The Biopunk Reader


Robusting Ribofunk: Call for a Biopunk Canon, Part 2

by Wyatt Matthews

In answer to my own think-out-loud call for a biopunk/ribofunk cannon, here’s a two-cent contribution to several categories:

Short Fiction: Yann Martel’s short story--practically microfiction--“We Ate the Children Last.” I came across it this week in the recent Canadian weird fiction anthology Darwin’s Bastards. It involves pig-to-human-stomach transplants in a thick syrup of dark humor.

Cinema: As summer approaches, the blockbuster movie season might offer something. Maybe another Jude Law flick? Perhaps I’m the only one slow to notice this, but is Jude Law (Existenz, Gattaca, then Repo Men), for better or worse, to mass culture biopunk what Will Smith has been to mainstream scifi cinema over the last decade?

Music: Kool Keith’s Nogatco Rd. album (2006). It’s brilliant. Of course it isn’t punk, but then again, does punk really have a speculative nature? Metal certainly is speculative--quite often steeped in apocalyptic visions--but punk? Punk is often quite fervently grounded in realism, hence all of the lobbying for the term “ribofunk.” In short, we could all see Bootsy Collins in space, but Henry Rollins?

My own experience is that punk music turned “conservative” shortly after punk’s (and cyberpunk’s) heyday in the ‘80s. The straight-edge movement was (some would say is) one of the great artistic manifestations associated with the word “punk,” but in the same way that a literary genre becomes solidified, often to the point of cliché, so were strong rules imposed upon that style of music and subculture.

So, as counterintuitive as it may sound, the future of “biopunk” music is more likely to be in hip hop or other genres than it is to be in punk. There are glimmers of biopunk themes in the scifi-rap masterpiece Deltron 3030 (2008)--namely songs like “Virus” and “Upgrade”--but it would be great to hear more bio-specific tracks from someone who delves into speculative fiction themes like Del, Grayskul, or B. Dolan (see Fallen House, Sunken City).

Non-Fiction: We can eagerly await Marcus Wohlsen’s Biopunk: DIY Scientists Hack the Software of Life due out this month. This is one area where the default term “biopunk” again becomes problematic as a label for a mode of fiction, because it’s also the moniker for a real-world wave of gene hackers.

Whereas the corporeal side of cyberpunk was more of a form of cosplay--writers and fans donning the mirrorshades to reflect an imagined near future--biopunk actually has a real-world counterpart in the here and now. Consequently, biopunk as a literary genre may be slightly screwed, finding itself either confused with, or in the shadow of biopunk’s other form(s).

Novel-Length Fiction:

Biopunk is not screwed. Enter Katy Stauber. Katy Stauber’s Revolution World is a worthy read for light-hearted biopunk fans. The story centers upon a set of cloned quadruplets who run a homegrown gene-splicing outfit in a resource-depleted, near-future version of Texas. As the cover promises, it actually does involve ninja lap dogs and fire breathing cows, and Stauber a great job of weaving such (otherwise preposterous) propositions into a raucous, fun, and decently convincing storyline.

The characters seem a bit typecast at first, but end up being quite endearing. Like Smurfs, each girl has her own “flavor.” For instance, there’s the engineer sister with the purple hair and Pippy Longstocking striped socks (kind of like a steampunk Punky Brewster). Of course there’s also the square business-minded sister, etc. and then we have our Bridget Jonesy protagonist.

As I started into this novel, it at first struck a free-association chord with Jillian Weise’s The Colony--simply in that it’s inventive, bio “chicklit” by a southern author. When stepping into Revolution World, you have to be okay with biopunk as a backdrop for nerd love. Katy Stauber is not unlike a more rough-and-tumble Plum Sykes--a guilty pleasure--but with scuffed, steel-toed boots and a degree in biochem.

If this review were a poem, it go something like:

I have read
the genetically-enhanced Plum
that you wrote

Forgive me
it was delicious
so sweet
and yet so damn twisted**

Predecessors: Okay, since tracing the lineage of biopunk is at least as important to the creation and collection of new material, so, to this end, I’d like to add James Blish’s “pantropy” to the biopunk family tree. In his 1957 collection, “The Seedling Stars,” Blish envisions humans genetically modifying themselves to be able to adapt to life on other planets.

Sure, cyberpunk eclipsed scifi’s obsession with the stars, replacing it with the inner space of the digital realm, and biopunk continues that journey inward to the very threads of life, but…well, there’s still plenty of space for space in biopunk isn’t there?

On that note, a last note: Biopunk owes a vital chunk of its DNA to Rudy Rucker. The Ware Tetrology is awesome: an epic full of organ swapping and meat robots on the Burroughs-Dick-Lem-Pynchon tip.



Robusting Ribofunk: Call for a Biopunk Canon

by Wyatt Matthews

Though “ribofunk” (a.k.a. “biopunk”) has undergone a fifteen-year gestation period as a literary term, ribofunk as a subgenre of science fiction has obviously yet to experience the same kind of widespread popularization that cyberpunk or steampunk have. Fans can see this to be a quite an inviting fact, though. Since ribofunk is still in the agar, we are provided with an opportunity for the genre to further evolve before readership expectations begin to solidify and become self-limiting.

For now, the door is wide open, but how wide exactly? Of course, if we include all things biological, ribofunk risks being overly-inclusive and will not sustain itself as a useful thread. Biological monster films for instance, are probably not ribofunk, e.g. Splice or The Host, though there is certainly bound to be some code sharing between ribofunk biological-ecological science fiction. No doubt a certain amount of shared appreciation, inspiration, and cross-pollination will come from world plague stories, zombie films included, ecotopias like Brian Aldiss’s Hothouse, and the like. I will leave it up to others to split hairs over definitions or boundaries and instead simply make a motion to say that the advancement of ribofunk will undoubtedly benefit from the development of a more robust canon. The all-knowing Wiki site only offers a short list of mainstay titles, and a ribofunk/biopunk site such as the one you are currently reading is the perfect collection tray for title submissions.

Rather than waiting for some cloned, biopunkish Harold Bloom to step forward and select the reading list for others, perhaps this Biopunk Reader can serve as the germination station, using digital technology as medium for a more “organic” selection process.

As for my own contributions to that oozy puddle, I feel that commenting here on the lineage of ribofunk could be an important, albeit minor donation:

It is worth recognizing that the seeds of ribofunk took root all the way back at the inception of science fiction itself with the emphasis of the body as scientific product in Frankenstein. From there, this theme has stayed recessive within science fiction, revealing itself at key moments, ala Wells’s The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896) and R.U.R (1920). There is no refuting that ribofunk has been spliced, at least in part, from cyberpunk, but remember that before robots ever came to be of the R2D2 sort, Karl Capek’s robots—the first robots—were engineered organic beings as were the manufactured humanoids in Ernst Junger’s The Glass Bees (1957). These books were the predecessors. I also believe that Mikhail Buglakov’s The Fatal Egg’s (1924) belongs on the list somewhere, though it may stray dangerously close to the aforementioned bio-engineered monster stories, and as much as I would like to lump More Human Than Human (1953) in there as a tale of speculative human evolution, I am not sure that the shoe fits.

To be blunt, ribofunk’s perceived legitimacy as a subgenre may increase as the quality of the novels associated with it increase—both cornerstone and peripheral works alike. This is not to say that Wikipedia’s summary of “biopunk” literature is any more valid than say Oprah’s opinion of a novel, but it is an indicator of sorts. The works currently on the list and those currently in print are solid works but few are to be dubbed literary fiction. I have to admit that I have yet to read Blood Music but see both The Windup Girl and Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan as strong anchors bonding the budding subgenre to the mainstream.

Ribofunk has fairly recently seen the limelight with the release of Repo Men (originally published as The Repossession Mambo, a novel by Eric Garcia) and Repo: The Genetic Opera, yet one can also wonder if this is necessarily “ribofunk proper” or if it is this only a single lobe of the subgenre, a trend of transplant-oriented fiction in which the body itself becomes an area of contested ownership. Ninni Holmqvist’s The Unit and Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go are of this same strain. Both are literary heavy-weights that can permeate the membrane of any academically elitist circle, but there is certainly room for more ribofunk of the caliber of Atwood and Octavia Butler.

As it evolves, one of the most interesting facets of the ribofunk experiment will be to see if it develops an equally substantial pop subculture, as cyberpunk and steampunk have done, though it could be argued that his will never come to pass simply because it lacks the pageantry of its cousins. Somewhere between the future-heavy cyberpunk and the nostalia-laden steampunk, “biopunk” is closest to the now. As a form of speculative fiction, biopunk-ribofunk can only be a single step ahead of the weirdness of bio-technology in the present hour. There is a fine line between envisioned ribofunk scenarios and the bizarre “realities” of TV shows like The Swan—barely the width of an incision line.


Domesticating the Wild, Printing Body Parts


I was standing in line at the Barnes & Noble checkout counter last night (buying comic books, if you must know), when my eyes rested on a copy of the latest National Geographic. The huge picture of a red fox stared back at me. The headline read, "Designing the Perfect Pet: Can a Fox Become Man's Best Friend?"

I snatched the issue up. It just so happens that genetically-engineered pet foxes make a cameo in my latest short story, "How to Hack Your Dragon," which is being released on the 22nd in Growing Dread: Biopunk Visions. They were just something I'd made up--or thought I had. But here they were--foxes that were being bred by Russian scientists for domestication, in a sped-up process meant to recreate the transformation of wolves into dogs. So, the scientists weren't using genetic engineering to make wild foxes into pet foxes ("lapfoxes" I call them in my story, to allude to the fact that they sit on human laps), but they are using these foxes (along with aggressively-bred counterparts) to explore the genes that control domestication. It's the sort of experiment that could lead to something like lapfoxes actually happening in the future.

Interesting stuff, especially considering that--although the scientists are breeding only for behavioral traits of domestication--the animals have spontaneously begun to display the physical traits of domestication, too--traits like floppy ears and spotted coats. These physical characteristics are somewhat universal to all domesticated animals, be they cows, dogs, or fish. (All right, so fish can't have floppy ears--but they can have spots.)

Excitedly, I mentioned the experiment to my beau. His eyes widened. "That's horrible!" he said.

I was taken aback. Who wouldn't want a cute, cuddly fox as a pet? It's not like we'd be messing with the wild population. However, that might be an issue, if domesticated foxes mingled with wild natives. But that hasn't been a concern with dogs and wolves or coyotes...right?

"No," he said. "Think of the implications. If they can domesticate foxes...they could try to domesticate us."

"Posh!" I said. "We are the standard to which other creatures are domesticated. We can't be domesticated, because we are the model of domestication."

Actually, I didn't say "posh," and I couldn't find the right words to say what I meant, so what I said was more like, "What? They can't domesticate us! We--domesticated--already. Um. I have an argument, but I can't find the words. (mumbling). Right. (turns back to WoW)"

I finished reading the article before bed, so it was much later when I arrived at the place where the article mentioned us humans. As it turns out, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is now funding the fox project because of its implications for human behavior. They believe that the domestication of foxes might give us a clue into how we became "domesticated"...and how our genes code our social behavior.


Boyfriend was right.

My first thought: Might those genes be rewritten in those of us who aren't quite as "domesticated" as we should be?

"Yeah," said my friend, Bender. "We'll be rewriting our own software in the future. We'll be able to do whatever we want to ourselves."

Actually, what he might have said was, "They will be able to do whatever they want to us."

But I can't recall his exact words.

Speaking of rewriting ourselves...we may also be able to rebuild ourselves quite soon. Just before the article about the foxes was a piece called "Miracle Grow." On the page next to the title was an ear in a petri dish. Just an ear. The texture of the thing was reminiscent of wax or styrafoam, in a very light pink color. Its caption read, "The synthetic scaffold of an ear sits bathed in cartilage-producing cells, part of an effort to grow new ears for wounded soldiers."

Funny. Just last week, Bender sent me three articles about scientists at the Wake Forest University Institute of Regenerative Medicine who are discovering new ways to build custom replacement organs. One method involved "printing" tissue into the shape of organs, much similar to 3D printing technology that is used for things like Figure Prints. In fact, I had been planning to write my very next post--this one--about "printed" organs, several days before I landed on the National Geographic article.

Besides the printing technique, National Geographic explains that scientists are fabricating organs by using cartilaginous scaffolds and then growing tissue cells atop it.

I am reminded of "Repo: The Genetic Opera" and "Repo Men." Both good, macabre movies (Repo Men is also a book) about organ replacement corporations who hire repo men to bloodily confiscate products that have not been paid for.

Tinkering with domestication genes, and growing replacements for body parts... What do you think are the implications?



Encounters of the Biopunk Kind

by Heather Massey

You just never know when, or where, you’ll run into biopunk.

In retrospect, my first exposure to biopunk was very surreal. My encounter happened back in the early 80s, at a time when I had no idea the subgenre existed. Picture, if you will, my thirteen (or maybe fourteen?) year old self parked in front of the television one weekday afternoon at 3 p.m.. I had arrived promptly for my daily love fest with SPACE BATTLESHIP YAMATO a.k.a. STAR BLAZERS, courtesy of Channel 56 (Boston).

The episode that day would have been #18: Floating fortress island! Two men brave death!. It involved our hero, Derek Wildstar and ship’s engineer Sandor investigating a mysterious object known as the “magnetron wave satellite.” Read the intriguing—and telling—summary of their encounter courtesy of Star

They [Wildstar and Sandor] moor the ship near an opening and begin walking through the strange corridors. Wildstar is reminded of a cavern, but it almost seems like they're walking through a living thing, with lots of vein-like wires and tubes lining the walls. Like most Gamilon bases, there are strange, rhythmic, stomach gurgling noises in the background.

Production note: the soundbed created for this environment made a comeback in Series 2 as the ominous ambient noises inside the Comet Empire city. For now, it comes across as an creepy indicator of Gamilon's affinity for biotechnology.

Did you see that? Right there, where it says biotechnology. OMG! Leiji Matsumoto and Co. were playing with biopunk as far back as 1974, when the original series first aired in Japan. In this case, the Gamilons were the villains who wielded biopunk creations for their diabolical purposes, muwahahahaha!

Here are some nifty shots of the biopunk elements from that episode:

The visuals in that episode were so weird, so strange, and so wonderful, it’s no surprise it created a lasting impression. Ever since, I’ve had an affinity for biopunk even though I didn’t know its name until decades later.

Speaking of later, I subsequently glommed films such as AKIRA, THE FLY (both the ’58 and ’86 versions), GHOST IN THE SHELL, and GATTACA, all of which primed me for biopunk in books. More specifically, in science fiction romance.

Why the SF-romance mix? Well, STAR BLAZERS had a strong romantic subplot. Therefore, it’s no wonder that biopunk and romance transformed into some sort of genetic markers in my DNA or something. The idea of biotechnology gone wildly, bizarrely wrong or being used for corrupt purposes gets my heart a-pumpin’ like nothing else.

Enter Sara Creasy’s SONG OF SCARABEAUS. This book had been getting some great buzz, and knowing it was cyberpunk SF with romantic elements, I decided to check it out sooner rather than later.

Here’s the story blurb:

The best cypherteck in the galaxy, Edie can reinvent planets with little more than a thought. Trained since childhood in advanced biocyph seed technology by the all-powerful Crib empire, her mission is to terraform alien worlds while her masters bleed the outlawed Fringe populations dry. When renegade mercenaries kidnap Edie, she's not entirely sure it's a bad thing... until they leash her to a bodyguard, Finn - a former freedom fighter-turned-slave, beaten down but never broken. If Edie strays from Finn's side, he dies. If she doesn't cooperate, the pirates will kill them both.

But Edie's abilities far surpass anything her enemies imagine. And now, with Finn her only ally as the merciless Crib closes in, she'll have to prove it or die on the site of her only failure... a world called Scarabaeus.

Now, prior to reading the story, I hadn’t read the story blurb (I avoid them when possible if I know I’m going to read a book in order to avoid potential spoilers). So discovering the biopunk elements inside was an immensely delightful surprise. The scenes toward the end were especially mesmerizing and chock full of biopunk horrors. I’m not going to go into detail here—you’ll just have to read the book!

Did SONG OF SCARABAEUS induce warm and fuzzy memories of the “magnetron wave satellite” from STAR BLAZERS? Yes!

Then I got some icing for my cake. Not very long after finishing SONG OF SCARABEAUS, I learned about Ella Drake’s JAQ’S HARP, a biopunk science fiction romance novella (Carina Press). Think: Jack and the Beanstalk, biopunk style. But in this story, the beanstalk is far more than just a giant hunk of plant.

Here’s the story blurb:

In a world of floating islands and bio-engineered beans, the bad guys are taken down by agents of the Mother organization—agents like Jacqueline "Jaq" Robinson. Instead of accepting her next routine assignment, she sets out on a mission of her own—to destroy Giant Corp, the company responsible for her sister's wasting illness. Jaq must steal her cure from Giant's headquarters high above the city...even though she'll be brought face-to-face with Harper English, the man who left her to go deep undercover at Giant.
For Harp, Jaq had been a distraction the mercenary thought he couldn't afford. But once he sees her again, Harp knows he's made a mistake. Even though she vowed he won't have her again, it's clear they still have a powerful attraction. Harp's determined to get a second chance with Jaq—if they can escape Giant Corp and get back to solid ground in one piece…

Ella Drake did a mighty fine job of building a “twisted fairytale” wherein biopunk is harnessed as an insidious weapon against humanity—all in the name of profit and greed. Left me shivering in all the right places.

Did JAQ’S HARP—and especially the beanstalk—induce warm and fuzzy memories of the “magnetron wave satellite” from STAR BLAZERS? Yes!

I’m now hungrier than ever for biopunk science fiction romance. Talk about a huge, unexplored territory. Hook me up, pretty please! Luckily, Sara Creasy’s CHILDREN OF SCARABEAUS releases this month, and Ella Drake recently informed me that she has another story set in her JAQ’S HARP universe.

Biopunk has been around a long time and in various guises. This dark and gritty subgenre raises all kinds of thought-provoking questions. Pairing it with romance is yet another way to celebrate its “Whoa!” quotient.

I think biopunk could be the next big thing in genre fiction. What about you? But don’t stop there. Tell me about your first encounter with this subgenre.


Back to the Future: Biopunk in the (Not Quite) Historic Past?

I am nearly finished reading Scott Westerfeld's Leviathan. It's a YA steampunk by the author who turned me onto cyberpunk (back when he was writing adult fiction and I was still a tween), but besides super-cool war mechs and mechanical horses, there's something else that really sticks out to me about this book--it's got bioengineering.

So, they call DNA "life threads" and bioengineering "fabrication," and the hard science of it is a little iffy (which is just fine--it's steampunk, after all), but it's bioengineering nonetheless. Pretty spiffy bioengineering, too. The British air navy has a humongous flying whale that stays aloft with the hydrogen produced by bacteria in its gut--fed by the honey of fabricated bees with no stingers. Then there are the humongous floating jellyfish that act as living hot air balloons. And the tiger-wolves. The "elephantine" draft animals. The message lizards that can repeat short messages in the voice of the message senders. Need I go on? Pretty cool stuff.

Biopunk often seems to be pigeonholed in the future, where the biotechnology themes may only play shotgun to advanced electronics. But I propose that--unlike its massive big brother, cyberpunk, which is stuck firmly in the future--biopunk has the freedom to appear in a variety of different time periods. Take, for instance, Leviathan. It takes place in 1914, though it's apparent that the process of "fabrication" has been around for decades before the story begins--after all, the late 19th century Darwin discovered the process.

Of course, I'm partial to 19th century biopunk, becauase it combines two of my favorite genres (I am assuming that any 19th century biopunk will automatically be steampunk, as well).* But this combination also seems somewhat natural to me. In biopunk and steampunk discussions, I've seen "The Island of Dr. Moreau" called a proto-steampunk and a proto-biopunk--and that was written by a Victorian author.

And I'm not just talking about 19th century biopunk here. Themes of biopunk exist throughout the 19th and 20th centuries--and possibly earlier? Eugenics, the creation of man-animal hybrids, biological enhancement. The knowledge of genetic material in chromosomes and the process of cloning existed before the official discovery of DNA in 1953. I think that leaves a lot of room in the 20th century for plausible biopunk settings.

The game Bioshock is stellar example of 20th century biopunk. This "genetically-enhanced first-person shooter" envisions a 1960s underwater utopia...gone wrong. The story and gameplay revolve around genetic alteration technology. It stretches biopunk to a fantastical level--drink a vile of glowing liquid and suddenly you can shoot electricity from your hand!--but I think it's fair to leave a little wiggle room in science fiction. :)

What say you? Is anyone else interested in steamed-up or other historic biopunk? What other settings might be appropriate, and how would the biotech work? Is the understanding of genetic material a necessary prerequisite to biotechnology? If not, at what point is the biotech not recognizable biotech? Where is the line drawn between biopunk...and "Frankenstein"?


* And if some fantasy or paranormal elements can be mixed in, too, I'd be in Shangri-La--I love my speculative fiction to be of the "mutt" variety. The new ideas that spring up when two spiffy genres are mashed together are super spiffy.


The Punk Suffix; An Etymology And Beyond

It's a word that has been tossed around a lot in the past several years, tacked onto the end of innumerable subgenres and their derivatives; cyberpunk, steampunk, biopunk, clockpunk, atompunk, splatterpunk, elfpunk.  The 'p' word is everywhere, that much is indisputable, but what exactly does it mean? The most literal answer to that question can be easily located in the Online Etymology Dictionary:

punk Look up punk at"worthless person" (especially a young hoodlum), 1917, probably from punk kid "criminal's apprentice," underworld slang first attested 1904 (with overtones of "catamite"). Ultimately from punk "prostitute, harlot, strumpet," first recorded 1590s, of unknown origin. For sense shift from "harlot" to "homosexual," cf. gay. By 1923 used generally for "young boy, inexperienced person" (originally in show business, e.g. punk day, circus slang from 1930, "day when children are admitted free")...The "young criminal" sense is no doubt the inspiration in punk rock first attested 1971 (in a Dave Marsh article in "Creem"), popularized 1976."

From the above information we take some of the most widely accepted attributes of punk; it invariably involves civil dissent or criminal behavior, often amongst the youth population. It may also refer to individuals who live on the barriers of society, or who champion unpopular causes. Punk is a lifestyle choice. Yes, you say, that's all well and good, but what in Gandalf's gray pajama bottoms does any of this have to do with science fiction literature? How can bio-androids and mohawked hooligans hold hands? Why not simply call this blog The Biotech Reader, or something of the sort?

I pondered on this myself when I first published a short story with Steampunk Magazine, and the debate regarding the punk attachment continues to pop up quite regularly in forums across the net. Of late I have been thinking on it again ever since Mr. Di Phillipo mentioned the use of the suffix in the statement he kindly wrote for our blog. Since then I've  basically embarked on a quest for the true meaning of punk, and found it to be elusive at best. Like any widespread dogma, it means something different to each individual.

However, the eventual conclusion I personally came to was that when you remove any associations with The Cure, ripped jeans, and teenagers sporting cheap hair dye, punk is about backbone. It's about finding the strength to stand against what you believe is unethical, even if the whole world is against you. My favorite amongst all the explanations I found online was, "An old granny Not mowing her front lawn when the council told her to is punk" ( George Orwell's 1984 was as punk as it gets. Aldous Huxley's Brave New World was punk. If science fiction isn't about examining what's wrong with mainstream society, then I don't know what is.

But this is by no means a closed topic. There is no solid answer, and this post is meant to inspire debate. Please, by all means, submit your own ideas on the subject in the comments box below. Let us know what you think!