High- and Low-Tech Realities: A Comparison
Before taking this course, my knowledge of works of the future was fairly limited and because of this, I was not aware of just how complex the science-fiction genre truly is. Over the course of the semester, I have garnered a deeper understanding of the genre, and have found the distinguishing characteristics between its low- and high-tech narratives to be especially interesting—their similarities, differences, and the impacts of each.
Works of high-tech science fiction are rife with technology and scientific elements, either real or imagined. An example of this is William Gibson’s, “Johnny Mnemonic,” where readers are introduced to a “virtual reality.” Our course’s website defines this as a “media simulation (or mimesis) of actual reality” and that “the term is applied broadly to humanity's ongoing transition from a biologically-based existence in real time and space to an electronic or digital existence in artificial environments.” In “Johnny Mnemonic,” we read of a world where technology and humanity have become so far intertwined with one another that the two become nearly indistinguishable, as people have actually started to modify their bodies in order to take on some of these technological characteristics. Technology is so deeply rooted within the story that Gibson even goes so far as to introduce a cyborg dolphin, one who is able to communicate with its own implanted lights and sensors. Because of elements such as these, and a setting so different from our own, “Johnny Mnemonic,” while thought provoking, might seem difficult for some to grasp and/or relate to.
In contrast, instead of focusing primarily on technology or science, works of low-tech science-fiction have the tendency to emphasize issues pertaining to the individual. An example of this is Octavia Butler’s “Speech Sounds.” Because of its depiction of societal issues, this work is far more relatable than “Johnny Mnemonic,” where humans live in a world seemingly overrun by technology and machinery. According to our course’s website, “instead of virtual reality's escapism into a fantastic cyberspace, low-tech sf encourages re-engagement with actual reality, particularly biological human existence” and that examples of this include “family relations” or “physical contact.” In “Speech Sounds, for instance, the protagonist finds herself in a world whose inhabitants lack the ability to adequately communicate with one another. There is little to no technology to be seen, and even a running vehicle seems out of place. Because of the missing technological aspects, though, the entirety of the narrative is instead fixated upon the interactions between characters, making the short story far more intimate and relatable than a work featuring more technology or science.
Although seemingly more uncommon, it is not, however, impossible for both low-tech and high-tech elements to be present within a single work of science-fiction. An example of this is Thomas Fox Averill’s “The Onion and I,” where a high-tech virtual reality is steadily forming, and while the low-tech actual reality is slowly being abandoned, its existence is not affected. The two realities manage to coexist simultaneously, which offers a nice balance—one that joins together the world of one’s mind with the world of one’s body. The virtual reality the protagonist lives in is progressive and limitless, while he, at his father’s insistence, still visits actual reality which remains grounded and more authentic than the virtual reality to which he has grown accustomed. The father emphasizes the importance of remembering that even virtual objects are in some way based on a physical counterpart. He argues that a virtual onion will never quite compare to an actual one, so while it might be necessary for them to live in virtual reality, actual reality should not be forgotten. However, the longevity of this situation is questionable, as it is likely that as time passes, the actual world will only become further disconnected from the new, virtual world. While its physical existence might remain unchanged, its inhabitants are slowly evolving to something new and different.
While works of high- and low-tech science-fiction are incredibly different, depending upon the work, elements of both subgenres can be seen within a single narrative. Works of high-tech science-fiction tend to focus more on science and technology, while less of these are seen among works of low-tech science-fiction, which generally depict human emotions and interactions. Neither of the two subgenres is superior to its counterpart, and because the two subgenres are so different from one another, both are vital components to the science-fiction genre.