There are many ironic things inside this book. Or even before you
get inside the book. Let's start with the first four words of the title.  
I Have No Mouth….Was famously outspoken Harlan Ellsion
laughing at us when he wrote that? The same sharp-tongued
Harlan Ellison
whose rants go viral on the Internet?  

No mouth? Harlan Ellison?  

I note, in passing, that the
Wikipedia entry for Mr. Ellison
has a lengthy section entitled
"Controversies and Disputes"
—with no fewer than ten
separate subsections included
in its litany of conflicts. ("Section
4.1. Temperament….Section
4.8 Allegations of assault on
Charles Platt….Section 4.10  Lawsuit against Fantagraphics," etc.)

"It sometimes looks rather as if, like a latter-day litigious Oscar Wilde,"
author Adam Roberts has suggested, Ellison "has decided to put his
real genius into his lawsuits." Indeed, Ellison’s publisher once promoted
him as "possibly the most contentious person on Earth." I've never heard
anyone dispute the title.  

But then we get to the next four words.
And I Must Scream.  Okay,
this is the Harlan Ellison we have come to know and fear.   

I remember reading the title story in the collection, "I Have No Mouth
& I Must Scream,” when I was a teenager. I found it wildly creative
and wantonly disturbing.  I just read it again a few days ago.  I still
think it’s wildly creative and wantonly disturbing.   
A lot has changed in sci-fi since then, but even
today, we expect a certain degree of heroism
in genre stories. Captain Kirk and Hans Solo
must triumph, not only to delight the fans but to
keep the
franchise alive.   Ellison’s heroes
don't triumph. They don’t give a tinker's cuss
about the franchise.  They have a hard time
keeping themselves alive.  

But they do plenty of damage before leaving the
scene. Reading the title story and others in this
collection, I was inevitably reminded of that old
song "You Always Hurt the One You Love"—in
particular the
Spike Jones parody version
filled with gunshots and screams.  Every one
of the stories in this book has a love angle, but
Harlan Ellison poses no threat to the romance
writers of the universe.  His love stories make
The Bride of Frankenstein look like An Affair
to Remember
by comparison.  If you doubt it,
check out the less-than-comforting romances
presented in stories here, such as "Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes" (gambler
falls in love with a dead girl, and finds she is much, much worse than
living dames), "Delusion for a Dragon Slayer" (Quick summary: hero gets
the dragon, not the lady—or, rather, the dragon gets him), or "Big Sam
Was My Friend" (man searches the universe for his long lost love, and is
rewarded with a lynch mob).

Frankly, Ellison has far more in common with horror writers, especially
the old school ones such as Poe and Lovecraft, who felt no obligation to
provide comfortingly happy endings to their stories.  Yes, there are
science fiction elements on the surface level of these tales, but the
terror runs far deeper. The terror is what you remember.  

And it is surprisingly psychological in nature. Yes, horrifying external
events happen in these stories. In the first sentence of the title story,
the last survivors on the earth encounter one of their colleagues
hanging from above with his throat slit.  But we soon find out that the
corpse is just an illusion. The evil computer that controls their
world is
just playing mind games with them. The goal of the game
is not to inflict physical damage, and certainly not death.  The aim
is to torment their psyches…and to continue to do so forever and
ever until the end of time.

See also
A Look Back at Harlan Ellison's Dangerous Visions by Ted Gioia

Harlan Ellison is a bit like that evil computer. He likes to play twisted
mind games too. In his case, they are called short stories, novels
and screenplays.  And he has written lots of them—more than 1,700,
I am told.  But unlike the computer, he gives us a glimpse of his
algorithms and methodologies.  Each of the short stories in this
collection is accompanied by an introduction, which describes the
circumstances that surrounded the tale's genesis as well as various
observations on the writing life and the responsibility of being Harlan
Ellison in a world where everyone else isn't.  

These introductions are almost as good as the stories.  And for a
simple reason.  Ellison, say what you will about his "temperament"
and "allegations of assault," is a heck of a prose stylist.  A number
of writers of Ellison's generation deserve acknowledgement for
expanding the boundaries of genre fiction, but none of them wrote
punchier, more audacious sentences than Ellison. It almost seems
as if he inserts a catheter into his Freudian Id, and lets the other
end splurt out through his typewriter ribbon onto the printed page.  
He can go phrase for phrase with Kurt Vonnegut or Hunter Thompson
or any of the other masters of raw and raucous prose, and always
hold his own.

I can't give you a tour of his 1,700 tales.  Ellison outruns even his
devoted readers.  But I am willing to declare, under oath if need be,
that this book is a classic, one of the defining works in the New
Wave movement that rewrote the sci-fi rulebook back in the 1960s.  
And while many of the other New Wave books have aged poorly,
their once daring gambits now looking like failed sucker bets, this
one still ups the ante.  And probably because Harlan Ellison, even
at his most experimental, always wrote as if his life depended on it.  
Or as he describes it: "A special word about the stories in this book:  
they come from someplace special in me.  Someplace I don’t care
to visit too frequently."  For my part, I enjoyed the visit, but I can't
blame Mr. Ellison for his reservations.  After all, I get to leave when
I'm done, but he has to live there.  Okay, at least, he gets to scream.

Ted Gioia writes on music, literature and popular culture. He is currently
working on his ninth book,
Love Songs: The Hidden History, which will be
published by Oxford University Press.

Publication date of this article:  July 2, 2013
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Exploring the Non-Realist Tradition in Fiction
I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

by Harlan Ellison
Reviewed by Ted Gioia
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