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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19 Responses

  1. The dystopian science fiction genre is so bizarrely atypical that it is a wonder how Ellison ever managed to create it. The impact of his short story will probably be felt for as long as humanity exists. Not only did it bring about one of most culturally significant genres, but it also brought about the uneasiness towards machines that a majority of people today feel, regardless of their connection to the genre.

  2. This is such an interesting topic to cover. Many creators go uncredited or unknown because their influence was overshadowed by other works that were inspired by innovators like Ellison. I have heard much about the humanity and technological aspect of this new genre, cyberpunk, but I never put a name to it. Most of the time only referring to it as dystopian or plainly science fiction. This article was very well written and really showcased the important movies or books that transformed the genre like no other. I especially liked the distinction made in the article between plain science fiction and cyberpunk because one is more of an umbrella term rather than a collection of inspired pieces. Great work!

  3. This article was an incredible read; I am an avid science fiction fan/reader and yet I have never even heard Ellison’s story before! It was so fascinating to read and the article flowed along with your expert use of descriptive words pulled me in and held me captivated as I read every single word. It was so amazing to read about how he influenced the creation of one of the most popular and iconic sub-genre of science fiction!

  4. Micheal, your article is well organized. It’s funny that his story revolutionized science-fiction and inspired movies like the Matrix which I’m sure inspired people to either a) begin writing sci-fi stories and directing sci-fi films, or b) work in the field of Science and Technology which is probably why we have conglomerate tech companies today.

  5. A very interesting story on the classic genre of a dystopian future. I was not familiar with Ellison or her story prior to this article. Her story seems very interesting and some parts of it are coming true, such as the data collection and AI being able to predict mundane things. However, we will just have to wait and see if AI ever gets the power to reliably predict and control itself.

  6. I do not believe that my interest revolves around science fiction novels, but reading about this story was very interesting. Seeing where the creation of a genre came from and where it has purported to is amazing. I am also a big fan of Frankenstein and I believe that the piece that was included about it was awesome!

  7. This was an interesting article surrounding Ellison’s essential creation of science fiction. All great ideas start somewhere, and this story did a great job at following that progression. I had never heard of the story prior to reading the article but found it very informative. The genre itself is something I have found interesting but never knew the crux of where it began.

  8. I have never been a hug fan of science fiction, and by saying that I had never heard of Ellison’s story or anything surrounding it until I read this article. It’s crazy how the things he did took part in creating the genre of dystopian came about. This was a well-written article amd a great read!

  9. Such an interesting and informative article!! I have never heard of Harlan Ellison or any element of this story or to this detail. So very captivating, you really pulled in your audience. I have never heard of the story to impact science fiction, so it was so cool to learn about something from history I had not known. I thoroughly enjoyed reading your article. Great job!!

  10. Having never heard of the content of Ellison’s story, but having seen it referenced both in articles and media, it was most definitely an interesting read to finally know what the story covered. To finally know how his work influenced the genre is also very interesting. Overall a very well written and informative article.

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