Reading Review: I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream (1983 edition) by Harlan Ellison

classic sci-fi at its most misanthropic.
Ellison’s best known work.

I haven’t read much Ellison. I was very impressed with a collection of his later work titled Angry Candy when I was in high school and undergrad, so much so that I told more than one person he was my favorite author. Even then, I knew I was cheating if I said that without reading the earlier collection I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream. It was a long time before I got around to doing my homework – a long time before I asked for a copy of the collection, another long time for my copy to sit on my shelf gathering dust and not being read, a long time between when I started reading that copy and when I finished it. But I’m done now, and I have some things to say about this seminal work.

The Collection’s Unsung Gem: Delusion for a Dragon Slayer

The only aspect of this collection that really troubled me was its misogyny. I talked about it a little with my friends, and one of them pointed out that Ellison’s work is misanthropic overall, but its world-weary cynicism about people in general doesn’t bug me as much as I might expect; its attitude towards female characters, however, does get under my skin. In its pages, both men and women get mistreated and occasionally murdered, but women also get denigrated, ‘taken down a peg’, objectified, beaten and raped, etc. and the men who do these things generally either get away with it or in some cases are rewarded for their behavior. Yes, I understand Ellison wrote this material in the 1960s and misogyny was in the water of the genre, but after regarding Angry Candy with such fondness for its insight, I kept turning this collection’s pages hoping to see Ellison pass on the Kool-Aid – and kept getting disappointed.

Delusion for a Dragon Slayer was the story that broke the mold.

The moral of Delusion for a Dragon Slayer, laid bare.
The moral of Delusion for a Dragon Slayer, laid bare.

Its premise is simple: when the protagonist dies in a construction accident, he regains consciousness in the body of a strapping hero taken straight from epic legends. He learns that Heaven is real, it is individual, it takes the form of the innermost dreams and aspirations of a person’s spirit, and it must be won in a trial that will take the shape of that person’s beliefs about challenge and the highest of standards… and then his trial begins. In case you didn’t notice, this is good stuff, people. Ellison weaves a story of mythic archetype proportions and expresses it in delirious prose that is both descriptive and taut. And this is the only story in the collection in which a man experiences direct and dire repercussions as a result of treating a woman deplorably. As a woman and a feminist, these pages read like triumph, but that triumph is expressed through lamentation, not sanctimonious sermonizing. This is the Ellison I love.

…And the Raspberries Go to: World of the Myth

Space opera at its worst (image taken from Red Claw).
Space opera at its worst (image taken from Red Claw).

At the other end of the spectrum, from triumph to tragedy, we have World of the Myth, in which a bizarre love triangle of the future churns out its unrealistic drama after a crash landing on a planet populated by hive-minded telepathic ant creatures. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist, or even an astronaut, to reason out that a woman who has been violently raped is not going to be coquettish with her rapist afterwards (unless she’s trying to deceive him as a means of self-preservation, and that’s not how Ellison’s protagonist spins the actions of the female character in question). The rapist is not likely to be a serious contender for the woman’s affections. Her sick dread and bone-chilling rage, likely. Affection and love? Not very likely. The vast majority of real women do not view rape as a contest of wills in which the rapist is a winner and therefore worthy of respect. Real life is not The Fountainhead. The way Ellison scripted Iris in this story made me want to throw the book against the wall. Needless to say, I was not surprised to read in the introduction to Lonelyache that Ellison’s first and second marriages failed.

Another failed attempt to create a realistic female character.
Another failure at creating a realistic female character.

Maybe you’re the sort of sci-fi fan who can take misogyny with a grain of salt. Maybe you’re really good at saying “Cultural context! The Kool-Aid musta gushed into his mouth like a firehose!” I’m not so good at that. I like authors who can get at the truths I perceive to be timeless. Angry Candy demonstrated that quality to me. I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream just felt… dated. And the title story? The one that won the Hugo Award in 1967? Maybe I would have loved it if it weren’t considered such a classic, but after all the hype, I felt really let down. My advice is to skip this collection and focus on Ellison’s later work. Let sleeping dogs lie.

2 thoughts on “Reading Review: I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream (1983 edition) by Harlan Ellison

  1. On the subject of “Titans of classic Science Fiction”, I’d like to hear your thoughts on Ray Bradbury some time. I’m particularly interested in what you’d think of his short story “The Toynbee Convector”, whether alone or in context with his other work (maybe selfishly, it’s one of my favorite pieces of inspirational fiction of all time).

    I enjoyed this review. And I think you’re right. Classics may be classic for a reason, but sometimes they don’t age well.

  2. If you can lend me a copy of a collection “The Toynbee Convector” is in, I estimate I could review it here and have the copy back to you in two weeks. I’ve read Fahrenheit 451 of course, and also The Martian Chronicles, and loved them both.

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