The Biopunk Reader

6Feb/112

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"?

--Christine

* 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.