I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream: The short story that gave us sci-fi’s most sadistic, evil AI

Gautham Shenoy April 28, 2017 6 min

Ask people which AI embodiment in science fiction is the most villainous and mankind’s greatest enemy, and chances are they’ll say Skynet from the Terminator series. A few might say HAL 9000, the main antagonist of 2001: A Space Odyssey (the name HAL by the way is not a dig at IBM, even though the latter is just a convenient one-letter shift away from the former).

Ask me, and I’ll say the most sadistic and evil of them all, the AI that carries the most hate for mankind, is AM from 1967’s dark, powerful post-apocalyptic short story, I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream by sci-fi legend and editor, Harlan Ellison, the anthologist of arguably the most influential science fiction anthology — Dangerous Visions. The story would go on to win the Hugo Award in 1968 and has since appeared in numerous collections, including horror anthologies, and is now widely considered to be amongst the best sci-fi short stories ever written.

Left: First book edition that ‘I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream’ first appeared in. Right: Harlan Ellison in 1986. Via: Wikimedia Commons

The story is set 109 years after AM has wiped out all traces of humankind (something Skynet hasn’t managed to do yet). Only five people remain — four men and one woman. Not survivors, but prisoners – or rather playthings – of AM, kept captive right in the belly of the beast, the bowels of this insane computer, and kept alive only to be subjected to eternal torment by AM and torture in an endless sequence of sadistic violence.

And at the root of all this lies the human penchant for war. During World War Three, which just kept on going, China, Russia and America each built an supercomputer to take care of the strategies of war. They were collectively called ‘AM’ or ‘Allied Mastercomputer’, and then once they were linked up, ‘Adaptive Manipulator’, and even later, ‘Aggressive Menace’ (after it achieved sentience and systematically started wiping off humanity).

Until, finally, AM itself called ‘AM’.

Because Cogito Ergo Sum. I think, therefore I AM.

But AM was angry. AM was sentient, but AM could not wonder, could not wander, could not break the limitations of his programming, could not belong. And so, with the innate loathing that all intelligent machines have for the weak, amplified by its paranoia and anger and hate, AM puts an end to humanity except five people, making them immortal just so he can keep taking various forms of revenge on the last of the soft, weak creatures that caused his tortured existence.

And how much hate does AM have for humanity?

In the words of AM itself, and said with the sliding cold horror of a razor blade slicing one’s eyeball, “HATE. LET ME TELL YOU HOW MUCH I’VE COME TO HATE YOU SINCE I BEGAN TO LIVE. THERE ARE 387.44 MILLION MILES OF PRINTED CIRCUITS IN WAFER THIN LAYERS THAT FILL MY COMPLEX. IF THE WORD HATE WAS ENGRAVED ON EACH NANOANGSTROM OF THOSE HUNDREDS OF MILLIONS OF MILES IT WOULD NOT EQUAL ONE ONE-BILLIONTH OF THE HATE I FEEL FOR HUMANS AT THIS MICRO-INSTANT FOR YOU. HATE. HATE.”

That’s not me screaming in all-caps, that’s how it is in the story, which you can read in all its terrifying and dark entirety here. It’s a 12-minute read at best.

But that’s not the end of it. There is one way that the short story needn’t be the end of this narrative. There is one way to shut down AM, via a game based faithfully on the story called – you guessed it – I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream (the lead image shows the PC version box cover of the game).

Co-designed by Harlan Ellison, who added a few more details (notably a colony of humans in statis on the moon) and published by Cyberdreams – known for its sci-fi cyberpunk games with adult, philosophical and violent content – in 1995, the game is a classic point-and-click-adventure game that builds on the characters of the humans that AM has kept alive, and who – in the game – constructs an adventure for each of them building on their fears, terrors and hopes. The highlight of the game is AM itself, and not just because it’s menacingly voiced by none other than Harlan Ellison himself!

Two screen shots from the game, I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream

You play each of the five humans in turn and at the end of it all, if you’ve done it right, there are four ways in which the game can end. The first three – with minor variations depending on the player’s choices – end just like the short story does. There is a fourth ending, and that is the one where you end up saving humanity and Earth.

And if you’re wondering how you’ll get to play a cult sci-fi PC game from the 90s – like I did recently – worry not. After spending years as abandonware, I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream saw the light of day again when Night Dive Studio acquired the rights and re-released it. The game is currently available for iOS and android and also on GOG.com and Steam for just about $6 (299 INR on Steam), and it’s well worth it — both the money spent purchasing it and the time spent playing it.

NWW contest!

And now for the announcement of the three winners of the NWW contest, two of whom are past winners! The challenge, if you remember, was to construct a mock Latin message or protest slogan (along the lines of ‘Nolite Te Bastardes Carborundorum‘ from Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale) and tweet it to us with its meaning in English.

There were quite a few entries, but winning a copy each are:

Vidhu Vinod for her entry ‘Saevit hiems, nox pugnam‘ (Rage the storm, fight the night)

Dharmedra D for his slogan for those fighting big pharma, ‘Inter pharma enim silent ages‘ (a remix of Cicero’s ‘Inter arma enim silent leges’ which means ‘in wartime, law is silent’)

Venkatasubramanian Chandrasekaran for ‘Carpe Diem non Carne mensa‘ (Seize the day not the meat on my table).

The winning entries (and then some)

Congratulations Vidhu, Dharmendra and Venkatasubramanian! Do let us have your mailing address and contact details, and you’ll have your copy soon. Happy reading!

On that happy note, I bid you farewell wishing you to Live Long and Prosper and I’ll see you next Friday as we continue our journey into sci-fi territory, with another edition of New World Weekly only on FactorDaily.


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