The Biopunk Reader


Repo! The Genetic Opera: The Biopunk-Rock Musical Mashup of the Century

by Heather Massey

Regarding Repo! The Genetic Opera (2008), I’m going to strive for an informative, insightful approach in my post about this uniquely flavored and indelible film. But first,


Repo! The Genetic Opera is a wild, eclectic mix of biopunk and rock opera. That’s right, a biopunk rock opera! Allow me to fill you in on its humble beginnings.

Beginning in 1996, Darren Smith and Terrance Zdunich collaborated on a story called “The Necromerchant’s Debt.” It was inspired by true events, namely, a bankrupt friend of Smith’s who was losing his possessions through foreclosure. The eventual play, about a future where body parts are repossessed, debuted in Los Angeles.

Spurred on by the play’s success, the creators leveraged “The Necromerchant’s Debt” into a film. Repo! The Genetic Opera features songs composed by Smith and Zdunich, who also wrote the screenplay. Saw II director Darren Lynn Bousman helmed the project. Lionsgate (home of the Saw franchise) released the film in 2008. Perhaps not unsurprisingly, the studio apparently did little to promote it.

What, no mainstream love for biopunk? For shame! I’ll help the filmmakers out here and help you add to your future Halloween film fests.

Short synopsis: In the near future, a world-wide epidemic of organ failure threatens humanity. Biotech company GeneCo swooped in to monetize the organ vacuum. Need your organ replaced? Call GeneCo! The company makes its profit through its organ transplant services. To ease the pain of such procedures, GeneCo created Zydrate, an addictive substance harvested from the brains of corpses. The catch is that if you can’t pay up, they’ll sic the sadistic Repo Man on you to repossess your organ(s). Not your average walk in the park, that’s for sure!

The story centers on the plight of Shilo Wallace (Alex Vega), a 17-year-old young woman who suffers from a rare blood disease. Her father, Nathan Wallace—played by Anthony Head, Buffy’s Giles—keeps her practically a prisoner in his attempt to keep her safe—not only from GeneCo, but from his own secret identity.

Feast your eyes on the theatrical trailer:

That’s just a taste of the psychedelic eye-popping adventure that awaits you. However, before you shell out your hard-earned money, there are a few things you should know going in.

Repo! The Genetic Opera has a number of flaws. Only a handful of the record-breaking 64 musical numbers stand out—not a good percentage considering what a significant part the songs play in the film. You’ll be hard-pressed to hum any of the tunes after seeing it.

Plus, the pacing drags and the story is repetitive in places. For example, occasionally a scene of exposition is followed by a musical number that essentially conveys the same information. Part of this could be attributed to the low budget and reusing the same sets, but some more judicious editing could have helped in this area. The plot isn’t as coherent as it could (and should) be.

Still, pulling off such apparently disparate elements such as biopunk, near future SF, rock opera, an ensemble cast, and the dizzying array of neo-industrial goth costume designs and doing it successfully would be challenging for anyone. This film somehow became more than the sum of its parts. Despite the flaws, I was riveted.

Repo! is hardly the new Rocky Horror Picture Show, or even Shock Treatment for that matter, but it tries really, really hard. The filmmakers strove to create something fresh and inventive as opposed to the same old, same old mediocre meh. And in a world replete with vanilla romcoms and toothless horror films, that’s saying something.

An interesting, but flawed creative experiment is still…well, interesting.

One of the film’s highlights—and a worthy reason alone for seeing Repo! The Genetic Opera—involves Blind Mag (Sarah Brightman), GeneCo’s pop-singer icon. Her scene with Shilo during the “Chase the Morning” sequence best captures the film’s otherworldly maniacal mashup spirit. I’ve watched many films in my time, from mainstream to niche to 100% obscure, and I’ve never seen anything quite like that scene. It hints at a fantastical (and fantastic!) cybernetic/biogenetic invention that in and of itself would make a great basis for a story.

So take a chance. Notch your SF/F viewing belt with this imperfect, but risk-taking film.


Heather Massey is a lifelong fan of science fiction romance. She searches for sci-fi romance adventures aboard her blog, The Galaxy Express.

She’s also an author: Her latest sci-fi romance is Queenie’s Brigade (Red Sage Publishing). To learn more about her work, visit


Bioshock: Rapture

by Wyatt Matthews

For better or worse, inner-circle cyberpunk author John Shirley has written the precursor to the Bioshock videogames. It’s the 1940s. Rapture is an art deco metropolis of steel and glass, furnished with brass fittings, and built by men with brass balls. This machotopia is brainchild of the father-figure character Andrew Ryan. The city is this self-made man’s libertarian wet dream--literally because it’s a city build beneath the ocean. Ryan’s claim is that the bottom of the ocean is the only place to build a society that the state cannot control.

Disorder ensues when the citizens of Rapture begin to take “self-made man” in a new direction. Halfway through the book, the novel’s resident mad scientists learn to exploit the amazing transformative powers of mysterious sea slugs and characters start throwing fireballs and lightning bolts like drunken X-Men. The science is not very believable and the story takes a hit in terms of sophistication at the same time that the scenery shifts from Metropolis to Bedlam. Rapture’s motto is “NO GODS OR KINGS. ONLY MAN.” One of Andrew Ryan’s many failings is that he hadn’t the foresight to factor post-humans into the equation.

Since it’s set in the diesel era, you at first get the sense that you’re reading Ayn Rand. John Shirley immerses us in his world with description precision equal to the most slick computer-generated images. Building the grand scale engineering projects we encounter with words is an epic feat in of itself. It’s as if John Shirley was onto something and then got a reminder call from his editor saying, “Remember, this is a videogame storyline…” The second half is an action-packed splatterfest that’s a bit shlocky. If that's your thing, you'll find it full of grim and gritty fun. Psychotic doctors with twisted sense of aesthetics doing avant garde "artistic" plastic surgery experiments, creepy little girls with iron giant cyborg sidekicks... Now is about the time when it becomes evident that the reviewer has never actually played Bioshock or Bioshock 2, etc. so any appreciation that is lacking may be result of that.

A whole cast of characters fill these pages, but I felt that Ryan, the conductor of the great symphony, remained the most interesting character throughout, probably because he was the man with the big ideas. With science fiction, it’s often the book’s big idea(s) that are the true “main character,” and everyone else serves as either an archetype or as a mouthpiece for those ideas.

Ryan brings the tension between competing ideologies to light. He is an atheist who clings to a quasi-religious devotion to industry, and while trying wholeheartedly to avoid the woes of socialism, his society begins to mirror the kind of dictatorship that he abhors. As a politician, he ranges from lucid and almost convincing (“true cooperation is enlightened self-interest”) to shortsighted and hypocritical (“charity is just a kind of socialism”). Asshole that he may be, he keeps the storyline philosophically charged.

Based on the fact that there are over 1,000 wiki pages about Bioshock, there is certainly a more qualified fan out there somewhere, so ask them if you want to be pushed eagerly in the direction of reading Bioshock: Rapture with what’s left of your summer.

If you instead prefer short and sweet, here are a few bio-themed ebooks out there for 99 cents that are worth a read:

Spermjackers by Jamie McNabb: In spite of the title, it’s not porn. It's kind of like that old movie Ice Pirates but this time the space bounty hunters are gunning for your gametes.

Little Boy Pig by Shad Clark: A great biopunk folk tale with a sensitive side.

The Willies by Hamish MacDonald: Okay, this one is not short. It’s 800-pages long, and well written (and still just 99 cents). Cloning shenanigans fit for the I-read-McSweeny’s crowd.


Kathryn Lasky’s STAR SPLIT

I have a soft spot for the un-punk in 'punk stories: not the rebels, the runners, and the radicals, but the everyday person, the unassuming, and the innocent.

Kathryn Lasky's middle-grade novel Star Split is a biopunk complete with bio rads, an underground movement, and a dictator-style government that fancies itself a "democracy." But the story isn't about the rads or the rebels. The heroine is a victim.

The year is 3038. Much hasn't changed from the late 20th century. "In-line skates" are still in, families still watch television together, and junior high students still go on field trips to museums.

But then, much has changed.

Scores of words have been lost to the English language. "Soul" is one. Others have lost their original meaning and transformed over the centuries like many words do...including the word "original."

The "democratic" government is apparently no longer elected. Instead, a single woman--the "Prima"--has ruled the nation of the Bio Union for hundreds of years. She rules as a succession of umbula, one after the other. "Umbula" means clone; the word "clone" itself is another that has been lost to the English language.

In Star Split, a person is believed to be the sum total of her DNA and so to be umbellated--to be cloned--is to live on. Only select people in the Bio Union are chosen for umbellation. That is, for immortality. For anyone else to be umbellated is to commit the highest crime. And the person, her umbula, and anyone else responsible for the crime are incinerated.

The novel is smattered with biopunk nougats. We've got Bio Rads, genetic crimes and genetic police, and cyberpunk-style abbreviated agencies like GENPOL and BOG. Then we have two separate classes of humans that are separated by a single chromosome. "Genhants"--humans enhanced with a 48th chromosome--live in an elevated society above the "Originals," those humans who have only the standard set of human chromosomes.

In my opinion, this is a concept story more than a character-or plot-driven one (in my humble opinion, it fails at both plot and characterization). It exists to get its point across--one a lot like Brave New World. Most of the action happens in the heroine's head, and the author skips past many scenes in which anything happens outside of the character, so what I got was a pasted-together string of inner dialogue, philosophizing, and recalled events.

While I found the mechanics questionable and the world-building lazy, I think Star Split is an okay quick read that poses some deep questions for young readers. What is the meaning of life? What makes two "races" different? What is free choice? What is a soul?



China Mieville’s Embassytown

by Wyatt Matthews

It would be specious to say that China Mieville’s new novel Embassytown is bio-punk. Mieville is an author who alludes subgenre definitions, even the “new weird” label that many like to think of as his hallmark. However, there is much about this novel for biopunk fans to love.

In Embassytown, a young woman, Avice, returns from Bremen, the hub of life and commerce, to her home planet, a backwater tucked away in a far corner of the universe, where life, in the capital, Embassytown, centers upon trade with the Hosts, an alien race highly adept at biological manipulation. The nature of their language poses significant challenges to communication and understanding.

Though this (inadequate) summary of the premise would give the impression of a very straight-forward science fiction novel, what we are actually given is a multi-dimensional story that offers a nod to known scifi tropes, including bio-engineering and alien invasion, while tweaking these conventions to produce an epic story (distilled to 368 pages) about the nuances of politics and the nature of language.

Take, for instance, the following excerpt:

It was the size of a baby, a grub-thing with stump legs and filigree antennae, its back punctuated with holes, some ringed with inlaid metal. Its locomotion was between a scamper and a convulsion. It was a zelle, a biorigged battery-beast, into which wires could be slotted, and out of which, depending on what its owner fed it, different power would flow.[1]

In isolation, it would seem like bio-punk incarnate, but the zelle is not a bad metaphor for Mieville’s writing in this case. He does with genre what electronic music producers aspire to do with soundwaves, linking a string of boxes together to bend the output stream to his liking. Passages like the one above, describing the “biorigging” that is prevalent throughout story, are just part of Mieville’s greater tendency toward genre-rigging.

The characters of Embassytown shift alliances as the mysteries of the Hosts’s language are peeled away. By turns, they orbit and clash in a dance of power, sex, and politics. We see the tested traditions of an unraveling aristocracy, a plot comparable to the social intrigues given in “cyberprep” and “mannerpunk” storylines…and then Mieville twists a few knobs on the narrative and the symphony becomes grating noise: we’re hauled into the equivalent of zombie onslaughts on an unfamiliar landscape, one in which airplanes bleed, power plants can wave hello, and factories roam the hills.

Mieville may have become one of the great genre-hackers of our age, at the top of a long list of writers and musicians alike, from Kazuo Ishiguro to genre-bending DJ’s like Daniel M. Nakamura, many of whom have dropped science fiction onto their palette and enriched it in the process.

There is nothing choppy about the way Embassytown is crafted. Mieville is not a mere tinkerer. Though this is certainly a scifi novel, he continues to write from a deep core of raw imagination.

Readers who enjoy the cross-section of science fiction and linguistics will be enthralled, given that speculative linguistics is at least as central to the storyline as the bio-fantastic. Meanwhile, Mieville’s own precision of language is impressive and he gives words without referents equal presence, making for a quite interactive read where the reader’s own imagination is asked to illustrate the details of some otherwise spectral words and images.

It seems that it is as the Cambridge Companion of Science Fiction had hoped back in 2003: “China Mieville…will certainly begin to define the fields of the fantastic during the first decade of the twenty-first century.”[2]

No doubt, Mieville will have gained some new fans—those who initially found the “new weird” to be too weird—this reviewer included. Embassytown is very accessible. Whereas Katy Stauber’s Revolution World (reviewed here previously) fits nicely into the box of known expectations for a bio-punk fanbase, Mieville’s Embassytown is more of a hypercube—and if we’re really asking “what is punk?” then what could be more “punk” than his sidestepping of standardization?

[1] Mieville, China, Embassytown, iKindle location 1391

[2] Clute, John, “Science Fiction from 1980 to the Present,” The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction


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.


Growing Dread: Biopunk Visions by Timid Pirate Publishing

A few readers might recall several months back, when a post was made regarding the call for biopunk submissions by Timid Pirate Publishing. Well, time has flown by, and the anthology they were compiling is not only completed, but to include a piece by the Biopunk Reader's own Christine Danse. C. Dombrowski, editor of the anthology now titled Growing Dread, has generously provided us a glimpse behind the scenes.

Timid Pirate's website describes the book:

Let eleven visionary authors show you the dangers and wonders of nature 2.0. Harnessing the power of nature, these authors show us biological futures that could be. If the human brain is the best computer in the world, what happens when someone learns how to hack it? A submarine captain, a government employee, a vat-grown sex toy and a world without death await say nothing of the unicorns and timeless beauties. Includes stories by Angel Leigh McCoy, Erik Scott de Bie, Jeremy Zimmerman, Berit K.N. Ellingsen, Michael Hacker, and others.

TBR: Was there any single driving inspiration that lead to the creation of the biopunk anthology?

CD: As an avid reader of Jeff VanderMeer's intelligent mushroom books, a philosopher of science and home pickler/gardener, I spend a lot of time thinking about biology-based science and science fiction. On a walk with Michaela Hutfles, Producer of the Timid Pirate podcast, we hit upon the notion of an anthology of biology-based science fiction. While enjoying steampunk, we wanted to see more recent science get the spotlight sometimes, too! So we began talking up our favorite books we consider to be in that genre, and eventually Nathan Crowder (Publisher at Timid Pirate) thought it was a good idea too.

TBR: So...unicorns?

CD: Frankly, we were shocked at the number of fantasy-type characters authors worked into the stories. Unicorns? Dragons? Surprise vampires? But we vetted each story for scientific basis. They've all got real science somewhere in there to back it up. And the water bear/unicorn story really had us in hysterics ;)

TBR: I've noticed that Timid Pirate has published several works with alternate themes such as superhero fantasies and speculative fiction. Do you believe that biopunk literature has a future place amongst more well-known fiction genres?

CD: Timid Pirate is home to speculative fiction on the fringe, with an emphasis on mythic heroes in a contemporary setting. Biopunk, superheroes and other mini-genres draw readers from across traditional genres like science fiction, horror, fantasy and young adult. Timid Pirate believes those collaborations and crossing of genre boundaries makes for fascinating stories. And it'd be fantastic if biopunk stories were everywhere!

TBR: As a small press, do you envision any further projects that may contain biopunk elements?

CD: Yes. Biology-based science fiction is way too much fun to shelve. What shape will it take? Stay tuned...

TBR: Do you foresee a future in which any of these stories may become a reality?

CD: Certainly. Each of these stories is based on science available today, with various assumptions about how it will develop or be used. Engineered pets, cloned humans and human-animal hybrids seem just over the horizon...

About Timid Pirate Publishing:
Timid Pirate Publishing is a nonprofit based in Seattle, WA. With superhero, biopunk and (soon) Dark Carnival anthologies out in print and a fantastic podcast (, we're making our first year count. Purchase the books at our website (  and look out for more speculative fiction from the fringe.

Thank you, Timid Pirate Publishing!



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.


The Blood Music of Biopunk

A review of Blood Music by Lorenzo Davia

Greg Bear is probably one of the most versatile science fiction authors. In his novels he dealt with every possible subject, from space opera to technological apocalypses.

One of his most influential and interesting novels is Blood Music which was first published in 1983 as a short story and was then expanded to novel size in 1985. The novel was nominated for many SF awards, while the short story won the Hugo and Nebula awards.

The story starts when Vergil Ulam, a genius scientist working for a major biotechnological company, the Genetron, creates bio-computers by modifying lymphocytes: Their RNA molecules now are used to execute computations. His boss doesn't show any interest in such a discovery as he can't see any possible economical business, and orders Vergil to eliminate the noocites. Vergil instead decides to inject them into his blood in order to take them out of the controlled laboratory where he works, with the idea of developing this project on his own.

In short time the noocites evolve into self-conscious creatures and try to contact directly with Vergil's mind, who hears them as a music inside his own blood. He asks a friend of his for some help to stop the noocites. His friend, aware of the potential dangers, kills Vergil, but it is too late: The noocites exit from Vergil's body and begin to colonize other persons. In short time all North America is literally covered with these microscopic biological supercomputers...

The novel is amazingly modern, imagining revolutionary consequences derived from biotechnology misuse in a year (1983) in which only few used the term biotechnology. At the same time, Bear well represents the possible benefits derived from this invention: Vergil's body is modified by the noocites, making it healthier and stronger.

The novel had also a strong influence on the cyberpunk and trans-humanist movements, as it was the first to depict a "virtual" reality created by living beings more advanced than men. As noocites are at the same time biological creatures and microcomputers, this seminal novel makes no difference between biotechnology and nanotechnology, between cyberpunk, nanopunk and biopunk, but gives inspiration and solid basis for all.

In conclusion it is a must read for all biopunk fans.


Interview with Ella Drake, Author of Jaq’s Harp

Back in November, I ran across this gorgeous cover on The Galaxy Express:

dark biopunk yumminess

The cover belonged to a novel forthcoming from Carina Press, and had this tagline: Futuristic Romance/Twisted Fairytale/Biopunk.

My ears immediately perked. It'd been a long time since I'd stumbled across a self-identified biopunk tale. And...twisted fairytale? Mmmm--just my speed. :)

This month, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jaq's Harp author Ella Drake. (::squeal!::) For more about Jaq's world, fantastical bio-engineered beans, and anti-corporation on.

Back cover 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...

TBR: Ella, thank you for joining us on The Biopunk Reader. On your website, you describe Jaq's Harp as a "futuristic romance/twisted fairytale/biopunk"--which immediately piqued my interest. First, a question I love to ask everyone: How did you first get involved with biopunk?

ED: In a round-about kind of way. I’ve always had a fascination with punk genres in speculative fiction, but for the most part, I’ve be more drawn in by cyberpunk, ala Blade Runner, Johnny Mnemonic, and The Matrix. Recently, my youngest child developed a strange fascination for the movie “9”. While not biopunk, the idea of stitchpunk coupled with the steampunks I’d started reading developed into an urge to write biopunk (how many punk words can a person fit in one paragraph?) . I wanted to delve into how the development of biology and medicine might happen in the future. One concept I’ve yet to explore is how biology and cyber technology will mix and grow. A functional, biology based computer would have astounding possibilities.

TBR: Can you tell us about Jaq's world?

ED: Jaq’s world is a near-future concept set in “New Castle” which is a sprawling city that takes up most of a continent. I purposely don’t base it on a real city—or even a continent as we know it—to give a bit of a fairy tale feel to that setting. New Castle has a token government. Things are really run by mega-corporations that are no longer housed on the ground. The wealthy and their corporations abide in floating islands in the sky. Think Laputa from Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, or even the movie Castle in the Sky. There’s a visual and physical stratus to go with the sharp division of social and financial status.

TBR: What inspired you to mesh fairytale with biotechnology?

ED: I owe this to discussing Jack and the Beanstalk with my kids. This is one of those tales that doesn’t really bear reflection. The moral implications of a thief climbing up into a Giant’s castle to steal from him and then kill him does make me wonder what the point is of the story. From those discussion, I started wondering what would give Jack proper motivation and a good reason to go up into the sky. The idea then started to run with “what ifs”. I wondered what would happen if the Giant were actually a giant corporation and what if Jack was actually Jacqueline and the beanstalk could actually happen. I mean, if you’re pondering a twist of this particular fairytale, you can’t ignore the beanstalk!

TBR: Will you tell us a little about your protagonists, Jaq and Harp?

ED: Former lovers Jaq and Harp are both agents of the Mother organization, a spy organization that developed out of the government’s ineffectiveness in dealing with megacorps. Harp abandoned their relationship to go deep cover in Giant Corp. Now, Jaq is basically going on her own mission to take down the corporation because they caused her sister to become gravely ill. They meet up on the floating island and things escalate rapidly. There’s hurt and grudging attraction between the two, and they have to find each other before they can be happy again. In this story, they take technology and bio-tech for granted. It’s part of their world and tools they use. It’s not part of the conflict between them, though it does force Jaq into the actions she takes.

TBR: "Floating islands," "bio-engineered beans"--it all sounds fascinating! What's your favorite bit of bio-tech in the story?

ED: The bio-engineered beans! There are a kind of living technology that after being planted, grow into a large, green, living ladder.

While the backdrop of this story is biopunk, the marginalization of the poor, the powerful corporations, and the advancement of biotechnology that empowers it, neither of the main characters have been biologically modified and the main bio-tech element of import is the beanstalk. There’s also the concept of biological manipulation for monetary gain, in this story, in the form of purposely spreading a virus to make profit on the vaccine. Another of my favorite elements is actually a character, Monsieur Bovine who is an equipment chief in Mother who’s main focus of interest is in bio-tech advancements. Someone who makes strides in development while trying to make them applicable in the fight against megacorps. He’s kind of my anti-evil-scientist bio-geek.

TBR: Where are you going with this world? Do you have more stories planned?

ED: I’ve written another story in this world that goes deeper into biopunk elements and explores the meaning of humanity and the what-ifs of biological enhanced people. It’s a bit darker than Jaq’s Harp and I hope to be able to share more about it soon.

TBR: Is there anything else you'd like to share with us?

ED: One last thought is about the lingering inspiration that The Island of Doctor Moreau has on me (and Christine, I’d say [ed.: yes!]) when writing biopunk. I’d compare the world of Jaq’s Harp is something more like Gattaca, but I’d love to delve into the darker world of experimentation like in Doctor Moreau. Maybe one day.

Ella, thank you!


Oh, and by the way... Jaq's Harp was released today. :)

Happy reading!