Every year, we use Short Story Month as an opportunity to dive deep into questions of craft. This year, we take a close look at how contemporary literature tackles technology. We discuss fiction that uses Instagram, selfies, text messages, and robots in order to help convey emotion, reflection, and meaning.
“So many futuristic tales ask this: where do we draw the line between ourselves and what we have created? If this is what it means to be a machine, what does it mean to be a person?”
The case could easily be made that literature and technology are opposites. Great literature is a celebration of our very humanity. It chronicles our subjectivity, our ugliness, our desires, and our fears. It is a record of critical thought and of lived experience. Technology on the other hand, is rote. It is comprised of mechanical parts, of code, of signals. It is pure functionality, devoid of thought.
No wonder we are so fascinated with it.
In fact, we’re obsessed. From Taylor Swift videos to Black Mirror to the Bladerunner sequel—there’s a wealth of contemporary media that interrogates our relationship with technology. Fiction is no exception. In the slush pile alone, we’ve seen many stories in the form of emails, several pieces featuring robots, a lot of fiction about drones, and one very special story that (somehow) analyzed complex trauma through emojis.
Here, we examine the ways in which technology is incorporated in contemporary stories and novels as a mirror that casts a different light on our own experience and a foil that shows us the best and worst of ourselves. Whether it’s the simple use of a text message or an encounter with AI, the use of technology in fiction often provides characters with an opportunity for self-reflection.
I must admit that I’ve always found the selfie to be a strange and tragic form. In them, we look like bewildered creatures, staring into the lens, studying ourselves.
This conceit can be incredibly useful in fiction. It’s often very difficult to have a first-person narrator talk about themselves without it feeling contrived. Technology provides an easy solution to this problem. In Tom Perrotta’s recent novel Mrs. Fletcher, Eve, a middle-aged woman explores her own (sexual) identity after her only son leaves for college. In this passage, she examines the selfies she took after a new haircut:
They were really good—not just the haircut and the clothes, but the look on her face, and even the way she was standing with her hand on her hip, and her head canted at the perfect, self-possessed angle. Everything felt right and true, just the way she wanted it.
There I am, she thought.
Imagine this same scene with Eve looking in a mirror, and it feels more than a little contrived. This sort of (literal) self-reflection would be very hard to achieve without the help of the selfie—a form which asks us to study ourselves from all angles. In the final line, “There I am,” Eve is reaffirming her own identity through this image. The cover for the book itself features a drawing of a woman in bed, looking at her phone, the light from its screen illuminating half her face.
In “The Relive Box” by T.C. Boyle, a man is obsessed with a technology that is even more addictive than TV: a box that, when activated, lets you relive your memories, but only as an observer. The protagonist can’t stop himself from going into the relive room and watching himself romance and lose his past loves: his punk college girlfriend who cheated on him; his ex-wife, who has left him alone to raise his fifteen-year-old daughter. He’s looking back at his old happiness, and also his mistakes. He offers endearingly funny commentary on his past appearances:
What I said then, unaware that my carefully sculpted pompadour was collapsing across my brow in something very much like a bowl cut (or worse—anathema—a Beatles shag), was “You want to dance?”
My hair hung limp, my muscles were barely there, but I was young and reasonably good-looking, even excusing any bias.
The relive box becomes a true compulsion, causing the protagonist to ignore his life in the now: his sleep, his job, basic hygiene, even the care of his daughter. He admits: “ . . . I had to relive it. I couldn’t help myself. I just kept picking at it like a scab.” And, the thing is: he is not alone. He notices others in the office with the same zombie eyes: they share the compulsion to abandon the present for the past.
And, just like that, this imagined technology has turned a mirror on humanity and showed us ourselves in a less flattering light. Who doesn’t, sometimes, stew in nostalgia and regret? Who hasn’t thought that, if you analyze your mistakes hard enough, you can undo them? Ultimately, this story shows us that it’s the human tendency to dwell in the past—to regret our actions, to resent those of others—that can undo us.
In “Demonman” by Julialicia Case, which won one of our recent Short Story Awards for New Writers, emojis are used to describe a trauma that runs deeper than language. “Demonman” is told from the perspective of an eleven-year-old girl whose sister is the most recent victim of a serial rapist. Her sister has stopped talking altogether so the girls communicate solely through texted emojis. This sounds trivial in summary, but the effect on the page is quite the opposite. (You really just have to read it). The narrator calls the rapist Demonman: “My phone has an emoji of Demonman, with a round red face and eyes like pink fried eggs. His smile glints like a zipper, and beside him, the robot pretends he is fine.” So much menace is packed into this description of an animated monster: the smile sharp as a zipper, the terrified robot.
The sisters have whole conversations made up of images. It’s the unspeakable things behind them that give them weight:
I text Laura the water drop emoji, three drops, like rain, but going sideways. I text the fire emoji with the red sparks shooting upward. I text her a question mark, as in, what will help you? . . . It’s late when my phone buzzes. She’s texted the volcano, texted the roaring wave, texted a night sky with stars so cold I shiver as if their loneliness were my loneliness, too.
“Demonman” effectively shows us one of the worst sides of human nature: in it, technology is a language that conveys the aftermath of violence, the ways in which trauma can make its victims feel marooned by their fears.
In “Likes” by Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum, a father tries to connect with his withholding twelve-year-old daughter by looking at her Instagram account. The 2016 election looms at the edges of this story. His daughter is undergoing physical therapy so that she can keep up with her ballet. It’s clear that she is having trouble connecting with her peers at school. The protagonist looks for clues into his daughter’s mentality in the pink-toned images on her Insta: a sunset; lips; a medium-rare hamburger; a pink Starbucks drink; a frosted cupcake.
When the distracted father gets in a wreck driving his daughter home from school, Instagram reveals her sense of betrayal: “New post: a bared collarbone with a seat-belt burn running diagonally across it. The welt shiny with ointment, and pink.”
It’s interesting that “Demonman” also uses a pink palette: after her rape, the narrator’s sister Laura will only eat pink foods: spaghetti with tomatoes, rare meat, borscht. These stories both consider their color palettes carefully, much as the daughter in “Likes” does for her Instagram feed. Teens and preteens are increasingly expressing themselves through visual media, and fiction is mimicking this language.
Even our fictions about futuristic technologies reveal a desire to know what it is to be human.
The Afterlives by Thomas Pierce is a novel that is set in an alternate reality with a futuristic feel. The narrator, Jim Byrd, has an artificial heart, which he can monitor through an application on his iPhone. The system that controls his HeartNet can literally be hacked; a remote hacker could cause his heart to explode. Holograms begin popping up all over his small, southern town—and it’s very difficult to tell them from real people. It takes a long time for our narrator to realize that a greeter at the bank where he works is actually just a three-dimensional projection.
In a novel that is so much about what makes us human, this blurring of boundaries between people and machines illuminates our own fragility and the subjective nature of existence itself. So many futuristic tales ask this: where do we draw the line between ourselves and what we have created? If this is what it means to be a machine, what does it mean to be a person?
Another one of our favorite Masters Review stories, “Iron Boy Kills the Devil” by Sheldon Costa, has the markings of a futuristic landscape. Drones deliver all of the necessary supplies to the depressed, rural town where our protagonist lives. Not only that: our fourteen-year-old protagonist Iron Boy is convinced that he himself is a machine of his mother’s making.
After all, when your first love is leaving town, your dad is about to lose his job, and your brother is slipping away from you, this is the most convenient line of thought:
The best thing about being a machine: your feelings are just one big illusion. A trick composed of sensors and pressure plates, maybe some rudimentary chemical reactions. You might feel like your heart is breaking, but the truth is that whatever you have inside of you is mostly indestructible.
If only, Iron Boy. This passage reveals how plainly and painfully human Iron Boy is, and in so doing it tugs at the humanity in all of us. Now, when a machine can do that, I will begin to worry.
by Sadye Teiser