Technology and Morality
in Science Fiction

Brendan Wilson

Technology and Morality in Science Fiction

Brendan Wilson Page 1

cience fiction explores the human condition in relation to scientific and technological
advancement. Typically, the innovations that are presented are reflections of concerns
within the zeitgeist where the genre transfers „hypothetical premises into the very
stream of socio-logical occurrences‟
. The nature of these subjects is extended to futuristic or
alternate societies containing major technological developments where the responder is
presented with a critique of their society outside the parameters of their present context or
milieu. Therefore the human condition is explored through various timeframes inhabiting
different political and technological epochs. Stanley Kubrick explores the nature of morality
interplayed with technology through the 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey which was
according to George Lucas, “the first time people took science fiction seriously”
. This
question of morality in the midst of technology is conventional in the case of science fiction
where it is similarly explored through H.G. Wells‟ 1897 novel The Invisible Man and Peter
Porter‟s 1983 poem Your Attention Please. These texts explore the relationship between
technology and morality through differing situations and contexts, and through this the texts
of the science fiction genre form a statement concerning the timelessness of the issues they
explore and critique in which contributes to the genre‟s textual integrity.
2001: A Space Odyssey possesses many of the required features and conventions that deem it
as a science fiction text. The generic and recognisable traits of the genre that the iconic film
possesses are space travel, artificial intelligence (AI) featured through HAL 9000, time travel
as shown in David Bowman‟s adventure „beyond the infinite‟ and extra-terrestrials (ET)
which are depicted as the “black monolith”. However, despite these scientifically derived
features, the movie additionally explores elements of the human condition such as morality
and power. The text explores morality and the human condition in the unknown void of space
along with strange technologies and beings such as AI and ET life-forms. The machine
aesthetic is represented in the film through the prolonged scenes of spacecraft as well as the
crew dwelling inside of the „Discovery One‟ accompanied by beauteous orchestral music.
This association subsequently links the aesthetic nature of the soundtrack to the footage, and
ultimately the depicted technology where „technology becomes much more a matter of
representation, of aesthetics, of style‟
. This conveys how science and technology has the
ability to imitate naturally human emotions and notions of appearance where fundamentally
science is implanted deeply within every aspect of the film, even those that seem essentially
human. This use of the conventional components of science fiction in Kubrick‟s movie
brands it as a text of the genre.
Science fiction consists of a plethora of sub-genres which in themselves are specified by
certain and more distinguishing features and conventions. 2001: A Space Odyssey falls under
the category of hard science-fiction and fulfils the criterion for the sub-genre of first contact.

Stanislaw Lem, On the Structural Analysis of Science Fiction
Gary Leva, Standing on the Shoulders of Kubrick: The Legacy of 2001
R.L. Rutsky, High Techne: Art and Technology From the Machine Aesthetic to the Posthuman
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Scientific laws are considered in the film and hence technologies are altered or created to
satisfy the logic behind these laws as „Kubrick was very keen on 2001‟s scientific accuracy‟
This application is evident in innovations such as the „zero gravity toilet‟ and the absence of
sound in the scenes that take place in open space. The depiction of ET life in the film also
bears a scientific basis, where according to Carl Sagan; to have the alien beings resemble that
of terrestrial life would establish „at least an element of falseness‟
. As a result, Kubrick
decided to represent ET life as, as he states, “immortal machine entities” where they have
undergone evolution to the state of becoming “beings of pure energy and spirit”. These
aspects of the text that have been developed on the basis of scientific fact therefore deem it as
hard science fiction, additionally, the inclusion of foreign life-forms and man‟s contact with
them also subjectifies the film to the sub-genre of first contact.
Science fiction differs from other genres that fall under the speculative fiction category. This
is on account of the scientific possibility regarding the fantastical or unrealistic features
evident in the genre. The typical future setting allows presently established nations,
corporations and technologies to appear, where the use of these familiarities create
verisimilitude. The use of these familiar cultural aspects additionally presents the context of
the time of composition, as well as predictions to their position in the future. In 2001: A
Space Odyssey the reference of brand names such as that of „Pan American‟, „Hilton‟ and
„IBM‟ establish a sense of truth to the depicted future where the non-existent technologies
and ideas are branded to be plausible elements of the near-future. Therefore the use of
familiarities establishes context and attaches plausibility to science fiction texts. It also aids in
transferring ideas and predictions of the near-future to the responder‟s mind.
The features of 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Invisible Man present speculation of new
technologies that were discussed or emerging in the contextual epoch. The main innovation
that is challenged is computers and invisibility. The main question that comes into the
equation regarding computers is morality where the antagonist of Kubrick‟s film, HAL 9000
plots to murder the crew of Discovery One; most of which attempts are successful. HAL‟s
nature is indicated to the responder consistently through his representational red light which
attaches symbolic connotations of evil. HAL is quite a paradoxical character where he is a
„complex character with greater emotional depth than any of the people in the film‟
, which is
antithetical to the common perceptions of intelligent machines. Aspects of the human
condition are relevant in HAL‟s intellect, where he attempts to abandon Bowman and murder
the remaining crew in order of self-preservation. This is exemplified where HAL explains to
Bowman that he was aware Bowman and Frank Poole were “planning to disconnect” him and
that is something he “cannot allow to happen”. This is juxtaposed where Bowman
miraculously enters Discovery One and disconnects HAL, also an act of survival which

Robert Kolker, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey: New Essays
Carl Sagan, The Cosmic Connection
Barry Keith Grant, Of Men and Monoliths: Science Fiction, Gender, and 2001: A Space Odyssey
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builds a similarity between the nature of humans and that of AI. The extent of HAL‟s
morality is a commonly explored theme in science fiction where it is similarly represented in
The Invisible Man. Griffin; „the invisible man‟ is brought to a “mad” and “homicidal” state
due to his applied scientific innovation despite the “common conventions of humanity”.
Griffin dismisses the idea of applying his discovery to peaceful purposes but rather seeks to
“establish a Reign of Terror” and “dominate” society. Therefore the place of morality in
technology is presented in the film and novel through the entity of AI and humans
themselves, posing a didactic message that „cautions us about the ways in which we deal with
the technologies we invent‟
. This relevant didacticism of the consequential detriment to man
that is consistently presented also proves the genre‟s textual integrity.
Additionally, another controversial topic which is presented in 2001: A Space Odyssey as
well as Your Attention Please is nuclear warfare which portrays the inhumane basis of
scientific advancement. Contextually, the 1960‟s and 1980‟s were times of tension
concerning nuclear warfare, and it was a dominant fear in western society. Through the
inclusion of this subject, Kubrick makes a prediction about space and how it can ultimately
extend the parameters of military conflict. The match cut between the ape‟s bone weapon and
the spaceship houses a deeper meaning when considered with the soundtrack. The match cut
metaphorically links the bone and the spacecraft through the idea of weaponry. The
soundtrack that accompanies the prolonged scene of spacecraft is Johan Strauss‟ Blue Danube
Waltz which creates a link between the spacecraft and atomics with the name of Britain‟s first
nuclear weapon being the „Blue Danube‟. Porter‟s poem also reflects relevant contextual fears
concerning „Atomic Attack‟ with capitalisation indicating the fear and power behind the
threat of nuclear weaponry. This links to Elias Wyber‟s rhetorical question of whether science
fiction is „inventing (or predicting) the future, or discussing the present‟
. As exemplified, the
first part of the statement is suited to 2001: A Space Odyssey as a result of its futuristic
setting and use of advanced technologies that are not as yet harnessed. Texts of science
fiction typically present situations which are predictions of future events, technologies or
applications of them in which these prophetic depictions usually revolve around controversial
subjects of the time. However, in Your Attention Please it is the present that is blatantly
discussed where an extreme eventuation of atomic fear is proposed to the extent where
„survival kit[s]‟and „capsules…for painless death‟ are issued. This shows the immoral actions
that are anticipated in the dystopian event of nuclear war. The mention of the „Government‟
in the context of atomic war also shows the powerful capabilities that can be unlocked by
governments through technology. Therefore both texts furthermore present the immoral
nature of technological advancement and how it comes into the equation concerning power in
which is a consistently represented concept in science fiction.

Robert Kolker, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey: New Essays
Elias Wyber, Science Fiction- Inventing the Future or Describing the Present
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Rationality and high intelligence seems to neglect morality in science fiction texts. The HAL
9000 of 2001: A Space Odyssey possesses infallible knowledge and is „incapable of error‟;
however, this trait is dramatically ironic from a human perspective where HAL‟s future
actions are considered morally incorrect. This is relevant also to The Invisible Man where
Griffin is a man of high intelligence and advanced science where subsequently he is capable
of unlocking a great scientific discovery; however he considers using his discovery to enact a
“Reign of Terror”. The situation in Your Attention Please proposes rationality and
subsequently immorality due to the contradicting nature between logic and emotions. This is
exemplified where „the old and bed-ridden‟ are ordered to be left to die through the use of
imperatives due to the scientific perspective rather than that subject to emotions. Therefore
the instinctual logical and rational values of science are further conveyed through the genre
where hence morality is neglected.
Gender inequality is certainly evident in 2001: A Space Odyssey where the journey into the
final frontier and „beyond the infinite‟ does not have a place for females. The only appearance
of the woman in the unknown void is when she is serving food on the „Pan Am‟ flight or
attending the „Hilton‟ hotel reception. This rather obvious exclusion of the gender is making a
comment about the role of females, along with the congruent feature of its predecessor,
Homer‟s The Odyssey. Much like the protagonist of Kubrick‟s film, Bowman, the hero of
Homer‟s epic poem is also a male, Odysseus. By comparing these two texts it can be seen that
in cultural forms of various points of time the male gender has been considered the most
suited for the adventurous role. In 2001: A Space Odyssey this prejudice feature may be
necessary to convey certain messages. Poole and Bowman both share a personal relationship
with HAL where the computer is considered “just as another person” who even asks
“personal question[s]” Therefore, later when HAL poses a threat to Bowman‟s survival,
Bowman disconnects him despite the friendship they shared. This is an act that is most
possible of a male, due to their machine-like characteristics where emotion must be
subtracted from the equation as proven throughout time with the typical function of laborious
work and battle. This perspective drawing focus to the animalistic nature of men is also
evident in costuming where the space helmets of Bowman and Poole resemble that of a
reptilian head with beak-like structure and large circles representing eyes. Therefore the
presented unbalanced inclusion of gender roles within the film serves a purpose and
constructs a statement concerning the suitability of certain genders in unknown and
dangerous realms.
An alternate theory of evolutionary anthropology is presented in 2001: A Space Odyssey
where the hypothesis is suggested that the evolution of man has been prompted by ET
intelligence. This is conveyed in the „Dawn of Man‟ scene where following the Primates‟
encounter with the black monolith they undergo metamorphosis and learn to use bones as
tools. The appearance of the monolith is of a cuboid shape, similar to that of a brick which
visually establishes its purpose as a “building block” of biological development and hence a
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material necessary for evolution. Other evolutionary symbols that arise after the interaction
with the monolith are bipedalism. This idea is further strengthened through the match cut of
the bone and spacecraft where the juxtaposition shows the eventuation of evolutionary
change. Therefore the hypothesis possesses both ideas of creationism and evolution where a
hybrid opinion is portrayed, stating that evolution was fuelled by exterior beings. This change
of nature of the apes is blatantly violent and lacks morality from a human perspective. The
predicament aboard „Discovery One‟ is similar, where HAL, a figment of knowledge
obviously lacks humane values to a certain extent. Hence it can be seen through these
situations that the enlightenment and enhancement of knowledge through the proposed event
of evolution is a trigger for immoral actions.
As derived, science fiction portrays a vivid picture that has the ability to reflect controversial
topics of the time as well as prophesise dire consequences relative to technological and
scientific development through didacticism. As manifested, morality relevant to the human
condition is a commonly explored theme throughout the genre in which poses a message of
caution which maintains the textual integrity. With logic and knowledge being a fuelling
force of the genre, ideas concerning the future as well as the past have the opportunity to be
conveyed. As a result the genre is a hybrid of both creativity interplayed with logic where
interesting and valid opinions are communicated which educates one about the present, as
well as the future which accounts for the enduring relevance of science fiction.