The Biopunk Reader

11Apr/110

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.

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