LITR 4368
Literature of the Future

Final Exam Essays 2015

Model Assignments


Sample answers for Essay 1:
compare 2 or more “future scenarios”


Victoria Webb

7 July 2015

A Cyberonion is Not a Real Onion:
High Tech Versus Low Tech Characteristics in Narratives of the Future

          More often than not when we think of the future, we think of science fiction films like The Matrix or Terminator, which typically depict dystopic high-tech worlds at war, trench coat wearing protagonists, and human-hating machines. However, in narratives of the future, it is only occasional that we see a story that is fully high-tech or fully low-tech; while there are significant differences between high-tech and low-tech, there are occasions of intermingling of the genres. When thinking about narratives of the future, one must understand that these stories are usually taking place either during or after a great disaster or a world-altering change. This means that the world the audience dives into, is not in the shape it had always been. For high-tech dystopian stories, the reader must understand that the world was, at one point, low-tech. If the story is essentially low-tech, more often than not, there are elements that hint to a rise in technology or it is the characters who exhibit the low-tech qualities while living in a high-tech world. What is important to keep in mind is that there are elements to either genre that one may find in different narratives of the future, and it is essential to understand how to identify them and understand what it means in regards to the story as a whole.

          One of the first elements of high-tech narratives that may be noticed is the way the characters, particularly women, behave, how they are presented, and their overall significance to the story. Women, in high-tech narratives of the future, are complex and may take on multiple roles in the stories. According to Dr. White’s page “High Tech/Virtual Reality” he explains that the roles taken on by women in high-tech or cyberpunk narratives, are typically: icons or celebrities, warrior-chicks, or maternal figures, who “funds or backs up the protagonists’ operations” (White, 2015). In one of the first high-tech/cyberpunk stories read in class, Johnny Mnemonic, we are presented with the male protagonist and his female counterpart. Molly Millions, the warrior-chick we are introduced to, is sometimes referred to as “razorgirl” (“Molly Millions”) due to her retractable blades underneath her fingernails; Molly is also noted to have mirrored lenses that cover her eyes, which enhance her vision. Further research reveals that Molly was once a prostitute, which I believe plays a significant part in her present role as the warrior-chick/body guard (“Molly Millions”). The high contrast between the prostitute and the warrior emphasizes the great strength that Molly has gained, and depicts female empowerment in a world that has unclear ethical boundaries. According to the page “High Tech/Virtual Reality”, in a high-tech setting, there is a strong sense of individual survival. Dr. White writes that in some cases, “beauty survives”; the emphasis of beauty in a post-apocalyptic world on a permanent decline, is perhaps why the women in cyberpunk narratives are either fighters or they are being objectified.

It can be noted that the women in Gibson’s work, Johnny Mnemonic and Burning Chrome, typically will fall under the categories of either “warrior” or “icon”; once again playing on the “fight or be used” theme that I have seen while reading these short stories. In Burning Chrome, Rikki, is seen as the icon, or at the very least, an icon-wannabe. She is a beautiful young woman that is used by Bobby for luck; however, Rikki has her own dreams of gaining “IKON” eyes and becoming celebrity. Jack, the narrator of Burning Chrome, explains that Bobby “set [Rikki] up as a symbol for everything he wanted and couldn’t have”; this reiterates Rikki’s purpose in the story as an icon figure and the beauty being used. Later in the story she is seen in the House of Blue Lights, a brothel, using her body to save up enough money for her eyes. According to Jack, in the House of Blue Lights, the women are unconscious in REM sleep while “working”. This image of unconscious women being “used” can also be seen as form of “icon worship”; the women aren’t exactly there while the act is taking place, and it is a false sense of companionship, similarly to the false companionship that Rikki has with her celebrity icon Tally Isham.

          Stepping back from Gibson’s world, we can evaluate the female protagonists of Audrey Ferber’s short story Drapes and Folds. The narrator is an old woman, at almost 100 years old, she has lived through a world which has undergone epidemics of illnesses, government regulations, and a loss of true biological humans. Pearl, the narrator, is a mother and a grandmother, and from a high-tech standpoint, she represents the maternal figure. She is, in her own way, backing up an operation that is happening behind the backs of the ones in charge. In Drapes and Folds, certain cloths and colors have become illegal and she harbors different cloths that her and her friend Diana spend their time feeling and admiring while they can; her and her friend also spend time enjoying wall-mounted flavor nipples, “TasteLik”. The main characters in Drapes and Folds are inherently low-tech. According to the page “Low-tech/Actual Reality”, the female characters within a low-tech world are typically sensitive to “family relations or their loss”. Pearl displays an obvious sadness and an overt distaste for the world and what has become of it. When Diana tells her that it doesn’t seem worth “throwing [Pearl’s] life away over a few scraps of cloth”, Pearl replies angrily that “cloth is [her] life” and asks what happened to Diana, because she use to be so angry (about the law) (127). Pearl clearly hasn’t let go of her anger for her loss. She also expresses that once the “NewSociety” became more sterile she had desired to have her own biological child; she also expresses that she wished to have her part-roboid part-human grandchild call her “gran”, perhaps to retain the human-family qualities that have long since died out.

These characteristics displayed in Drapes and Folds correlate with low-tech’s typical characterization and literary appeal that leans towards the family aspect being maintained during a future that appears to be post-apocalyptic. In Thomas Fox Averill’s The Onion and I, we are presented with a story that appears to be primarily high-tech, but displays many literary qualities of low-tech narratives. According to “Low Tech/Actual Reality”, literary appeals of low-tech narratives include “unchanging lives detached from natural environment”, “voluntary simplicity”, and “re-engagement with actual reality”, just to name a few appeals. While the setting of The Onion and I, would seem to be the virtual world that the narrator appears to be living in, that is not necessarily the primary focus of the story. Within this world that has gone virtual, the narrator’s father finds solace in the real world. He reiterates to his son that cyberspace isn’t the real world, and that the real world will “always be [there]” (21). The father is low tech due to his sensitivity towards the family setting and the loss of his real world. He also exhibits a strong desire to maintain the family unit, which is the reason he agrees to go into cyberspace with his wife, rather than stay where he feels comfortable. His mother is more a high-tech character, in the sense that she not only the maternal figure, but she is also detached from the natural world; she refers to the real world as “his old world” in regards to her husband and his opinion on the Cyberonions verses the real onions (15). The narrator describes living in both the cyber world and the real world, as similar to sitting in between a mother and a father, and if you read the story closely, his mother and father are in fact just that: metaphors for the real world and the cyber world. His mother is the force that has pulled the family into the cyber world, claiming it is a good thing and that it is the future. His father is the reminder of the outside world, and the one who actually reminds him that the real world will always be there, even if the cyberworld were to go away; this is a demonstration of humanity triumphing over technology, a low-tech appeal (“Low Tech/ Actual Reality”).

What is more appealing, the cyberonion or the real onion? It seems more often than not, we gravitate towards high-tech science fiction narratives or movies; the appeal of a world that far exceeds our own, triumphs over the mundaneness of the world we see every day. But what we fail to realize is that one day the world of the real onions could vanish, and the world of the cyberonions and cyberfamilies will become the norm. Perhaps by then we could have our own “Zeller ring” (Silverberg, 100) like in House of Bones, and transport ourselves back into the Ice Age to get a glimpse of an ecotopian society. Katherine Fellows states in her 2011 essay “Low-Tech vs. High Tech: Familiarity vs. Progress”, that the appeal of low-tech narratives is personal. She states that “low-tech science fiction is appealing because our own society sprung from a low-tech state, and we have survived, if not thrived”, and high-tech fiction, “by contrast, is unfamiliar”. I can agree with her statement to an extent. While I believe that low-tech is more relatable, it is not necessarily more appealing. I believe that we are drawn to the imaginative world of high-tech narratives because of the unfamiliarity. We push our imaginations as far as we can, and still we want to know more. We imagine technology that can take us through space and time in order to create a world that is far from the familiar. Even though we know that the cyberonion will never be the real onion, that doesn’t stop us from wanting to peel its layers to see what’s inside.

Works Cited

“High Tech/Virtual Reality”. N.d. Terms and Themes. Web. 9 July 2015.

“Low Tech/Actual Reality”. N.d. Terms and Themes. Web. 9 July 2015.

“Molly Millions” N.d. William Gibson Wiki. Web. 9 July 2015.

Averill, Thomas Fox. “The Onion and I”. Virtually Now. Ed. Jeanne Schinto. New York: Persea Books, Inc. 1996. 8-21. Print.

Fellows, Katherine. “Low Tech vs. High Tech: Familiarity vs. Progress”.

Ferber, Audrey. “Drapes and Folds”. Virtually Now. Ed. Jeanne Schinto. New York: Persea Books, Inc. 1996. 127-139. Print.

Gibson, William. “Burning Chrome”. Online Texts for Craig White’s Literature Course Web. 9 July 2015.

Gibson, William. “Johnny Mnemonic”. Online Texts for Craig White’s Literature Course Web. 9 July 2015.

Silverberg, Robert. “House of Bones”. Future Primitive. Ed. Kim Stanley Robinson.  New York: Tom Doherty Associates, Inc, 1994. 85-107. Print.