All posts by Kerry O'Donnell

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With Great Technology Comes Great Responsibility

With Great Technology Comes Great Responsibility: Technology and its Representation in Science Fiction Literature

I’d like to start by exploring an idea presented by Ursula K Le Guin, found in the introduction of the Nebula award-winning novel The Left Hand Of Darkness. She discusses the genre of science fiction, stating:

“Science fiction is metaphor. What sets it apart from older forms of fiction seems to be its use of new metaphors, drawn from certain great dominants of our contemporary life—science, all the sciences, and technology…”

I simply draw inspiration from this statement by Le Guin, rather than incorporating The Left Hand of Darkness into the upcoming discussion. However, I believe it is not only a wonderful way to introduce this discussion, but on a more personal note, it was a wonderful way to begin a formal study of science and speculative fiction. I’d like to focus on the idea that technology is an inspiration to works of science fiction. In developing this thought, I’ll look at two works in particular, V for Vendetta by Alan Moore with illustrations by David Lloyd and Feed by M. T. Anderson. Through this analysis as well as extrapolation to a greater picture, I hope to explain the unique relationship between science fiction and technology, as well as how it relates to modern day society.


The quote by Le Guin in her introduction to The Left Hand of Darkness provides a good platform to start this adventure. Focusing on the segment of the statement referring to the “…great dominants of our contemporary life—science…and technology”, I’d like to present a brief argument that technology should not be isolated to a great dominant of only our contemporary life, but rather expanded and applied to human life over a larger range of time. Technology in a modern context is easily associated with the devices that are so common in today’s society: cell phones, laptops, cars, television, music, and so on. But it is also beneficial to take a more reminiscent paradigm, and to realize the relative magnitude of different technological innovations as they have occurred in time. For example, one of the first major innovations is considered to be the wheel. This shape is so incorporated into our society through its function that it is easy to forget that at one point, it held no functional purpose. Another interesting example is the innovation of tools. The development and use of tools in more ancient time is used to differentiate the development of different populations and at times is used to differentiate species of hominoids. Something as simple as a pointed rock or a sharpened stone used for a purpose is a great technological innovation that holds little relevance in modernity, but was a cutting edge innovation in a more ancient context. So while Ursula K. Le Guin emphasizes the importance of modern technology in its inspiration of science fiction, I believe it is important to realize the spectral nature of technology, with importance and significance within a temporal context.

Suggesting that technology is a major motivator (though by no means the only motivation) of social change and revolution may even further expand this point, and is a useful argument to briefly consider. The most obvious example of technology as a motivator of social change is the industrial revolution, sparked by the invention of the assembly line and the cotton gin. These simple innovations completely revolutionized manufacturing, creating a renaissance of sorts, in which manufacturing was completely remodeled and new inventions and innovations were frequent. These changes in technology exerted heavy influence on the social and political environment of the time. Another very obvious movement closely associated with technology was the Cold War era, in which conflict was driven by the threat of developments in the field of nuclear warfare. Concurrently, the Space Race drove massive advancements in aerodynamic engineering, with the goal of being the first to pioneer outer space. In these two examples, and in numerous more, innovation and societal evolution are closely related.


From here, it is important to examine the double-edged nature of technology. Arguments exist for both the benefits and harms of specific technologies and technological advancement as a whole. Advancements in technology have promoted growth and development in innumerable fields of science, education, and human welfare. Advancements in medical technology, pharmaceutical development, environmental engineering, agricultural sciences and even further specified fields, both within each of these overarching titles and in titles that were not named, have improved aspects of human life. But while the specifics of the argument are far outside the realm of this writing, it is important to draw attention to the counter-argument to the benefits of technology. For adults, an Information Technology Productivity Paradox is cited, saying that innovation designed to increase communication and the switch to electronic processing saw a decline in productivity rather than the expected increase. There is also the phenomenon observed more recently of younger and younger children understanding smart phones and how they work. Each of these specific instances both have arguments and counter-arguments, which speaks to the controversial nature of increased development and use of technology, which is not limited to the two examples cited above. Because of this controversial nature, technology, its uses, and its appropriateness are highly debated, creating a source of friction from which many thoughts and interpretations grow.


From this discussion, it is clear that technology is important to our modern society. Whether these developments and innovations are considered good or bad is a more controversial topic. Regardless, technological innovation is a constantly evolving field, adjusting to context while both influencing and receiving influence from social and political climate. In this niche, literature plays an important role. Literature has often been a resource to express thoughts about society and change, if any is present. Period works are interpreted within the contexts during which they were written, to help interpret purpose as well as reveal detail about societal conditions. Some of these thoughts may be represented in literature. Science fiction should be no less considered as a representation of social and political climate, despite its supernatural and otherworldly reputation. If anything, it becomes most relevant in a world trending towards technology. This is the case in Lloyd and Moore’s V for Vendetta and M. T. Anderson’s Feed, which both incorporate technology, though in different methods and magnitudes. However, both can be viewed as social commentary, to lengths that will be discussed.


To start, I will highlight the technological aspect of each novel, as well as give a brief summary of each. Feed follows Titus, a teenager in a futuristic society in which a computer implant has been installed in the majority of peoples’ brains, supplying them with a constant feed of advertisements and entertainment. In a terrorist attack while Titus and friends are spending spring break on the moon, the feed is temporarily disabled in a group of people by direct contact, of which Titus is a part. Another one of these affected people is Violet, a teenage girl that Titus meets while on the moon and is instantly smitten with. The novel follows Titus as he develops a romantic relationship with Violet, in spite of complications that arise from the terrorist’s actions. The emphasis on technology in this novel is the feed, purchased and paid for by individuals in the society and installed in close relations with brain function. The feed not only allows the constant bombardment from advertisements, but it also provides direct communication with whomever an individual desires, in spite of distance or separation, as well as an instantaneous sharable database, so that thoughts, images, memories, among other things can be shared instantly between people. V for Vendetta is a graphic novel that centers on the central feminine Evey as she encounters the anonymous character of V in a fascist London undergoing repair from global nuclear warfare. The novel reveals V’s orchestration of government overthrow, centering the action on government agency actions and the way they handle V’s attacks (both physical and technological) designed to weaken and reveal corruption. While the centrally focused theme of this novel is government relations and the role of corruption, an understated aspect is the role of Fate, a computer system that the society’s leader, Adam Susan, uses to make nearly all decisions. We later find out that it is V who programed Fate and is ultimately influencing the decision making of Susan. While both Feed and V for Vendetta incorporate technology and both are considered works of science fiction, both utilize technology in different ways to comment on society. How each does so will be discussed.


The feed in Feed is an extrapolation of our addiction to smart phones, the need for instant information, and the desire to be connected, at least electronically, at all times. In an essay about the novel, author M. T. Anderson states:

“At the time, I was worried about the cultural effect of this information buzz on how we understood ourselves—even on our own neurological development. Now I am more worried by how this media shell actually insulates us from understanding the world around us.”

It is interesting that Anderson reflects in such a manner, as he makes this statement years past publishing, yet this insulation from the world is exactly what is observed in the main character Titus. This is in stark contrast to the other main character, Violet, who pushes Titus to think about the world around him and what is going on. Titus often dismisses Violet’s comments, which frequently reference the possibility of nuclear warfare as well as numerous comments regarding current environmental conditions. This is an interesting extrapolation from modern society. For one of the first times in history, the individual can claim responsibility for the type of information they receive. By choosing whom they follow on Twitter, or becoming Facebook friends with certain people and figures, the individual chooses what information is available to them.  Even more basic than that, individuals can choose what they do and do not read, with the nature of the presentation of the information influencing if that information is pursued or not. The idea of “click bait” has unlocked the potential for advertisement of information and news, a modern phenomenon. This just further plays into the focus on advertisement that is featured in Feed.


The insulating effect that the feed has on Titus can be viewed as a comment on the role of social media in our modern society. Social media is a relatively new platform for the spread of information and opinions. With information becoming so easily accessible, the overwhelming feelings that Titus experiences at times are understandable. The sheer volume of information that is available both to Titus in his future and to the modern person is massive, and some people may experience the desire for isolation that Titus experiences, choosing to listen and observe only to the news and information that directly affects the individual. This phenomenon can be observed, especially in younger generations as they mature, and manifests itself in things like decreased voter turnout. While technology seemingly increases the amount of information available, paradoxically less and less information reaches younger minds, and seemingly even less choose to act and register opinions on this information. This behavior is mirrored by Titus in Feed, and was one of the themes that Anderson chose to focus on when incorporating modern trends into science fiction and a future dystopia.


While the feed and technological innovation is a major focus in Feed, Fate is a more background element in V for Vendetta, however its role in social commentary should go no less noticed. The societal structure presented in the post-nuclear fallout of London relies on the computer algorithm that is Fate to make decisions. Adam Susan, the leader of the society, makes no decisions without consulting Fate. The public in the novel is also well aware of Fate, as Fate is personified in the novel and leads a political propaganda campaign. It is not revealed until much later in the novel that V was responsible for the decisions presented by Fate, but until that point, Susan allows its decisions to dictate society. For example, following the initial bombing of Parliament, an attack by V to launch the action of the novel, Dascombe, who is the character responsible for broadcasting the voice of Fate (Lewis Prothero, who records as the voice of Fate to make Fate seem more human, gaining trust with the people) states:

“…Fate wants us to say it was a scheduled demolition undertaken at night to avoid traffic congestion.”

In this sequence, it is revealed to the reader that decisions regarding political and social discourse were directed by Fate. So how is this relevant to modern society? I argue that it is an extreme extrapolation of technological addiction. The most relevant example could be the use of Siri, an artificial intelligence application that is common on most iPhones. While Siri does not make explicit decisions, it does present you with all information needed to make a decision.   For example, when asked, “Where should I eat?” Siri will compile a list of all nearby restaurants, listing their distance away, address, phone number, as well as a review. Another comparable thought experiment is the film Her, in which the main character Theodore falls in love with an artificial intelligence operating system. Ironically, something similar happens in V for Vendetta as Adam Susan confesses feelings of love towards Fate. While modern society seems far from falling in love with technology, the rise in addiction is an area of concern. Addiction and love are two different ideas, and the distinction and connections between them are a topic for another writing.


As observed, technology tends towards an omnipresent force in science fiction, some arguing that it is what defines the genre. So then why does science fiction choose to focus on technology in this way? I argue that it is because it contextualizes the unimaginable in a way to which we can still relate. Often, works of science fiction focus on unfamiliar things, whether that be a computer-controlled society as is observed in V for Vendetta, an implanted computer screen as in Feed, or things like time travel, space travel, or superheroes that are seen in many examples of science fiction works. I argue that if these technologies and phenomena are presented in a manner that is too unworldly, meaning that there is nothing familiar to the reader, their impact is severely weakened. I think that in order to be an effective thought experiment, as is the aim with some (but not all) works of science fiction, there still must be a strong relatable aspect within the imagined world. This allows the reader to still relate to the world, and can therefore imagine what it would be like. If the world becomes too foreign, the reader may loose the ability to interpret its significance, as most readers bring a self-centered paradigm to a narrative.


This brings attention to another interesting interpretation to give thought to: should there be a limit to the relatable nature of the content? I say this with V for Vendetta in mind. The graphic novel was a source of inspiration to the political activist group, Anonymous. For background, Anonymous is an Internet group that opposes censorship and actively hack and perform cyber-attacks on corporations and governments that they feel are guilty of censoring information. When they do stage a physical protest, it is not uncommon for members to wear the Guy Fawkes mask that matches V’s from both the novel and the film. Technologies that were featured in Feed are also coming into reality, though Anderson admits that he did not write with the intentions of predicting the future direction of technology. An outstanding example is a new contact lens that is being released by Sony, which acts as a recording device. Now, events can be recorded as a person experiences them, and played back and shared as memories. The sharing of memories through video and audio representation was featured in Feed and can now be observed in reality. One last example of a work of science fiction that is notorious for inspiring a flood of new technologies is Star Trek, which provided inspiration for the flip phone and some Bluetooth technologies. Simply labeling Anonymous, contact lens cameras, flip phones, or Bluetooth as “good” or “bad” innovations would severely oversimplify their complexity, but the connections to science fiction literature is interesting and significant. All these examples illustrate the ways in which science fiction is both inspired by and concurrently inspires reality.


Bringing all aspects of this discussion together, a unique relationship can be observed connecting science fiction literature, technology, and the two’s further feedback into modern society. While Feed and V for Vendetta provided examples of this, innumerable examples of technology and its incorporation into science fiction literature exist. Technology and technological innovations have been a driving force of societal change throughout history, present day included. The widespread use of smart phones as well as an increased use of artificial intelligence shows some ways in which the fictional aspects of Feed and V for Vendetta can easily become reality. However, referring back to Ursula K. Le Guin’s introduction to The Left Hand of Darkness, she states:

“Science fiction is not predictive; it is descriptive.”

The authors of at least Feed and V for Vendetta certainly drew inspiration for their fictional worlds from reality, as was discussed above. But while the authors of these novels may not admit to predicting these societal changes (in agreement with Le Guin’s statement), society nonetheless seeks inspiration from these works, as is evident in social movements such as Anonymous and Sony’s recording contact lenses. Not to say that these works are the sole inspiration for these technologies, but science fiction’s incorporation of technology allows a way to represent social and political opinions through literature, as technological innovation becomes increasingly important and more closely integrated into society. As science fiction literature and modern society continue to influence each other, opportunities for advancement, either positive or negative, arise and society continues to develop and change.


Why I Had Such A Hard Time Writing This Post

We recently finished (or were supposed to finish) Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro. I think I had similar reasons for finding difficulty finishing the book that I did in writing this blog post: to me there seemed to be not much of substance to form thoughts on in this book. The whole first part at least seems very blah. No defining characteristics are given to the characters (though this is on purpose I suppose) and the characters have no reactions of any extremes. Yes, they react to the trials and tribulations of growing up, but not in an emotional way by any stretch of the imagination. The only extreme emotion we observe is in Tommy, whose outbursts are seemingly comparable to a young child’s temper tantrums. Even still, these outbursts are taboo, and Tommy is ostracized because of them. I guess that is probably the main reason I struggled through Never Let Me Go, and struggled to find something to write about. The lack of emotion in the book led to a lack of emotion in myself about the book. I formed no emotional connections to the characters, or the story.

Originally, I thought I liked the unique method of storytelling employed by Ishiguro. I liked the reminiscence and thought I could draw connections to how I reflect on my own childhood. However, since begging Life After Life by Kate Atkinson, I realize that the reminiscent style could have been much more well done in Never Let Me Go. I am thoroughly impressed so far with the style of Life After Life, and find it a much more intriguing read than Never Let Me Go, although I classify their methods as similar.

I guess ultimately I would have to say I liked Never Let Me Go in theory, but I find it falls short in execution, especially since having been exposed to a higher level of execution in Life After Life. Here’s to hoping Life After Life meets the expectations I have for it!

Drug Use in Speculative Fiction

I think I’d just like to take a moment and share some thoughts on a trend I’ve noticed, not only in the books we’ve read and movies we’ve watched in class, but as well as books and films I’ve enjoyed in my own time. In some of the books we’ve read in class, there has been a theme of drug use. It was apparent in Black Hole, as well as in Black Mirror, and with less prominence, Kindred. I was inspired by a quote I read from the creator and co-writer of Black Mirror, Charlie Booker. In an article he writes regarding the show titled “The Dark Side of Our Gadget Addiction”, he states, “If technology is a drug—and it does feel like a drug—then what, precisely, are the side-effects? This area—between delight and discomfort—is where Black Mirror, my new drama series, is set.”

This is the quote that got me thinking about drugs in speculative fiction. Now, not all incorporate the use of drugs, but I had an interesting thought. I wonder if the prominence of drugs in speculative fiction is because it is one of the only tangible things that bring about the super and unreal in our reality that so often presents itself in speculative works. I can’t help but then think from there that drug use, and human reaction to such drugs, whether in traditional medicinal form or an object as Booker states, inspires at least some aspects of speculative works. To me, speculative fiction is a particularly impressive genre of literature due to the necessity of such intricate synthesis by its writers, whether that’s complete worlds such as in Left Hand of Darkness, or new societal structure as in The Handmaid’s Tale or V for Vendetta, or even introducing a new disease to modern society such as in Black Hole. The authors must originally synthesize all of these aspects, no matter their depth, and that creativity impresses me. That leads me to wonder, could drug use have a place in the inspiration of such fantastic elements that are incorporated into theses speculative works? So not only could it be incorporated in various ways in the fictional world, but could the fictional world itself arise from drug use as a source of inspiration?

Now I know it seems like I’m saying that all speculative fiction creators are drug users. That is not exactly what I wish to imply. I’m wishing to more so to comment on the fact that drugs could be something familiar in modern society that reader can use to rationalize some of the elements observed in works of speculative fiction, as well as used by creators as inspiration for the fantastic.

Justified Terrorism?

europe-after-rainEurope After Rain II, the painting by Max Ernst on which the title of Book One of V for Vendetta is based.  There is an obvious connection between the two of nuclear destruction.


I’ll start by saying that until this point, I had never read a comic beyond what is found in the Sunday newspaper.  V for Vendetta smashed every perception I had of comics to pieces and I loved every minute of it.  So much about this comic book I loved.  The storyline had me turning pages almost faster than I could read them and I found myself gasping when something unexpected happened.  Then there would be a more artistic rather than action based sequence, that to me reminded me of an avant garde film, where the choices are unique and the frames don’t always match up.  The unique combination of picture and words had an effect on me that I think neither would have had on their own.  My praise aside, I do have some interesting thoughts that came into my head as I read and reflected on this work.

As of now, I’m not entirely sure what to think about V.  It is mentioned in the novel that he is a terrorist. And yes, his actions do seem to match this title.  However, is it considered terrorism if it is against a corrupt government? Well I think that certainly is dependent on through which lens you look.  We then get into questions of what is considered corrupt which brings about a whole lot of ethical considerations.  I feel when one may dive into the nitty gritty of terrorism, they may find that different groups may justify their actions in this gray area of what is corrupt.  Of course I speak of all this in the most speculative way, as I do not know or understand the functioning and relations of terrorism.

It is certainly apparent in this story that the government, the Norsefire party, is corrupt.  The use of concentration camps to exterminate enemies, governing by force, controlled media, and monitoring are just some of the questionable actions.  Even the names of government departments (i.e. The Eye, The Ear) are intimidating and describe questionable intentions.  However, this happens, and is happening, whether to the full extent or a modified extent outside of the fictional world.  The Norsefire party has obvious parallels to the Nazi party (concentration camps, medical experimentation, and a governing police force are some among many).  I would argue that this is the fullest example on which the Norsefire party is based.  But even in modern day, these properties may be apparent in lesser extremes. For example, it is theorized that the US government monitors phone calls. Censorship in media has also occurred throughout history. While the manifestation may not be as extreme as is observed in V for Vendetta, it is still has some factual basis.

I guess I would conclude that the character of V is a terrorist.  However, the framing of the narrative diminishes his terrorist actions, and V himself justifies most of the time as he explains them to Evey. This makes the reader want to root for V, which isn’t hard to do as the corruption of the government is obvious.  But still, does this justify V’s actions?  That I’m not entirely sure of, but it certainly makes V one of the most interesting characters that I’ve ever encountered.

The Handmaid’s Canterbury Knight’s Tale

One of my favorite parts of this book was the Historical Notes section following the conclusion of the narrative.  Normally, I look over sections at the ends of books, as it is often full of acknowledgements, Q&A’s, or strange comprehension questions that add little value to the narrative.  I was very surprised when this addition was actually an integral section, presenting much appreciated context to the complex society presented in The Handmaid’s Tale.

In this Historical Notes section, I was struck by a statement on page 300-301.  It read: “The superscription ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ was appended to it by Professor Wade, partly in homage to the great Geoffrey Chaucer…I am sure all puns were intentional, particularly that having to do with the archaic vulgar signification of the word tail…”  This statement sparked my curiosity to delve into an extensive Wikipedia search of the similarities between The Handmaid’s Tale and The Canterbury Tales, as well as an explanation the pun intended by the use of the word tale/tail in the title.  (Anecdote: I have an appreciation for references to Chaucer not because I have read his work though I’m sure it is wonderful, but because he is represented in one of my favorite movies, A Knight’s Tale, and is probably one of the funniest characters in the whole movie).

I will explain the pun first, as it required a much shallower dive into the depths of the internet.  The word “tail” derives from the latin word for “penis” which is “cauda est”.  I thought that was quite punny, if you will, given the societal framework of Gilead’s foundation on the male genetalia.  This explanation was included in the continuation of the quoted statement, however the etymology contributing to the humor was not explicitly explained.

Further googling and Sparknotes skimming revealed some similarities between The Canterbury Tales and The Handmaid’s Tale that were interesting (disclaimer: I have never read The Canterbury Tales so my interpretation is limited).  The most obvious is that no one knows the actual order of either story, as in both cases the stories were found in fragments (The Canterbury Tales in actuality, while The Handmaid’s Tale fictionally).  This could possibly be the only similarity that the Professor was referring to when naming The Handmaid’s Tale, but my limited research revealed some additional similarities.  In the General Prologue of The Canterbury Tales (the widely accepted beginning), there is a focus on the storytellers who will be telling the stories.  An aspect of this can also be seen in the opening of The Handmaid’s Tale, as Offred lists the names of four people (assuming she lists herself, June) who play a role in the story to come.  Lastly, both are frame tales, where there are stories within the main story timeline.  So while these are just surface similarities between the two, it interested me nonetheless.

Why I Regret Skipping Over Estraven’s Name

Upon beginning reading this work, I initially just skipped over Estraven’s name, deeming it too difficult to pronounce and simply moving on (as I did with many words in the first few chapters of the book).  I had no idea the importance of the character, and still didn’t, until about the last chapter or so.  This may just be blindness or ignorance on my part, but I also think that Le Guin purposely understated Estraven’s importance.  A bit non-traditional, the most important and essential character (in my opinion) was not necessarily emphasized as the main character.  His traits were subtly defined, and  Le Guin even tricked the reader into thinking he was a traitor until Estraven revealed he was not (even then, it was done so simply one couldn’t help but question the honesty of the statement).  Because of these subtleties, I as a reader was not able to fully grasp Estraven as a character, at least in comparison to the understanding of Genly that I gained.

Looking back now on the story as an entirety, I see biblical reflection in the character of Estraven, especially in the last few chapters.  I became aware of these connections when Estraven sacrificed himself to the guards when attempting to cross the border.  He was fully knowledgeable that the guards would shoot him, yet he still sacrificed himself.  I couldn’t help but recognize similarities to Jesus’s acceptance of his arrest and lack of resistance to being hung on the cross.  Upon this realization, I further realized that it seemed Estraven had an increased knowledge of how events would play out, as well as what was best for the greater good (joining the Ekumen).  It was never explained exactly why he held these “privileges”, which led me to support a sort of divine role.  Even further, the survival of the nearly impossible journey across the Ice brings suspect of divine intervention, though it could be thought this intervention could lie either with Estraven or Genly.

This was one symbolic that I recognized within Le Guin’s writing, though I question my ability to recognize and explain such symbolic elements, as I have been so far trained in scientific and experimental design that my first impulse is to rely on evidence.  As a result, I find myself taking things more literally rather than recognizing higher meanings.  This aside, I thoroughly enjoyed Estrevan as a character, and greatly appreciated the unique character development, though frustrating while reading, became extremely rewarding at the conclusion of the book.  As the title of this post states, I do regret initially writing him off as an unimportant character, because at the conclusion of the book my opinion regarding him was completely changed.