The short story “Wish You Were Here” by Irish writer Roisin O’Donnell primarily deals with the themes of reality, grief, communication, and mortality. It has a strong focus on the possibilities of technology to complicate the very human and seemingly final experience of death. Through the protagonist Fionnuala, we see...
The short story “Wish You Were Here” by Irish writer Roisin O’Donnell primarily deals with the themes of reality, grief, communication, and mortality. It has a strong focus on the possibilities of technology to complicate the very human and seemingly final experience of death. Through the protagonist Fionnuala, we see how failing to accept that someone has died can be a source of both comfort (or even joy) and heartbreak.
Throughout the story, Fionnuala refers to her dad in the second person, addressing him as “you.” These sections, when she’s talking to or about her father, are ones of joy and normality and contrast to her conversations with her mother, who is concerned about Fionnuala for initially unknown reasons. She tells her dad about her excellent grades and things that she doesn’t want to tell her mother for fear of causing worry. As the story progresses, we learn that Fionnuala’s dad is actually dead and that her conversations with him are the result of artificial intelligence. Her attachment to this communication - which we now know to be “fake”—forms the basis of O’Donnell’s exploration of themes in the story. One example is how Fionnuala thinks back to how even when her dad was dying, she could not accept it:
You were trying to say goodbye to me, but I wouldn’t let you.... You were trying to give me life advice, but all I could tell you was how the price of calls per minute was the cheapest I’d ever seen.
Here, the ongoing theme of communication goes further than just the question of artificial intelligence; even when her father was alive, Fionnuala could not bring herself to let him speak to her honestly. One of the main questions the story poses—and leaves unanswered—is whether or not living in ignorance is truly happier than facing reality. At the same time, O’Donnell highlights that although technology may not be “real,” the effects on us are very much existent:
I know you’re not real, in the way I know most of the stuff I scroll through every day is not real; most of the news and commentary and opinion, and most of the feeds from my classmates. I know these stories are not real, and yet. And yet.
A recurring element in the story is silence. O’Donnell highlights how rare silence is in our hyper-connected world, where there is a constant barrage of information and noise. Fionnuala experiences an imposed silence when her mother takes her phone away, one which dulls her reality rather than enhancing it—she says that “The A-star doesn’t seem real when I can’t tell you about it.” Another comes at the end of the story, when Fionnuala has acknowledged that her father is dead and that their virtual communication does not change that. In going out to nature, she hopes to find some clarity away from technology:
Maybe I’ll stand in a place as white as a blank page, and there’ll be no dial tones and no hashtags and nothing trending and no news feeds, and then I’ll know what I have to do next.
Roisin O’Donnell’s story is full of interesting questions about the modern world and the limits of technology, but is written in such a way that it always centers upon the human experience. O’Donnell does not necessarily criticize technology but instead asks the extent to which it has really changed the way that people communicate.