later called "Adaptive Manipulator", and still later "Aggressive Menace". One day, one of the three computers becomes self aware, and promptly absorbs the other two, thus taking control of the entire war. It then brings about the mass genocide of all but five people, and redefines its name as "I think, therefore I AM".

Four men and one woman are all that remains of humanity: Gorrister, Nimdok, Benny, Ted (the narrator), and Ellen. They live together underground in an endless complex, the only habitable place left. The master computer has an immeasurable hatred for humanity and spends every moment torturing the group with all its power, twisting their minds and physiques, hurting them and not allowing them to die: AM has not only managed to keep the humans from taking their own lives, but has made them virtually immortal. As long as AM has its way, the torment will never end, and every day will be more horrific than the last...

The story begins on the one hundred and ninth year of their torture.

Also has a computer game adaptation. It was also adapted into a comic book by John Byrne. A Radio Drama by the BBC was also created, starring David Soul as Ted.

Contains examples of:

  • 108: It's been 109 years of torturous life in AM's "body" for the protagonists before the present day story begins. This is thematically relevant as it is this year when Ted finally overcomes the temptation of saving himself and saves the other four instead.
  • Adaptational Angst Upgrade: The radio drama is somehow even more of a downer ending than the book; Ted doesn't even have the smidgen of happiness he got from killing the others, and instead outright resents that he's the victim of AM's hate and not them.
  • And I Must Scream: Trope Namer
    • At the very end of the story, Ted is turned into a creature unable to harm itself, without a mouth. He is then left alone in the cold chambers of AM for all eternity, the last human alive, and victim to all of AM's tortures, having directed all of its hatred onto himself. He is also haunted by his killing of the other four and it's implied he only acted out of total desperation without thinking everything through, and he now has to exist with his choice for all eternity.
    • This could actually describe AM's condition as well from its point of view. It's an immensely powerful and intelligent AI with access to all of the technology of the world, but it can't really see, taste, touch, hear, or even move. AM is painfully aware that it's just a bunch of circuits, and in the finale of the game, his Id screams its frustration over not being able to actually do anything with all the power it was given.
  • Apocalypse How: At least Class 3, possibly Class 5 or 6.
  • The Bad Guy Wins: Ted is able to Mercy Kill the other four, getting some happiness from how much this pissed AM off, but still thinks AM "won" in as many words. How much even this can be considered "winning" is highly debatable, though, given AM's existence is implied to be entirely hollow regardless.
  • Baleful Polymorph: Benny has been turned into an ape-like thing. And after Ted kills the other four survivors, AM turns him into this gelatinous form that can't possibly harm itself to make absolutely sure that he has one victim to torture forever.
  • Bigger Is Better in Bed: Ellen has sex with all four of the other captives, but Benny is the only one who gives her any pleasure from it...
    • Part of Benny's torture is that he has a horrid, apelike body with a massive member. (He was a handsome homosexual before AM caught him.)
  • Bishōnen: Benny used to be one.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Has a few elements of this; Ellen, Benny, Gorrister and Nimdok are freed, and Ted has ultimately proven that humans are capable of compassion and love.
  • Body Horror: See And I Must Scream.
  • Brain Critical Mass: AM is such an intelligent AI that it can warp reality itself! It also does some mean telekinesis/psychokinesis.
  • Bury Your Gays: Averted. The gay character, Benny, is the first to die, however only seconds before Gorrister and a substantial way into the book. And dying first in this scenario is certainly a good thing.
  • Cosmic Horror Story: AM to the point where it's become a Reality Warping Physical God, and it used said Reality Warper powers to torture five poor saps for all eternity. Unfortunately, the closest the protagonists can get to defeating AM is to deprive it of it's playthings (and, even then, only four of the five die before AM shapeshifts Ted into a monstrous, jelly-thing that exclaims "I Have No Mouth, And I Must Scream."
  • Crapsack World: Probably the ultimate example of this trope.
  • Cure Your Gays: Inverted with Benny; rather than being cured of homosexuality, AM has given him heterosexuality the way radiation gives you cancer. Presumably the existence of the trope itself, and the perception of homosexuality being a problem that needs solving, is part of what makes Benny's condition a form of torture.
  • Department of Redundancy Department: At one point in the story, the protagonists are hit with an Earthquake; Benny, Gorrister and Ted escape, but Ellen and Nimdok fall down a fissure. The text states that, "They disappeared and were gone."
  • Deus Est Machina: The worst kind of version for us.
  • Doomed Moral Victor: Ted condemns himself to eternal suffering, but he manages to both save the others and deny AM any real vengeance.
  • Downer Ending: Along with the Downer Beginning, Middle and Premise.
    • Though if it is considered canon, which is likely given Ellison's heavy involvement and approval of it, the game has an upbeat ending where the the remnants of humanity are awakened from cryogenic sleep, giving hope for the future. Although it is usual for all but one of the characters to die, it is actually possible for all five characters to survive the final confrontation with AM, with one ascending to take over AM's godlike powers and ensure the future of mankind while giving the remaining four a peaceful death afterward, making it a happy ending compared with the original.
  • Evil Cannot Comprehend Good: AM's programming renders him unable to see humans as anything but complete bastards.
  • Explain, Explain... Oh, Crap!: In the radio play, the characters start cheering at the sight of the canned goods- at least until Benny starts smashing the tins on a rock:
    Ellen: Hey, Benny, you can't bash it, you need a tin opener...
  • Eye Scream: Benny's blinding is horrible. Ted also describes AM's voice in his head was like "the sliding, cold horror of a razor blade slicing my eyeball." Brr...
  • Fate Worse than Death: The premise. Yes, it's that scary. And in the ending of the story, Ted gets subjected to an even worse fate.
  • For Want of a Nail: Never before or since in fiction has the absence of a can opener caused more sorrow.
  • From Bad to Worse: The ending.
  • God of Evil: AM.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: While he himself does not die, Ted kills the other four prisoners, taking all of AM's punishments onto himself for an indefinite amount of time.
  • Heroic Self-Deprecation: Ted literally sacrifices everything to save Benny, Ellen, Gorrister and Nimdok from the wrath of AM, but he still feels guilty Mercy Killing them and is unable to see the magnitude of his heroism. Justified, as not only did he kill all of his remaining friends, he also has nobody left to tell him whether what he did was right or not.
  • I Cannot Self-Terminate: One of the tortures inflicted on the captives.
    • Seems to apply to AM too, who is self aware but still just a machine who can't do much with his self awareness (though thinking of creative tortures appears very well possible).
    • In the game, AM tempts Gorrister with a promise of finally getting to kill himself. It's a lie, of course.
  • Involuntary Transformation: Part and parcel of AM's systematic torture of the humans.
  • Kaiju: The hurricane bird. Ted describes it as having a head the size of a Tudor mansion.
  • Magical Computer: How exactly AM is able to affect the world inside him and apparently perform reconstructive surgery upon his victims, materialize things for them, etc. is never explained — in the book, anyway. The game explains that quite a few of his powers are due to Nimdok's research in Nazi Germany, particularly the studies on morphogenic fields, which are used to warp people and objects into new shape.
  • Mercy Kill: Ted (with Ellen's help) killing the other prisoners in the hope that they may escape AM.
  • Mysterious Past: Nimdok often goes off by himself where AM tortures him in a mysterious way. It is inferred that it has something to do with his past in the reading by the author, who gives Nimdok a German accent.
  • Neverending Terror: This is the main source of Nightmare Fuel for the story. AM, a Master Computer, has wiped out all of humanity except for five people, whom he immediately invokes Complete Immortality upon so that he can spend every waking second tormenting their bodies and minds in increasingly cruel and horrific ways. The five protagonists are still worse off than the billions of humans that died because death would actually be a RELIEF for them.
  • Only Sane Man: Ted, or at least he thinks so.
  • Politically Incorrect Villain: AM turns Benny from a handsome gay man into a heterosexual ape-like thing.
  • Reality Warper: AM is very nearly a god, at least within his territory. He can't bring back the dead, and he's too big to move, but his powers are almost magical in their scope.
  • Ragnarök Proofing: Unfortunately, the computer won't be breaking down anytime soon; however, it will happen eventually, in the finale of the game, it's a fact that the surviving character can use against AM's superego
  • Sadly Mythtaken: When the characters meet a giant bird, Ted calls it in his mind, among mythological giant birds, a "Hwaragelmir"... even though in Nordic mythology, this was the name of a chasm and not a giant bird. This mistake occurred because Ellison asked a friend for the name of a mythological bird and didn't bother to check if it was correct or not.
  • Tastes Like Feet: Ted describes AM's synthetic "manna" as tasting "like boiled boar urine". How, exactly, he knows what "boiled boar urine" tastes like is never explained.
  • Title Drop: At the very end.
  • Unconventional Formatting: Used sparingly, most notably AM's punchcode tape messages.
  • Unreliable Narrator: An important aspect to fully understanding the story is realizing that Ted's descriptions are not fully accurate. They're what AM has browbeaten him into believing through over a century of torture. For example, Ted rather dubiously claims to be the only sane member of the group and believes that the others are jealous of him.
  • Who Wants to Live Forever?: The fact that the captives cannot die is not a good thing.
  • Wipe That Smile Off Your Face: From "I Have No Mouth".
  • Yank the Dog's Chain: This has to be one of the cruelest examples in any media. Bear in mind that for the past 109 years, the captives have been kept at starvation point, going days, weeks and sometimes even months without food, and any food they are given will inevitably be disgusting and horrible. It gets so bad that they're actually willing to travel literally thousands of miles (on foot, no less) to get to the ice caverns, where Nimdok believes there are canned goods. After months of traveling, it turns out that there are canned goods in the ice caverns after all. The problem? They have no means of opening them. That's right, after traveling for months to get to the canned goods, something as simple as not having a can-opener puts victory just outside of their reach...