by Harlan Ellison
“All hope is gone. There is no return save by miracles, and there are no more miracles for the common among common men.”
This book occupies a special place, being the only of its kind, in that it sits nearly unbeaten at the top of the ‘Rated Collections’ pile without a single 5 star story. That probably sounds like a knock but is actually a ridiculous compliment in that the average quality of these stories is so high it doesn’t even need any brightly-lit standalones to rank in the top echelons of short fiction as a whole. Each story is so well conceived and written it’s hard for any to stand out. In his introduction Mr. Ellison considers no less than 4 of these stories among his very best.
“I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream” – Supercomputers have been created by respective world powers and placed into control of the military. The computers’ intelligence grows exponentially and eventually (inevitably) become self-aware. Mankind is, of course, immediately identified as a threat and destroyed. Five humans are kept alive for the sadistic amusement of AM, one of the computers, and this is the story of the end. (4+)
“Big Sam Was My Friend” – In a futuristic carnival setting our narrator realizes the newest addition to the troupe can teleport. As this special skill is monetized for the spectators we begin to get to know Sam and learn the love of his life was ripped out of the world earlier. Sam is on a mission throughout space to find the literal Heaven where he believes she’ll be waiting for him. (4)
“Eyes of Dust” – In a world where beauty is everything and those not properly engineered to perfection are shunned, a blind man married to a woman with a mole on her face are practically ostracized and raise their imperfect child, Person, confined to a life of solitude. (3+)
“World of the Myth” – A crew crash-lands into a strange planet and the three survivors, two male and one female attempt to cope with their new surroundings. One of the men, the strong, dashing type, has previously raped the girl and the second man, the shy, awkward type is dealing with his feelings for her as well as his dislike for him, all while a tidal wave of ants ebbs and flows near the crash site. While awaiting rescue the woman, legs crushed in the crash but slowly recovering, examines the ants looking for special attributes. (4+)
“Lonelyache” – Fresh off what seems like a disastrous dissolution of marriage, Ellison writes a tale he thinks might be his best. A husband, recently divorced and missing his significant other like a hole in his heart, has a type of recurring dream where every time he falls asleep a linear dream continues where he is being hunted by a succession of men, all whom he dispatches (horribly) before they can kill him. As the man launches himself into an affair the dream is taking its toll. (4-)
“Delusion for a Dragon Slayer” – A man is killed (or about to be killed) and retreats into his own personal Heaven. Adventures follow, where the man in his bronzed, well-built new body of the afterlife happens upon the woman of his dreams, enslaved by a giant dragon. The closing quote here is taken from this story and it’s a stunner. (4+)
“Pretty Maggie MoneyEyes” – A man plays slots in a Vegas casino and hits the jackpot with three blue eyes next to each other. The pit boss walks over and verifies the win with three Jackpots listed side by side, and the man realizes he’s the only one who can see the eyes. The casino pays out and the man returns to the machine and wins. And wins again. And again. Eventually he is taken aside by the owner and he learns a bit of backstory. (3+)
This collection will take you by surprise. Excellent throughout, it has large doses of Mr. Ellison’s cutting commentary and remains easily accessible; the stories having barely aged at all. It’s also a bit heavier than the other Ellison collection’s with the exception of Deathbird Stories, which is just plain designed to knock you down. I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream may not have you shaking on the floor, but you will absolutely be weighted with ideas and concepts difficult to grapple with. And that’s exactly as great speculative fiction should be.
“A man may truly live in his dreams, his noblest dreams, but only, only if he is worthy of those dreams.”