The Biopunk Reader

10Mar/1113

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 Blazers.com:

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.

Comments (13) Trackbacks (0)
  1. I definitely think that biopunk has the potential to grow into a much bigger subgenre. I remember watching Gattaca in elementary or middle school, but I don’t remember why we were watching it. I can see the biopunk elements in it now–the whole designing babies to be disease free/perfect aspect.

    I don’t want to be too shameless here, but I have a short story coming out in an anthology dedicated to biopunk. The anthology is called “Growing Dread: Biopunk Visions,” and it’s being published by Timid Pirate Press. It might be worth checking out? I mean obviously I think it’s worth checking out because my story’s included :)

    • R.S.,

      Plug away! Be shameless…so I don’t have to. ;)

      Really looking forward to reading your story and all the others. And I’d like to know what you think of “How to Hack Your Dragon” when you’re done. ^.^

  2. Great article! More set in the Jaq’s Harp universe? Excuse me while I go die of happiness.

  3. Heather, I so enjoyed this article & thank you so much for the mention… and huge hugs to Darcy!

    I do really hope there will be more biopunk in our future.

    I think my first introduction to it, where I was aware of what the intent was if not the name “biopunk” was Edward Scissorhands. Or, maybe I should go further back and say Frankenstein or Island of Doctor Moreau? It’s difficult for me to pin down, but I do know I became aware of the term when the movie “9″ came out & discussions of stichpunk started circling.

    I’m a huge fan of the SCARABEAUS novels and can’t wait to see where Ms Creasy will take us after this series wraps up.

    I’ve been eying Deus Ex: Icarus Effect by James Swallow. It looks to be full of biopunk goodness!

  4. Interesting article.

    I just wonder if the term “biotechnology” appears or is used in the Star Balzers episode…

    I first met weird biotechnology playing the old videogame DooM, where you have to fight biotechnological demons (like the cyberdemon) in an hellish environment where great amount of flesh-based techonology is used.

    Then I read the trilogy “Night’s Dawn” by Peter F. Hamilton, where bitek is commonly used and there is one society, the Adamities, base on it.

  5. Okay– I’m not totally lost here. I loved Gattaca. I also enjoy Sara Creasy and Ella Drake. This name biopunk– I thought was biotech! Anyway, I see dark intriguing stuff here and great potential for new books.

    Thanks for the post, Heather– I now have more knowledge on this biopunk subject!

    • Kaye,

      Thank you for bringing up a really good point. Actually, biopunk and biotech are not synonymous.

      “Biotech” is, of course, “biotechnology.” Biotech is a very real form of technology in our day and age. Dolly the Sheep is the product of biotech.

      “Biopunk” refers to the subgenre of science fiction that is characterized by advanced biotech. Hence the “bio.” Often, this tech is controlled by a repressive corporate government. As in cyberpunk, the protagonists of biopunk are often the rebels that stand against the mega corporations. (As in Ella Drake’s Jaq’s Harp.) Hence the “punk.” Sometimes, the setting is futuristic. Sometimes, it’s the anachronistic past–a distinction that makes it separate from cyberpunk. (Though many still argue that biopunk is a subgenre of cyberpunk.) For instance, Bioshock takes place in the 1960s.

      Stories can have elements of biopunk–like advanced biotech–without actually being biopunk. We can say that these stories “have elements of biopunk.” I have seen this sort of distinction made in steampunk; many stories and visual media have elements of steampunk–steam-powered machines, gear-driven doodads, etc.–without being true steampunk with all the elements of steam and punk. (Of course, that’s a whole other discussion–best saved for steampunk circles.)

      The episode of Star Blazers that Heather describes definitely has biopunk elements, and since the antagonists are using it for “diabolical purposes,” it might be considered outright biopunk. GATTACA is certainly biopunk. Ghost in the Shell is cyberpunk with biopunk elements.

      Hope this makes sense! In the future, I’ll be writing whole posts about cyberpunk vs. biopunk and biopunk vs. biopunk elements. I think those are hot subjects.

      • I think if you put too harsh of restrictions on a subgenre’s requirements for something being a part, you run into territory in which every novel of that genre is the same. To say that every cyberpunk novel must be dystopian with high cybertechnology dealing with someone rebelling against the dystopian government, you have basically written the plot outline. There’s not much room for deviation; by that definition, Neuromancer isn’t even cyberpunk, because Case isn’t rebelling against the government, he’s just trying not to get killed.

        • Android,

          This is what I get for writing a quick response and making hasty generalizations!

          Yes, thank you, I agree with your sentiment about putting harsh restrictions on a subgenre. However, there must be some guidelines, else the subgenre…wouldn’t be a subgenre. What those guidelines are is the topic of continuous debate. I think this is a healthy thing–a necessary thing.

          Mind you, I did not use the word “dystopian” in my comment–and I wouldn’t have. I generally avoid using the word “dystopian” if I can find a better descriptor, and certainly agree that cyberpunk does not need to be dystopian. I do think advanced cybertech is a must–what else makes it cyberpunk?–although I understand “advanced” can be a relative term, especially given the decade the story is written in. Likewise, biopunk must have biotech! Otherwise, we might as well call it horror, or mainstream science fiction, or fantasy.

          As for the protagonists of cyberpunk and biopunk…yes, they do not have to be rebels standing against corporate government. A mistatement on my part. I do think that there is usually a level of rebellion, although I use the term loosely, in an attempt not to use the word “punk.” I think saying cyberpunk is “punk” is a bit like calling the color red “red.” What I mean by rebels, then, are characters like special government operatives that don’t always follow the rules…underground information runners…computer criminals…anti-authoritarians…black marketeers…underground clinicians…street kids…

          [[By that definition, Neuromancer isn’t even cyberpunk]]

          Yup, touche, and not even Ghost in the Shell–my favorite. :)

      • Christine,

        Thank you so much for explaining the differences and clarifying that for me! I do look forward to your future posts on this new and interesting SF subgenre!

  6. Speaking of videogames, Bioshock is a wonderful example. The citizens of the underwater city of Rapture have gone crazy with “splicing” — modifying their genes with a substance found on the ocean floor called ADAM. It’s a great game, especially because of the premise and setting.

  7. R.S. Hunter, thanks for the tip about your story, and congratulations!

    @Darcy *I know*–Ella is an author to watch, definitely.

    @Ella My pleasure! And I second the nom for Edward Scissorhands. Yeah, what a way to sneak it in for mainstream audiences…!

    Lorenzo, I don’t remember the term being used in Star Blazers or in the subbed versions I’ve seen. I would be beside myself if I could sit down with Matsumoto and find out what inspired that episode.

    And Doom—yes! Thanks for mentioning that—I’d forgotten. I used to sit and watch my husband play it for quite some time. Videogames are on the cutting edge in so many different ways.

    Kaye, thanks for stopping by! If you decide to write any biopunk SFR, you know where to find me!

    @Christine When you get those posts going, please let me know so I can link to them.

  8. I’ve got Jaq’s Harp on my kindle and very much looking forward to it. Had no idea it was biopunk. Right now I am reading this awesome pirate SFR by this great new author. Grin. Fun post!


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