Tropes: I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream

[Content Note: Misogyny, Homophobia, Racism, Rape, Suicide, Ableism, Fat Hatred.
This is a very triggery post.] 

Dear Old Mouldering Classic Science Fiction / Fantasy Works which "Everyone Must Read":
It's not me, it's you. I'm breaking up with you.

I'm serious. I couldn't be more serious. There is too much really wonderful modern stuff out there -- much of it written by women and people of color and non-Heterosexual Cis Privileged Men -- for me to waste another minute of my life reading something that maybe once contained a germ of a good idea, but was buried from the beginning in shitty writing and misogyny so thick you could spread it on wonder bread, and which only became as famous as it did because of white male privilege and privileged gatekeepers. The next time I see some MUST READ classic work by a straight cis man written in the 60's or whatever, I'm just going to assume it's marinated in privilege-sauce and go read a book about lesbian trans women astronauts, or something equally more likely to be infinitely better.

Because I deserve to read good things (and Narnia and Twilight).

Hang on. Let me back up a bit.

Long-time readers will recall that I'm a fan of TV Tropes the concept, even if I'm not much of a fan of TV Tropes the implementation. But we go wiki-walking with the internet we have, rather than the internet we'd prefer, and I recently referenced the trope I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream in a Narnia post about how genuinely creepy it would be if Sir Goldistatue still retained his consciousness inside his transmogrified form. And I've always been intrigued by this trope, because I like creepy shit like that, so I decided it was about time to pick up the trope namer -- a short story written in 1967 by Harlan Ellison and winner of the 1968 Hugo Award.

One problem, right off the bat, is that thanks to my pain pills making me have foggy-head, I had forgotten everything I know about Harlan Ellison, which is that he groped Connie Willis on-stage at the Hugo Awards. (Note that Connie Willis has won nine Hugo Awards, which is more than any other author has received, and that is kind of a big deal.) Ha ha, whoops! That probably should have clued me in that a super-classic science fiction masterpiece by this science fiction master author might possibly be served with a side of misogyny-potatoes! But, hey, just because someone gropes women in Real Life doesn't mean they can't turn out the occasional good short story sometimes, right?

Let's dive in and then wish we hadn't.

(Note that I purchased my copy on Amazon. There is a free version online, but I can't tell if it's posted with author permission or not. I won't link to it directly, but it's linked on the TV Tropes page of the book here.)

I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream is the most misogynistic story I've read in a month of Sundays. The tragedy is that it didn't need to be that way. The misogynistic parts add nothing to the story whatsoever, although this is not to say that the added appeal of being able to hate women while reading sci-fi didn't necessarily contribute to the story's success when it was published. But from a purely literary standpoint, the author could have removed the one female character and the story would have been vastly improved right then and there. Though it still wouldn't have been good, by my personal subjective standards.

IHNMAIMS is the story of the last five human beings on earth living trapped in underground caverns ruled by a sentient supercomputer who was created to destroy humanity during an escalating Cold War. The computer carried out its job a little too efficiently, and salvaged the last five humans left in order to torture them for eternity and take out its/his hatred on the race that created it/him. These humans have been kept alive, sorta-immortal, and physically and mentally altered, for 109 years. And they're not enjoying themselves very much, because of all the torture. Fair enough.

The story opens on four of the five survivors being shocked and horrified at the apparent suicide of a fifth member, before he shows up and it turns out to have been a cruel joke by the computer. It's an effective opening that sealed my interest in the story. But then we have to immediately segue into the misogyny with the introduction of Ellen, who weighs in on a dispute about whether or not to go on an expedition to find canned goods:

   Ellen decided us. “I’ve got to have something, Ted. Maybe there’ll be some Bartlett pears or peaches. Please, Ted, let’s try it.” 
   I gave in easily. What the hell. Mattered not at all. Ellen was grateful, though. She took me twice out of turn. Even that had ceased to matter. And she never came, so why bother? But the machine giggled every time we did it.

Meet Ellen. Ellen's entire purpose in this story is for the four men to have a woman to have sex with over their 109-year confinement. (This study guide I found online for the story? Almost every mention of Ellen has the words "sex", "sexual", or "hypersexual" in the same sentence. With good reason, because that's pretty much her entire presence in the story.)

Now, for me, as a reader, this is not something I demand because it doesn't strike me as realistic. I kind of feel like 109 years of constant tortures and body alteration and also a computer giggling at me any time I get my dick out... would sort of make me not want to get my dick out. (I felt the same way about all those teeeeeeeedious passages about masturbation in I Am Legend.) But, then, I tend to view male characters in novels as actual people who are shaped by the context around them, and not as extensions of my own self and the context around me. I don't push my libido onto characters in an entirely different situation from me, is what I am saying; I expect them to have libidos of their own.

But, hey, I've never been tortured for 109 years. Maybe some sexual release helps with the torture. Or... helped, past tense, since the narrator (Ted) says it's not doing much for him anymore, and apparently has never done anything for Ellen. So, you know, who am I to judge how they're coping with their situation? (I'm a reader who is strongly side-eying what the author wrote, that's who. But I digress.) And maybe it will be explained later why Ellen does this (companionship? nurturing?) if she doesn't enjoy it, and why Ted does it if he doesn't enjoy it and additionally knows that Ellen doesn't either. I stuck with the story, certain that all this would be explained in time.

Ellen is next allowed to speak when one of their number, a scientist named Benny who has been surgically altered to resemble a chimpanzee by the supercomputer, tries to escape the underground tunnels and is punished by the computer for the attempt:

   I heard Ellen saying frantically, “No, Benny! Don’t, come on, Benny, don’t please!” [...] “Oh, Ted, Nimdok, please, help him, get him down before—” She cut off. Tears began to stand in her eyes. She moved her hands aimlessly.
   It was too late. None of us wanted to be near him when whatever was going to happen, happened. And besides, we all saw through her concern. When AM had altered Benny, during the machine’s utterly irrational, hysterical phase, it was not merely Benny’s face the computer had made like a giant ape’s. He was big in the privates, she loved that! She serviced us, as a matter of course, but she loved it from him. 

   [...] Gorrister slapped her. She slumped down, staring up at poor loonie Benny, and she cried. It was her big defense, crying. We had gotten used to it seventy–five years before. Gorrister kicked her in the side.


Male writers in the audience! Do not write this shit! It makes you sound like a stupid asshole who doesn't have the imagination or the observation skills to observe and understand the lives of half the people on this planet. That makes you seem very silly indeed! Crying does not work that way! Crying has never worked that way! I quote my friend Melissa McEwan:

There is not a woman in America who is laboring under the enormous misapprehension that crying evokes sympathy. Even our most intimate partners are taught to be suspicious of our tears, to regard them as mere markers of our intent to manipulate. We know quite well that crying evokes contempt, especially from those disinclined from extending us sympathy irrespective of our expression of its need.  

Also: HOLY SHIT EVERYTHING ELSE THAT IS WRONG ABOUT THIS. I... I don't even know how to respond to how fuckingly stupidly awful this writing is. The only way to salvage this would be to go for a full-on Unreliable Narrator, which the author clearly is trying to do later on, but that doesn't really fix it because the narrator is clearly not intended to be unreliable when he describes his surroundings or the computer's motivations or how the computer has changed his companions, or really anything other than (a) Ted's assessment of his own sanity and maybe (but probably not) (b) Ted's assessment of Ellen.

That's not how unreliable narration works -- it's not a Get Out Of Criticism Free card. 

And if Ted is right about, for example, Benny being turned into a monkey (and he's clearly supposed to be), and if he's right about, for example, Gorrister being turned into a man deadened of concern or compassion (and he's clearly supposed to be), then it seems like a strong indication that he is supposed to be right about Ellen being hypersexualized by the computer so that she can "service" the men and they can all hate her for falling on the wrong side of the virgin-whore dichotomy.

   And Ellen. That douche bag! AM had left her alone, had made her more of a slut than she had ever been. All her talk of sweetness and light, all her memories of true love, all the lies she wanted us to believe: that she had been a virgin only twice, removed before AM grabbed her and brought her down here with us. It was all filth, that lady my lady Ellen. She loved it, four men all to herself. No, AM had given her pleasure, even if she said it wasn’t nice to do.

Hey, remember when I said that "Ellen's entire purpose in this story is for the four men to have a woman to have sex with over their 109-year confinement"? Yeah. That's literally her purpose, not just from the point of view of the author, but from the point of view of the computer. The computer took four men and one woman and in order to torture them, he altered the body of one man, the mind of another man, the blood of a third man, the sanity of the fourth man, and he made the woman a huge nympho slut who likes big cocks.


Oh, and I also want to note this paragraph, which literally made my head explode:

   Benny had been a brilliant theorist, a college professor, now he was little more than a semi–human, semi–simian. He had been handsome, the machine had ruined that. He had been lucid, the machine had driven him mad. He had been gay, and the machine had given him an organ fit for a horse.

Whut. There is not enough whut in the world. I have so much rage. The only way I can read this is that, just as simian is the opposite of intellectual, and marred is the opposite of handsome, and madness is the opposite of sanity, so thus is biggus dickus the opposite of being a gay man. One paragraph containing more homophobia and ableism than I can bear to stomach, wrapped up in the most misogynistic story I've read in recent memory. Stellar.

Anyway, a lot of stuff happens which could have potentially been interesting if it weren't for all the whutragehulksmash rampaging around my head, digging new subbasements to contain the whutragehulksmash overflow, and then the five survivors are trudging around starving to death (only they are immortal in the "can't die from natural causes, but can die from pointy sticks" sense, so they just starve and starve and starve) and the computer taunts them not once, but twice with "the lunatic laugh of a fat woman".

Yeah, this story is so great I just wanna cuddle it and have its babies. *barf*

Anyway, the super-brillo-genius climax to the story is that after 109 years of torture, Ted seizes on the bright idea that he could kill his friends to save them from the torture, since apparently none of them are too keen on the suicide idea ("We had attempted suicide, oh one or two of us had. But AM had stopped us. I suppose we had wanted to be stopped."), despite the 109 years of torture, and so Ted kills everyone. And we get the last minute reveal that Ellen is a black woman with "ebony features", so it's not just misogyny, it's misogynoir, because OH MY GOD SERIOUSLY, the slutty woman who is just loving her 109 years of torture because she gets four guys all to herself, but she especially loves the guy with the huge cock who resembles in every possible sense a chimpanzee, that woman is a black woman?!? Really. Really? REALLY??

This story is sexist.

This story is racist.

This story is ableist.

This story is homophobic.

This story is steeped in fat hatred.

This story isn't even well written. It has the germ of an interesting idea, but it's buried in unclear prose and the end revelation/twist has the result of making me think all the characters were too damn stupid to escape from a damp paper bag, let alone a supercomputer. And the attempts at an Unreliable Narrator fall flat when the remaining eighty-five percent of the time, it's entirely clear that we're supposed to be accepting what we're told at face value and not questioning any deeper than that.

And -- and I want to make this perfectly clear -- none of this information was easy for me to find, outside of just reading the book itself and being hit full-in-the-face with unwarned-for hatred. If you do a google search on IHNMAIMS, I can pretty much guarantee that the first eleventy-billion search results are (a) people gushing about a computer game that was "based on" the story to what sounds like an extremely lose degree (also: Ellen is a rape victim now who is triggered by the color yellow so WAY TO MAKE THIS STORY EVEN WORSE GUYS, and bonus, despite the fact that her Bad Ending in the game is the same text as the Bad Ending for Ted in the book, they manage to tie her body-transmogrification to rape and rapists in a way that his was not. Fuuuuuuuuuuuuck everything.) and (b) people wanking off to how spectacular this story is without even the slightest hint that there is the least problematic thing in it.

Game Text for Ellen:
AM has violated my body worse than any rapist could. I am a great soft jelly thing. Smoothly rounded, with no mouth, with pulsing white holes filled by fog where my eyes used to be.

Book Text for Ted:
AM has altered me for his own peace of mind, I suppose. [...] I am a great soft jelly thing. Smoothly rounded, with no mouth, with pulsing white holes filled by fog where my eyes used to be.

I am flinging this post out onto the internet like a message in a bottle. This is my version of the spectacular Conan warning posted on Ferretbrain. Everyone's entitled to being a fan of problematic things, and I'm not saying Don't Read This, but I am boy howdy letting you know what you're getting into.


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