After many a year and many a reference, I finally read the seminal text. To say I was underwhelmed would be incorrect. Unsurprised would be closer to the truth. Not at all shocked, perhaps. Revolted, a little. But if I didn't believe before in the desensitising factor of modern media, I do now.
Don't get me wrong - the story is well-written, evocative, and thought-provoking. I don't know whether it was a fault of the version I read, backed up in some internet archive from goodness-knows-when, but it seemed like a lot of information was missing. After reading the story, I read some notes that accompanied it, on the 'translation' of events. I didn't get half of what was in those comments from reading the story itself. They may be ideas or notions that come to light on re-reading, and since I read it at work, I'll admit the air of horror was subdued by fluorescence and too many co-workers. I can see how, in the 60s, finding this tidbit in a science fiction magazine, completely unexpectedly, could have a serious impact on one's sanity. These days, though, I'm sad to say it's shoulder-shrug territory.
For me it all had an air of the familiar, which doubtless comes from it being such an iconic part of science fiction history. There's a similarly horrifying ending to the second trade paperback of Fall of Cthulhu. I've seen The Cube, and that, for me, was and still is far more terrifying, simply because a) the horror is random and b) it shows more of man's inhumanity to man. I'm far more afraid of my fellow passers-by than I am of a world-wide supercomputer. Then again, The Cube was really the same story, as far as I'm concerned. Only the 'mute' makes it out alive.
The unfortunate aspect of being a canonical piece of literature is the parody that also follows. I'm sure I've seen the idea of a can without a can opener in several cartoons, or at least the Simpsons. The band of strangers running from a cruel AI is also something taken lightly, in many cases and differing locales. What I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream does well is bring out the horror of those one hundred and nine years. One hundred and nine years of starvation, of being caught up with the same 4 people! One hundred and nine years of terror, and never sleeping, of being hunted by creatures that exist only in your mind, of torture in an undying body that, nevertheless, can be hurt and scarred. That is horrifying. It is repulsive. It is memorable. But I felt no more than a little sad.
Vault 106 shows its roots, clearly. You take the path of Ted, if you are good. But their prison is a prison of the mind - they can't escape, even if they want to. There's no way out. The cruelty of Ellison's work is that Benny almost makes it to the surface, to the dubious freedom of the wasteland above, to the nothingness that is preferable to continued torment, and AM punishes him. Like many a Greek hell, the desired is visible, but forever out of reach. I doubt I need to explain why the latter is worse.
I believe this is a story that becomes more horrific on consideration. Much like some movies are only funny in retrospect, understanding each of the characters in Ellison's story, as the computer game embellishment allows you to do, leads, inexorably, to considering where they wound up. How they wound up. The horrors they faced that, even after a hundred and nine years, are never okay. What I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream does is argue against desensitisation, against the idea that some things, once experienced, are never quite as horrifying. That some experiences can be lived through, and those who appear sane really are. That there's a reason to this madness. There is only AM, and it hates you, more than you can ever comprehend.
Would I recommend reading it? Definitely. Go here, and start the journey. It isn't a long one, but it's very worthwhile. Much like Algernon Blackwood managing to make me afraid of trees with 20 pages of non-action, I imagine this one will stay with me for a while yet. The main question of Ted as an unreliable narrator is still one I'm tossing around in my mind. Was he crazy? Was he right? What is this unending torment, this new prison like to experience? And, following these questions, we come to the abyss. Despite my outward apathy, I get the feeling that, deep down, a day and a half later, I'm still secretly terrified.
I suppose AM affects us all.