In the past fifty years, pop culture has undergone a multitude of changes. Preferences range from the Beegees to the Beatles to Beck, and clothing evolves almost more quickly than the music it is inspired by. One of the most indicative factors of societal change, however, is the genre of science fiction. Science fiction always mirrors current scientific advances, sociological issues, and socioeconomic conflicts emerging in America and throughout the world. As such, science fiction evolves with the times just like music and fashion. Beginning with space-age retro movies and comics of the 1950s and waging into the advent of cyberpunk in the 1980s, a change spread over the science fiction community that can only be known as the “punk movement.” One of the most recent advances in the punk movement, then, would be the creation of biopunk, a subgenre echoing the 21st century medical advances and the concept of transhumanism in our world.
However, to properly explain biopunk, I must first begin to explain cyberpunk. Cyberpunk, a term coined by Bruce Bethke in 1980, emerged as a criticism on the evolving technologies of our world and the perceived devolving of the morals in it. Cyberpunk usually features a dystopian society with “high tech and low lives,” emphasizing advanced technology and the presence of crime and destitution. Often, works in the cyberpunk genre take place in modified versions of the 1940s and 1950s, and emphasize issues dealing with humanity, technology, and the gap between them. Notable cyberpunk authors include Philip K. Dick (author of “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “We Can Build You,” and “A Scanner Darkly”) and William Gibson (author of “Neuromancer”). This genre introduced society and the science fiction community to an idea that alternate universes need not be optimistic or clean (as was popular in the 1950s and 1960s) and introduced writers to a new means of criticizing technology and society.
Out of cyberpunk came a plethora of other common “punk” subgenres involved in the punk movement, including steampunk (an alternate Victorian era made of steam and gears), dieselpunk (an alternate post-WWI era emphasizing war propaganda and diesel technology), Atompunk (a criticism on the optimism of 1950s fiction), and, most relevant to the current topic, biopunk. All of these stemmed from Bruce Bethke’s initial idea of a dystopia or alternate future, each of them operating in different timelines and perspectives. Biopunk, of course, is no different.
Biopunk, like its parent genre, cyberpunk, focuses on a newly developing aspect of society and its potential effects on humanity. Unlike cyberpunk, however, it takes a much more personal turn for many; it focuses primarily on organic technology and genetic modification. With the advent of biotechnology and the open access to genomic information came an insurgence of ideas of the potential abuses of this sort of power. In particular, importance is laid with genes, biological processes (such as organ transplants), and cloning (human or otherwise). Scientifically, it has only been within the last ten to twenty years that we as a race have been studying very carefully into these technologies, and therefore, it has only been very recently that we had begun to see the possible effects our research would have.
While biopunk is still an emerging genre, there still exist a few notable examples of it in popular culture, such as the film Aeon Flux (a futuristic world where humanity is propagated by cloning and secret messages are transferred directly into the brain), the game Bioshock (a world where one’s genes can be altered through the introduction of artificial “plasmids” into the bloodstream, a bastardization of a legitimate process known, appropriately, as gene splicing) and the book “Unwind” (a book focusing on the potential abuses of transplant technology and advanced biological medicine). Each of these works takes key focus in the organic technology and its immediate application; however, as with many cyberpunk derivatives, it is clear that there is a fine line between cyberpunk and biopunk, and there is often much overlap. For example, it is possible that a novel can utilize nerve-grafting to apply a robotic appendage, which is then covered over with synthesized (but organically real) blood and skin. Is this cyberpunk, because of the robotics? Or is it biopunk, because of the nerve graft and grown skin? The answer, generally, is both, and overlap is generally to be expected.
Overlap aside, the main issues which the biopunk genre tends to focus on tend to be much heavier and more relevant than those of cyberpunk. Biopunk examines issues such as transhumanism, cloning, xenografts (that is, transplants from animals to humans), stem cell research, neuroscience, “designer babies” (or, selective insemination) and bioethics in general. With the ability to 3D print or clone almost any tissue or organ comes the question of whether we should; with that, comes the question of who should be allowed to receive such organs and at what cost. In keeping with the suffix “punk,” indicative of the punk movement and demonstrative of a darker or dystopian side to the fiction, biopunk also covers such realistic but glossed-over problems as organ theft, illegal experimentation, and possible instances of human cloning. Granted, many of these instances in fiction are exaggerated to make a point, but none of them are very “off” in terms of efficacy or honesty.
Emily Anthes, author of “Frankenstein’s Cat,” discusses the implications of biotechnology on animals. Specifically, she mentions the ethical and legal struggles surrounding the patenting of the GloFish (which took more than five years and raised controversy even after the patent was allowed due to concerns over genetically modifying fish for purely aesthetic reasons), the creation of remote-controlled animals (currently limited to only cockroaches but soon to be developed for rats and mice) and the deliberate breeding of dogs (for a particular style, size or level of intelligence). Anthes draws attention to the idea that biopunk need not be limited to humanity, and can raise plenty of controversy in the animal kingdom on its own.
On the other side of that idea, however, lies Lee Silver’s “Remaking Eden,” a fascinating and informative book focusing on the possible eugenic properties of biotechnology and its presence in the biopunk movement; in his book, Silver discusses the impact genetic engineering will have on society by way of artificial insemination, genetic sequencing, and the possibility of human chimeras (i.e. mixed human and animal DNA) for laboratory testing. Not only is the information in “Remaking Eden” entirely factual, it leaves a lot of room for possibilities in the future and for debate on the ethical ramifications of such practices in the future. Similarly, Andrew Kimbrell’s “The Human Body Shop” covers the economic value of genes, genetic material, and body parts in a biotechnologically-based world. Any and all of these ideas will find their ways into the biopunk genre one way or another; exploring these opportunities is often, for many authors, simply too good to pass up.
While all nonfiction books, “Frankenstein’s Cat,” “Remaking Eden,” and “The Human Body Shop” all have their place in biopunk for the sole reason that biopunk is one of the most factually-based subgenres of science fiction currently available. While liberties are taken in its execution, as with most other genres, biopunk tends to be the most accurate simply because most of its ideas are so firmly rooted in current, ongoing technology and experimentation. Just as all the aforementioned technological advances can be used to better medicine and mankind, they can all be warped and used for ethically “iffy” practices, which is exactly what most biopunk authors are looking for. Neal Shusterman did not write “Unwind” to demonstrate the merits of biotechnology; he wrote it to demonstrate its dangers. REPO! The Genetic Opera was not a ballad of the benefits of a corporate business with access to biological materials, but a tragedy warning of its consequences. This is the most defining factor of biopunk; it will almost always be somewhat pessimistic, and will usually be a warning.
While there are many other issues and topics that biopunk can potentially cover, these are some of the most common, and some of the most prominent influences on the subgenre itself. Primarily, it draws on the tone of cyberpunk and the advances of biotechnology, bringing a postmodern spin into common literary themes and human characteristics.
References and Works Cited
Aeon Flux. Dir. Karyn Kusama. Perf. Charlize Theron and Sophie Okonedo. Filmax Home Video, 2006. DVD.
Anthes, Emily. Frankenstein's Cat: Cuddling up to Biotech's Brave New Beasts. London, England: Oneworld Publications, 2013. Print.
"Bio Punk." TV Tropes. TV Tropes Foundation LLC, n.d. Web. 26 Feb. 2015.
"Biopunk." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 25 Jan. 2015. Web. 26 Feb. 2015.
Bioshock. Program documentation. 2K Games, 21 Aug. 2007. Web. 26 Feb. 2015.
"Cyberpunk Derivatives." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 19 Feb. 2015. Web. 26 Feb. 2015.
"Cyberpunk." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 21 Feb. 2015. Web. 26 Feb. 2015.
Kimbrell, Andrew. The Human Body Shop: The Engineering and Marketing of Life. San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 1993. Print.
REPO! The Genetic Opera. Dir. Darren Smith. Perf. Terrance Zdunich, Anthony Head. Lionsgate, 2008. DVD.
Shusterman, Neal. Unwind. New York: Simon & Schuster for Young Readers, 2007. Print.
Silver, Lee M. Remaking Eden: How Genetic Engineering and Cloning Will Transform the American Family. New York: Avon, 1998. Print.