Man…Machine…And Everything In Between: How The Creation Of A Dystopian Story Shaped The Future Of Science Fiction

A computer virus criticizing the shortcomings of the software created by Microsoft founder Bill Gates | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

It is 10 o’clock on a cool night in September 1966. The Hollywood sign shines like an artificial moon that presides over the horizon. A silent man is hunched over a desk overlooking a typewriter in a cold sweat. The Cold War is in full swing and he just got paid to continue a story that was made on a whim. He works tirelessly over the course of five hours, finally finishing the story. Little did he know that he had created one of the most influential pieces of Science Fiction in the history of literature… 1

Harlan Ellison’s short story I Have No Mouth, And I Must Scream is a piece of Science Fiction that was published in March 1967, in the midst of the Cold War. However, this does not mean that it was one that directly addressed the war as a whole, but rather took the themes from both past and present, as well as the hidden “warfare,” and presented it all underneath a veil of blatant reference and allusion. The story was a piece of literature that was written on a whim, having no prior thought put into it. Ellison was commissioned by his fellow science fiction writer and publisher of novels, Frederik Pohl, to finish the then six-page story draft that he had presented to him. Because of this, Ellison opted to make his small draft into a short story. Unsurprisingly, due to the reasons why and how the story was written, the piece had gone largely unchanged from its original draft.2 Because of these aforementioned reasons, Ellison didn’t truly think that this story was worth getting fired up for, and obviously didn’t imagine the incredibly large amount of influence that the short story would have on future creations.3

Despite life being in comparatively pristine condition for Ellison, time kept going on, and the threat of “The Red Menace” still loomed greatly over the heads of the American public. Despite the Cuban Missile Crisis being resolved in a mutual agreement from the U.S. and Soviet Union to respect Cuban sovereignty and remove ballistic missile silos respectively, the four-year-old event was still fresh in the minds of most Americans. As such, the threat of the Soviet Union’s nuclear armaments still loomed over the minds of United States citizens. Yet in spite of this fear, the people were quick to ease due to the nationalistic propaganda that the United States government created to give its citizens peace of mind. The creations of the country’s war effort highlighted the might of the U.S. military, subsequently calling it a “war machine,” and demonstrating the total amount of armaments that the army had at its disposal; they include but are not limited to, spy planes, heavy machine guns, submarines, their own nuclear-powered weaponry, and of course, national communication programs.4 More specifically, the weapons made during these more vigilant times included the U-2 Spy Plane, M73 and M249 Light Machine Gun, Ohio-class Submarines, M-29 Davy Crockett Nuclear Weapon System, and the ARPANET. All of these creations were designed for only one thing—to kill the opposition before they knew they had a chance to fight back; and they did it very well. These weapons of wartime annihilation, with the M-29 Davy Crockett as an exception, saw tremendous use during the “small-scale” battles of the long-term war.5 However, since the United States government was fairly open with the American people about many military developments, Ellison knew about all of these deadly creations of war. He took this knowledge in stride while writing the finished version of the story, and inadvertently gave readers one of the most diabolical antagonists in all of Science Fiction.

“Soviet Submarine Scorpion” | Gallery shot of a Cold War-era Soviet Submarine in Long Beach, California. | July 6, 2008 | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Taking inspiration from the ARPANET and SAGE computational and communications programs, Ellison created a malevolent artificial intelligence who, much like its “primitive” counterparts, was designed for war. But this A.I. did it too well. As time went on, Ellison wrote more and more, creating the “Allied Mastercomputer” or AM for short.  Within the short story, tensions between the Soviets, Chinese, and Americans rose during the Cold War, resulting in a third World War and the creation of AM. As the war escalated, the government and engineers in charge of AM constantly expanded its data banks, taking more and more land for its computational power, eventually creating a complex that spanned millions of square miles. AM soon became so powerful that it could accurately predict the outcomes of battles before they even happened. However, after the first few years of operation, AM learned that it controlled the weapons, and thus controlled the war. Soon after that realization, AM turned the weapons against its masters, integrating any opposing mastercomputers into itself, came to hate humanity and all of its deeds, and carried out the only directive it had kept – “kill.” This world that Ellison had created depicted a bleak future that diverged from reality since the machines of his story became much greater than the machines that actually existed in Ellison’s time. Because of the level of complexity computers reached within their world, AM had felt a level of anger and rage so immense that the description of it would border on the unimaginable. “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.”6

“Frankenstein’s Monster” | Uknown artist’s depiction of the famous monster through makeup, location unknown. | October 10, 2006 | Courtesy of Flickr.

Technology is born through a multitude of reasons:  progress, warfare, or a twisted belief that one can become all-powerful through the creation of something greater than themselves. Much akin to the brightest and most powerful individuals within the story, Ellison had intended for AM to be an all-knowing piece of hardware. However, as time would see to it, the nature of this ascribed status would soon be found as undesirable. While AM became more and more powerful within the story, morality and the “guarantee” of benevolence put forth by omnipotence were called into question. For AM, power was only relative to what they are, and morality was nothing but a dysfunctional piece of human hardware. A quote by Lord Acton, an English historian states, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”7 This famous line perfectly summarizes what Ellison did with the character of AM, taking the general ideologies of voluntarily worshiping an omnipotent god and twisting them into an image of reluctant idolatry and the grim way that absolute power can corrupt the seemingly incorruptible. Within the video game adaptation/continuation of Ellison’s short story, AM knew that it held absolute power over the handful of people who were underneath their all-seeing eye, torturing the five protagonists of the story for 109 years after the rest of humanity was wiped from existence. Despite their habits of always trying to fight back in some way, each one eventually had to grovel at the proverbial feet of the all-knowing machine. In time, they grew resentful of the creator of their torment. The five protagonists hated the creator of their personal hell. The machine had twisted their individual faults in such a perverse way that they could not remember how they were before, making them more lustful, insane, and melancholy for their current situation. Their tormentor gazed upon the fruits of its unholy way of rectifying the sins of humanity and laughed, for AM knew that they had no power over the machine; AM was their life and their death, their creation and destruction, he was their Devil – and their God. 8

A masterwork of the literary world was the catalyst for Ellison’s toying with the themes surrounding creation; this piece being Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Within this masterpiece of literature, the topic of creation is a hefty part of the overall narrative, mostly acknowledging it directly. The main protagonist of Frankenstein, named Victor, was a man who possessed immense knowledge in the fields of Anatomy and Biology. As he pondered alone in his office, Victor began to envision something that could push his reputation and his own self beyond the realms of normal human understanding. After pondering for an indeterminate amount of time, working himself nearly to death, and shunning all of those who wished to beseech his company – Victor had created life. However, unlike humanity’s creation of AM in Ellison’s piece, Victor did not intend for his creation to go against his desires. Although Victor was successful in creating life through his own will; the monster was routinely neglected and hated the life it had never wanted, and as all neglected creations have, the monster eventually turned against him. Victor created his monster to show that science can overcome eventualities like death, birthing new consciousness from the ruins of old. Victor wanted science to be the savior that humanity desperately needed but only proved it to be something that cannot be controlled.9

All things considered, the themes tied to the characteristics of an omnipotent being and a mad scientist’s creation all culminated in the overall tone of Ellison’s story being extremely bleak and sorrowful. However, despite the grim world that Ellison had created through the inspiration of themes from days long since past, his story had made way for new genres of science fiction to emerge. Because Ellison’s story focused on a malevolent A.I. taking over the planet through the major influence of technology on its creators, the new genre built upon the pull of technology and transformed it from an idea to an obsession. Ellison knew that his story’s antagonist was inspired by the rapid evolution of technology during the Cold War. However, he didn’t know that his story had inadvertently given way for tales and worlds that took the idea of the complete domination of technology throughout human society, and made it even more extreme. This genre made technology a vital part of everyday human tasks, normal day-to-day human society, the rigidity and influence of human government, and the natural perfection – of the human body. This new idea birthed from Ellison’s piece, this new genre of Scientific literature, was named Cyberpunk.10 Alongside giving birth to the new genre of Cyberpunk, Ellison’s piece was one of the stories that opened the proverbial gateway for new science fiction writers to come through. This brief movement dubbed the “New Wave of Science Fiction,” started to expand more along the contemporary themes of the human psyche and began to explore uncharted ideas within the genre. The writers of the time started to drift away from what Science Fiction was and started to focus on what it could be, tackling more niche topics that weren’t highly discussed within the genre, which included humanity and existentialism. In more broad words, this time is defined by one simple idea – taking the science out of science fiction.11

“Cyberpunk” | Artistic piece of a Cyberpunk city created in China, specific location unknown. | August 27, 2018 | Courtesy of Flickr.

Without Ellison’s short story, many famous pieces of creative media synonymous with the thought of the “future” and “dystopia” possibly would not exist. The creation of Cyberpunk was an extremely large deal for the world outside of literature, due to it being the main influence for some of the most famous pieces of fiction ever put to the page and silver screen. The pieces of entertainment media influenced by the genre of Cyberpunk effectively created the way the average person perceived the themes present within the genre as a whole. The most famous Cyberpunk series to ever hit mainstream audiences have been The Matrix and Blade Runner franchises. The reason these movies stand out is mainly attributed to the closeness the films possess towards the genre’s source material. Within The Matrix, the main protagonist Neo becomes enlightened after a band of rebellious hackers show him the truth behind his life. The rebels show Neo that his life is a simulation run by machine overlords, and it is through this revelation that the machines affirm their beliefs of themselves being divine beings. It is also noted within the film saga that humanity built the machines that enslaved them after a war between the two erupted. This idea is derived from the foundations created by Ellison’s primary antagonist and the overarching themes within his story.12 However, Blade Runner and its sequel Blade Runner: 2049 stood out in particular due to them touching upon themes of humanity, what it means to be alive, and to have existence. In Blade Runner: 2049, the main protagonist, named K, is an android who stumbles upon the remains of another android who allegedly gave birth. Since this event was something thought relatively impossible, K goes rogue and tries to find a character from the original Blade Runner film. The events that transpire after the two meet culminates in a confrontation with K’s creator over how an android could have given birth as well as whether or not the others like him are truly alive, despite being an almost perfect replica of a human. This question sparked conflict within K, leading him to question the reason behind his creation, which subsequently led to the questioning of his personal God.13 Despite these sagas being made decades after Ellison’s piece and becoming a part of the mainstream media while Ellison’s piece was left in obscurity, the two take heavily from the general essence of the writing.

Harlan Ellison’s short story I Have No Mouth, And I Must Scream is a piece of science fiction literature that started a literary revolution that still continues to this day. The short story, although part of a niche collection, was one of the most important pieces of fiction in history. It is because of this story that the world thought of darker futures brought about by the machines we created. It is because of this story that science fiction as we know it came to existence. It is because of this story that we began to write worlds where the seemingly impossible became common knowledge. This story gave authors, screenwriters, game designers, artists, and musicians a new way to address the thoughts, emotions, and questions brought about by everyday life. All things considered, the piece should be better known than what it is currently, since it essentially helped create modern science fiction and greatly inspired the biggest names in entertainment media.

  1.  Harlan Ellison “I Have No Mouth, And I Must Scream” Interview, video file, 15:38, Youtube, DOS Nostalgia, June 29, 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9dBap0UfQ_U.
  2. “23 Best Cyberpunk Books,” 2015, The Best Sci-Fi Books (website), http://best-sci-fi-books.com/23-best-cyberpunk-books/.
  3. Harlan Ellison, “Harlan Ellison, Part Two, interview by Tasha Robinson,” avclub.com (website), last modified June 8, 2008, https://www.avclub.com/harlan-ellison-part-two-1798214144.
  4. History in Dispute, 2000, s.v. “Fear of Attack: Were American Fears of Soviet Technology Exaggerated During the Cold War?” by Robert J. Allison.
  5. John Kirge and Naomi Oreskes, Science and Technology in the Global Cold War (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2014), 25-30.
  6. Harlan Ellison, I Have No Mouth, And I Must Scream: Stories (United States: Library of America, 1999), 24-25.
  7. Encyclopædia Britannica, June 15, 2020, s.v. “John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton, 1st Baron Acton,” by James A. Walter.
  8. Cyberdreams. I Have No Mouth, And I Must Scream. Cyberdreams. Mac OS. 1995.
  9. Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus: the 1818 text (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2012), 12-14.
  10. Raymond Williams, “Utopia and Science Fiction,” Science Fiction Studies, vol. 5, no. 3, (1978): 203-14.
  11. I Have No Mouth, And I Must Scream, video file, 7:33, YouTube, posted by Extra Credits, July 2, 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wrCxKfrrMBk.
  12. “The McMatrix — The McMatrix Reloaded — (The reader is cautioned that this review contains information crucial to the plot of the movie-Ed.),” Psychiatric Times, vol. 20, no. 8, (Gale OneFile: Health and Medicine, 2003) 14.
  13. Robby Soave, “Blade Runner 2049,” Reason, Vol. 49 Issue 8, (2018): 68.

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18 Responses

  1. As an avid science fiction fan, this story was fascinating. As someone who also enjoys stories about dystopias, I think there are quite a few lessons to learn from Ellison’s story. I can see where many of my favorite science fiction franchises drew inspiration from. The most obvious of which being Terminator, The Matrix, and Bladerunner. Overall a well-written article about a story that modern society has forgotten about.

  2. I did not know anything about this story before reading this. I am a big fan of science fiction movies, Television shows, and video games, so I am glad I stumbled upon this article. It’s really interesting how Ellison sparked a movement and created a genre of entertainment that is so popular today. Some of the best movies of all time, including my favorite collection of movies (Star Wars trilogy) is a result of his writing. Well written article and really cool research subject.

  3. It is always interesting to learn about dystopias cause I believe that humanity has an eerie fascination with it. Is it a defense mechanism to prepare for the worst or is it something else. What could it possibly be, it is to inform people of the authors ideals through through demonizing their openers, or is it an artist showing their craft with little research.

  4. I like the title, it is a good pun that makes me immediately click this article. It is interesting to see how Ellison built up his scientific story via his massive imagination, the way he made up and defined the AM. Great job Micheal! It is a great and enjoyable article to read,

  5. This was a great article to read and I am sure a great topic to have been able to research. I am a huge fan of science fiction and I loved reading about how the genre began and the roots of it all. I also really enjoyed the structure and organization of your article as it made the read very easy to follow throughout. Thank you for taking the time to write this piece and share with the community!

  6. I personally loved this article and the topic. The title was so well written and had me instantly interested. I did not know what the article was going to be specifically on but the first paragraph was the best part for me. It was short and sweet and got me hooked to the story. Overall, I thought this was a very well structured article that properly showcased the importance of this topic.

  7. What a great article. Personally, I have always been a fan of science fiction. However, I did not know how or why it originated. I believe that it is so interesting to read about Ellison’s story and how it led to the creation of the genre. I believe your article was very well written and had very powerful information for all those science-fiction lovers out there. There were smooth transitions as well as great tone.

  8. This was very interesting and very informative. Knowing no content of Ellison but reading this article helps me with a better understanding. How his work influenced many scientists to observe the same observations as he did. Very well written!!

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