This is a reissue of two previously sets of Ellison’s short stories: Paingod and Other Delusions and I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream. These are some of Ellison’s earliest stories, and by his own admission, widely thought to be some of his best. They range from mildly science fiction to an introspective piece set “now”, centering mostly in a vague future. These are not what is typically meant by “science fiction”; they are about various manifestations of pain, mostly of mental or emotional, not physical pain, and the stories grow increasingly dark and hopeless. Unlike much of science fiction, the stories are almost entirely about the people in them, rarely in an idea. In fact, the setting is usually fairly vague, in contrast to the clarity of the characters.

Paingod: An alien appointed by the gods to dispense pain briefly inhabits a man and discovers that without pain there is no contrast to show what happiness is.

“Repent, Harlequin!” said the Ticktockman: A mechanical and highly ordered society, represented by the Ticktockman, has no use for a Harlequin who is appalled by the blandness of life without surprises.

The Crackpots: A Kyben Watcher discovers that the crackpots he is recording every motion of are really brilliant innovators who arranged to have a flexible society, but who transmit their discoveries back to Kyba via the Watchers.

Sleeping Dogs: A scorched-earth-type general of the human fleet forty years after the beginning of the Kyban War determines to take a planet at all costs, firing upon impenetrable, ancient, unknown fortresses, awakening an ancient power because of his recklessness, despite the best efforts of the Amicus (a woman), who actually has authority (but not over local events), to stop him.

Bright Eyes: The last of an ancient race which committed suicide to give the Earth to the humans is awakened by the self-immolation of the humans, to bury the ancient skulls, realizing that, with the annihilation of the humans, his race’s death was in vain.

The Discarded: Horribly disfigured and misshappen people from a virus on Earth are exiled on a spaceship between the Earth and moon. The de facto leader refuses to cooperate with a delegation requesting blood for a cure for a new variation of the disease, in return for being allowed to live on a piece of the Earth because he does not believe the promise will be kept. His fellow exiles are eager to return to society, shoot him, and happily give the samples. A year later the cure has been effected and a ship returns not to carry them back but to dump off the people disfigured before the cure. The new leader (who shot the old one), realizing his folly and unchangeable fate, leaves to blow himself out the airlock.

Wanted in Surgery: A doctor can’t cope with doctors being barred from surgery because new robots do the job more reliably. During his “helping” during surgery a patient wakes up too soon, sees the robot, and dies because the patient, unlike a human doctor cannot gently reassure and tell him to go back to anesthetic sleep. He disobeys the command not to practice medicine upon the beseeching of a poor women, is tried, requests a (fallible) jury, tells of the death he saw to eloquently convince them that robots cannot replace humans, causing a rethinking of society’s reliance on machines.

Deeper Than the Darkeness: A Mindee who can cause intense (but uncontrolled) fire is sent by the government to make the star of an opposing race in the current war go nova. He discovers that he is immune to the Baster Mindee, escapes, and, a freak whose life is of no use to his race except as a weapon, peaceably wanders around the galaxy as a minstrel for the rest of his life.

I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream: AM, the self-aware collection of computers created to conduct the humans’ last war, has destroyed all humans except for five, whom it saves, preserves, and tortures to satisfy its (programmed) hatred of people. Because AM will not let them die, the protagonist siezes an opportunity to kill three, the fourth kills herself, and AM transforms the protagonist, who was able to save all but himself, into a ball of flesh (with no mouth) to be tortured until the end of time.

Big Sam Was My Friend: A teleport (person with ability to teleport himself or other things) named Sam travels with the a circus until his faux pas of saving a virgin from a sacrifice demands his life, which he willingly gives (despite his ability to teleport away) in payment for the guilt of the death of his girlfriend from long ago who ran into a truck in surprise the first time he used his ability.

Eyes of Dust: A culture where only the beautiful is acceptible is repulsed by a disfigured offspring and in killing the last ugly thing on the planet somehow kills the beauty on the planet.

World of the Myth: Two men and one women from a surveyship become stranded on a planet with a collective-conscience being comprised of ants, which reflects the observers thoughts. One man and the woman have a love-hate relationship: she flirts with him, he goes too far and (once and almost again) rapes her. The other man, who is a decided third wheel rescues her the second time. After the incident the first man goes to the ants and dies after they show him the evil that he embodies. The woman knows that the same fate eventually awaits her, and the last man suspects that he will be unable to resist, and despite his lack of guilt, is still too evil to survive being shown who he really is.

Lonelyache: A story written as therapy for Ellison’s own feelings after his second divorce. The protagonist has just been divorced, tries to assuage his loneliness with sex, sex, sex, but it builds up in the corner where it eventually becomes a lurking thing to him; he eventually realizes what it is and shoots himself. (Fortunately the story was a successful therapy for Ellison and he did not follow the same fate.)

Delusion for a Dragon Slayer: A non-descript financial salaryman dies in a freak accident and is given the chance to achieve Heaven—the land of his dreams—in a god-like Norse body. Overconfidence in steering between the rocks of worldly temptations loses him his ship and crew, but he makes his way to shore, finding the woman of his dreams guarded by a great creature. He is afraid to kill it, whereupon it becomes a man and copulates with the woman of his dreams. At this point he stabs it in the back. He is denounced by the being and the woman, for lacking What It Took, and is crushed in the jaws of the keeper of Heaven, a great dragon.

Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes: A gorgeous girl born to poverty becomes a successful prostitute in order to escape the poverty that she desperately wants to permanently escape from. After a argument with her latest sugar-daddy in Las Vegas, she plays the silver dollar slot machine (“Chief”), desiring the money in him so badly that she dies and her soul goes into the machine. Some time later a down-and-out bum, whose wife left him, spends his last dollar in a wild gamble; Maggie, the soul of the machine, gives him win after win on the big jackpot. After repeated checks of the machine (and for cheating), the house eventually requests that he take a rest for the night, which he, realizing management’s undercurrent, acquiesces to. Maggie comes to him in a dream, says she wants to be his forever; he trusts her, expresses his desire to love her, and gives himself to her. The next day, he goes to the machine and just as the machine lands another jackpot, Maggie sucks his soul into the machine, freeing hers. “Heaven or Hell, it doesn’t matter! Free!”

Much of the earlier stories are a diatribe on the poverty of a uniform, bland, often mechanized culture whose only goal is efficiency. This seems to be a common complaint with writers of the early twentieth century; while not the main theme, Huxley’s Brave New World has an undercurrent of distaste with the uniformity of mechanization. The objection, at least for Ellison, seems to be to the pressure to conform to a bland uniformity; “Repent, Harlequin,” Said the Ticktockman evidences this theme prominently, while The Crackpots is more of a recognition that creative people dislike conformity. Whatever the merits (and this author has decried the blandness of suburbs, strip malls, and prefab corporate architecture), too many distopian stories does get a little old.

The rest of the stories are mostly about pain itself, in its various incarnations. Some of them, like Big Sam Was My Friend and Deeper Than Darkness are sort of typical almost-science-fiction with a dour note. The element of pain becomes most notable in Lonelyache and almost as pronounced in I Have No Mouth and I Must Screem, where it is pretty much inescapable. However well-crafted, several hundred pages of hopeless, unending pain is a little tiresome. If this is truly how the world is, then it makes sense to write about it (but then, if pain is truly inescapeable, why keep living?), but as a Christian I cannot agree that the situation is hopeless. I have been struggling with the pain of living, too, so I appreciate depths of his feeling, but a session of Ellison invariably left me feeling that he took Larry Crabb’s  advice in Inside Out to examine his disappointment with the world without discovering Crabb’s hope in God. (Which is not to say that being a Christian will result in a cure to pain—far from it)

Besides being willing to discuss the pain that we all have, if we are willing to admit it, Ellison’s attraction as a writer is the strength of his characters. The focus of each story is the character, who invariably changes dramatically. Bright Eyes progresses from blind obedience to a realization that his race’s death was for nought.  The pain-god transforms from an impartial administrator of pain to an eager administrator who knows he is helping the universe. The guilt of Big Sam gradually becomes apparent. The three people in World of the Myth, from an initial (and normal) lack of thought, become aware of their horribly evil nature. But by far the most real is Maggie Moneyeyes, described in what is probably the best story of the book, well written, with a gradual revealing of the desires and motivations which reveals the chilling plot. Maggie is obsessive about escaping poverty and willing to go to any lengths, including trickery, to achieve her aims, with a tragic end to her and her victim. We all know people sold out to money in various degrees, and since surely none of us are immune to the pull, we can see pieces of ourselves in her. Likewise, we have all been lonely and longing for love, just like the unhappy bum. The characters are simply ourselves, magnified to the extremes. And this is the strength of Ellison’s characters—we all can identify with at least some of their struggles, for his characters reflect the feelings that we all have but usually try to ignore.

This is a collection of consistently compelling stories. They are rather depressing if read in large batches, and more sexual than I care for, but compelling nonetheless. The science fiction part is more of a watercolor background than a main theme, but the characters make up for it, and each story has a genuinely interesting idea (which is more than can be said for a lot of science fiction). Ellison is someone who, if his stories were set in the present and written less colloquially, could be write Literature. It shows. Some of these stories, hopefully at least “Repent, Harlequin,” Said the Ticktockman and Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes will be among his lasting legacy. Definitely a recommended read.
Review: 9.5
At least some of these stories will be around in a hundred years, I suspect. The introductory author decries Ellison’s lack of grammar and refinement, but I was hard-pressed to notice; there is more to a quality story than mechanical grammar. My only complaint is that the sexual content is a bit too explict; I think the message could have been achieved with less of it (although perhaps the stories would have been less salable to Knight). Some of the stories aren’t quite as good, so, that, coupled with the sexual content, bring the overall score down.

Literary Notes

  • The introductory notes to the stories were interesting, and sometimes I thought they added a bit to the story. Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes is even more compelling knowing that Maggie was triggered by meeting someone he had unsuccessfully tried to get to bed with and upon being given his opportunity, having one of those sudden character insights.
  • The stories are not really satisfying from a science-fiction standpoint, but the emphasis on character development makes each story memorable. I suspect that the science fiction background could be easily fleshed out more while keeping the same sharpness of character. (In fact World of the Myth does this to a large extent)
  • Each character either changes significantly or the reader’s perception of them does.
  • Each character has well-defined values, and therefore motivation. The growth in character comes about from following these values.
  • Ellison seems to generate the future several ways: by imagining how he thinks people might develop (telepaths), superluminary travel (inverspace), and extensions of a cultural value (cardioplates) or useful property (invulnerable steel for battle, easily created by pinching)

Items and society

A plate keyed to each person. Every time they are late, or cause disruption to the system, that amount of time is subtracted from their life, and when they have no time left, the Ticktockman turns them off.
A wildly colored proto-hyperspace that allows for faster (although hardly instantaneous) travel. In some stories navigation through inverspace requires special telepathic ability.
Pinching steel
Technique of changing the molecular structure so that it becomes harder than anything, or completely crumbling it to dust.
nasty virus
This particular virus changes how people look, altering their genetic structure so that they might have extra limbs, or fewer limbs, or their mouth in the wrong place.
An Earth position. Appears to try to argue for the enemy. Stationed on military ships, presumably as an advisor to the commanding officer. Outranks the commanding officer, but indirectly, through the political, not military command chain; does not control immediate actions.
black, impenetrable fortresses
Created by some race a long time ago, who seems to have a very laissez-faire, or even uncaring attitude about who occupies the planet, as long as they don’t bother the fortresses.  Cannot be destroyed or even damaged by earth’s weapons. Can turn an opposing laser cannon against itself.
event-triggered holographic message
Type of pre-recorded message whose purpose was to wake and inform Bright-Eyes of his mission.
A robot that can make infallible diagnosis (and surgical repair) of anything organic.
Human that can manipulate nature by thought. The specific incarnations are limited to Deeper Than the Darkness, as the nature of mental abilities changes in each story. However, generally there are different mental abilities, whether they be named psioids or teeps.
Psioid who can control and/or suggest to other minds
Psioid capable of destroying other minds
Psioid who can manipulate atoms of flesh.
Psioid who can steer through inverspace.
Originally “Allied Mastercomputer”. “Aggressive Menace” after the nations’ AMs linked up and developed sentience. Because it was responsible for guiding war, it effectively was programmed to hate humans. Has the power to create visions that are real for as long as AM wants them to be (like the D&D “solipsism” spell). Can alter physical and biological reality; radically changes the body of the protagonist, keeps its prey immortal (even if they do not eat).
Human that can mentally teleport objects and living beings, including himself.
ant collective conscience
Collective conscience composed of individual ant-like beings with no sentience at all. The sentience is a result of the combined network. Not aggressive; defends itself (and, indeed, appears to relate to all things) by reflecting the attacker’s nature.
This is a personally tailored utopia made of the dreams of beauty by the person. One can achieve this heaven only by having strong character. The protagonist must defeat the guardian, but must do so in a noble fashion; stabbing from the back is not noble and loses him heaven.
One of the few remaining silver-dollar slots (apparently during a time when silver dollars were still in circulation). Possessed by the spirit of Maggie. When playing the Chief, if the player is consumed by a desire for what is inside it, the player dies and their soul lives in the machine, freeing any soul that happens to already be there.