My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This collection of short fiction by Harlan Ellison consists of only seven stories. It was originally published in the late 1960’s and a second edition was released in 1983—the latter being the edition I read. Despite a bit of Cold War zeitgeist–most notably in the title story—this collection holds up well to time.
I’ll proceed by discussing each of the seven stories.
1.) I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream: It’s after World War III, the Soviets, Americans, and Chinese had built artificial intelligences (AIs) to help prosecute the war. The AIs ganged up against humanity and exterminated all humans—excepting five individuals (4 men and 1 woman.) The AI finds a way to indefinitely extend the lives of the five so that it can keep its playthings around. The AI is kind of like a sadistic child with an ant farm. The story is told from the perspective of one of the five remaining humans.
2.) Big Sam Was My Friend: A folksy narrator tells the tale of how a fellow interstellar circus performer met his ends. The deceased, Big Sam, was capable of teleportation, like the character Nightcrawler (Kurt Wagner) in the X-men. Ellison does an excellent job of creating a unique character and tone in this story.
3.) Eyes of Dust: On a planet of beautiful people, there remains a family of uggos–and the child is the ugliest of all. However, ugliness isn’t the boy’s only unique trait. This is one of the weaker stories of the collection in my opinion, but it’s not bad.
4.) World of The Myth: The three-person crew of a spaceship crashes on an unfamiliar planet. The planet is inhabited by ant-like creatures that can form complex shapes, and through such displays the creatures can reflect the essence of who a person is back at them. This proves more than the despicable captain of the small crew can bear.
5.) Lonelyache: This story is more realism than speculative fiction—or at least I interpreted it that way. It’s about a guy who’s gone through a divorce recently, and is living alone. The story intersperses recurringly-themed dreams in which men are trying to kill the lead character, with waking sequences which revolve around the man’s troubled relationships with women.
6.) Delusion For a Dragon Slayer: In the Introduction, we are told by Theodore Sturgeon that the description in this story is very much how people on hallucinogens experience the world. I can see what Sturgeon is saying. The story begins with a series of vignettes about people who died for no logical reason and at the least likely times. The story then tells an extended tale of one such death, that of the lead character, in a way that mixes dream and reality in a way that’s hard to differentiate.
7.) Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes: A man in Las Vegas hits the jackpot on a slot machine. He feels compelled to engage in the very sucker-like behavior of playing the same machine again, but he wins again and then keeps winning. The casino obviously suspects foul play with the second jackpot, but they can’t find anything wrong with the machine or any way in which the man might be cheating. All their investigation reveals is that a woman had died playing that machine some time before.
I’d recommend this book for those who like short speculative fiction. The best of the stories are outstanding, and the worst of them are still intriguing and readable. I will say that it’s not a collection for readers with delicate sensibilities–including young readers. (e.g. Rape is a theme that repeats in a couple of stories.)