Medieval and Futuristic Hells: The Influence of Dante on Ellison’s “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream”

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2017-01-01
Authors
Withers, Jeremy
Withers, Jeremy
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English
Abstract

Even though some scholars have identified important precursors to science fiction (hereafter abbreviated as sf) in premodern genres such as epic, the fantastic voyage, and utopia, pre-Enlightenment eras are mostly absent in many critical discussions of the origins of – and the important influences on – recent sf. Additionally, many sf scholars and authors often emphasize the futurity of the genre, not its orientation and links to the past. For example, Harlan Ellison (whose story is a main focus of this essay) once defined sf as: “Anything that deals in even the smallest extrapolative manner with the future of man and his societies, with the futureof science and/or its effects on us.”

However, earlier time periods such as the Middle Ages have indeed been quite fruitful for contemporary sf. This essay explores the many ways in which one of the most well-known works of medieval literature – Dante Alighieri's early fourteenth-century poem Inferno – served as a powerful influence on one of the more famous texts to come out of the 1960s New Wave movement in sf: Harlan Ellison's fascinating and disturbing 1967 short story “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream.” With its violent imagery, frank sexuality, unconventional metaphors, and experimental form, Ellison's story is a quintessentially New Wave text. Many writers and scholars also associate the New Wave with a conscious attempt by the authors of that era to stop looking only to previous sf authors for inspiration, and to instead begin drawing upon avant-garde artists like the Surrealist painter Salvador Dalí and the Beat novelist William S. Burroughs. This new iconoclastic attitude toward previous sf is well represented by the New Wave author J. G. Ballard's quip that “[g]reat author though he was, I'm convinced that H. G. Wells has had a disastrous influence on the subsequent course of science fiction.” But even though in a preface for the story “I Have No Mouth” Ellison declares that he “had to go into the future to write the story,” what he actually had to do was go into the medieval past to write it.

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This is an accepted manuscript of an article published as “Medieval and Futuristic Hells: The Influence of Dante on Ellison's ‘I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream,’” Studies in Medievalism 26 (2017): 117-130. Posted with permission.

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