Author of Biopunk Dystopias, Lars Schmeink, discusses the importance of biopunk in the context of modern literature and society.
When Margaret Atwood wrote Oryx and Crake, the first novel in her MaddAddam trilogy, some thirteen years ago, she noticed certain trends in scientific research and—as a writer of speculative fiction—started thinking about the consequences, if specific lines of inquiry would be brought to their (somewhat logical) conclusion. This extrapolation of research, especially within the field of genetics, led her to write a book (and later two more) about the end of the world-as-we-know-it due to genetic engineering—a problem (for the most part) not of malign intent but incalculable risks and uncontrollable effects. In interviews, Atwood commented upon this devil-may-care attitude and prophesied: “We’ve just opened the great big gene-splicing toy box and people are going to be playing with that for years” (cit. in Halliwell 260).
In her book, stem cell research is used to create genetic hybrids (so-called chimeras) of animals from the DNA of two or more different species, chief among which is the Pigoon, a pig spliced with human cells for medical purposes. Pigoons, in Atwood’s future world, are used to grow body parts for transplantation into humans; the pigs become biological storage of spare parts for failing organs. One side effect of the research, as it progresses, is the enhancement of the pigs’ brains, making them smarter and allowing them to develop a non-human animal society that later comes into conflict with human society. What is scary about this prospect is not so much the need for humans to communicate and cooperate with intelligent Pigoons, but the fact that real life research is speedily catching up to the dystopian vision of Oryx and Crake.
In a recent issue of Cell, an academic journal of experimental biology, researchers announced a first and “significant step toward the development of animal embryos with functioning human organs” (Kaplan, n.pag.)—just as the novels suggested. Most frighteningly, Atwood anticipated that human cells could be used to give pigs an enhanced cognitive ability, allowing them to become self-aware—a development reflected in the results of the experiment, which produced a variety of cells in the chimeras: “A few developed into the precursors of neurons, a fear of bioethicists who worry about creating an animal with human or even humanlike consciousness” (Kaplan). Of course, researchers are quick to point out that the experiment was trying to establish the basic premises of a viability of any form of human-animal chimera, that strict protocols are in place, and that a real self-aware new hybrid species is years in the future, but the implications of such research are very real and even have been reported on—in fiction, by authors such as Atwood.
Indeed, the MaddAddam trilogy can be argued to be part of a larger cultural formation—meaning not merely a literary genre, but a general tendency in many aspects of contemporary culture to negotiate a specific discourse—regarding the impact of biological sciences, especially genetics. Discussions of topics and themes such as cloning, genetic engineering, virology, tissue-culture research, nano-technology and many more have been on the rise not just in literature, but in film, television, video gaming, and art, as well as other fields of social and cultural interaction: journalistic reporting, activism, advertising, and general cultural practices. Since the Human Genome Project (HGP) embarked on that “monumental effort […] to map the human genome and spell out for the world the entire message hidden in its chemical code” (Jaroff), the idea of biology as a revolutionary scientific force challenging and changing what it means to be human has been on the mind of many (creative) people all over the globe.
Biopunk, as that cultural formation is most widely known, started out in the 1980s as “a subgenre of science fiction which explores the societal effects of biotechnology and genetic engineering” (Prucher 16), but has since evolved far beyond the scope of a literary genre, instead becoming an integral part of how we converse about the posthuman. As Rosi Braidotti has so aptly pointed out, “there is a posthuman agreement that contemporary science and biotechnologies affect the very fibre and structure of the living and have altered dramatically our understanding of what counts as the basic frame of reference for the human today” (40). Biopunk refers to the cultural practices that negotiate this posthuman agreement – from literary fictions about ecological disaster due to GMOs, such as Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl (2009) to mainstream depictions of humans as lab rats for powerful companies in the hypercapitalist dystopia of the Resident Evil film series (Paul W.S. Anderson, 2002-16), from artistic work on transgenic species such as Eduard Kac’s glow-in-the-dark bunny Alba to the Do-it-Yourself-biology proclaimed by Meredith Patterson’s “Biopunk Manifesto”.
Biopunk has no unified concept, as Annalee Newitz points out regarding the activist movement: “the biopunk revolution has yet to be codified or legitimized” and is “as ill-defined as the genome itself.” Looking specifically towards the products, the novels, films and games that become part of mainstream culture, biopunk seems to take much of its signification from its precursor cyberpunk. Acknowledging this generic debt, its political and poetic traditions, biopunk often declares itself anti-capitalist, anti-corporate, and/or anti-government, drawing on revolutionary sentiments and dire dystopian warnings about the consequences of scientific developments. In this, it proves relevant to our current situation, as it addresses the changes wrought by ruthless capitalist intervention into the biological and geological processes of this world.
Biopunk addresses a critical posthuman subjectivity. Bringing into sharp relief a crisis in humanism that challenges the conception of “human exceptionalism and bounded individualism,” as Donna Haraway argues, biopunk claims a voice for a connection of all life on earth, in fiction exploring that “rich wallow in multispecies muddles” (1). Turning away from the transhumanist notions of disembodied humanist grandeur, biopunk for example embraces life in its subnatural form, in viral contagion, in bacterial infection, in kinship with earth, machine, and other animals (cf. Braidotti 66). In biopunk, humans are “co-evolving, sharing ecosystems, life processes, genetic material, with animals and other life forms” (Nayar 8), and subjectivity is understood as complex, evolving and interrelated to all life (zoe) on earth.
And because of this interconnected zoe-centric view, biopunk texts emphasize the human as a global force, pointing towards the earth’s entry into a new geological era, sometimes called the anthropocene. Geologists argue that considering the effect human activity has had on the planet—from climate change to fresh water collection to the spread of domestic animals—“humankind, our own species, has become so large and active that it now rivals some of the great forces of Nature in its impact on the functioning of the Earth system” (Steffen et al. 843). Biopunk enters critically into this discourse of human interaction with our planet, projecting culture and technology as global, turning it against itself, extrapolating the environmental and social costs and consequences of such a global society.
In Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, human activity causes cataclysmic changes of the earth’s environment—draughts, rising sea levels, mass extinctions—forcing human life to adapt and change, becoming posthuman. In combination with the creation of new life forms, such as pigs with human brain tissue, Atwood’s biopunk stories thus unfold how variable definitions of what constitutes distinct ontological categories have become—how they might not have been stable in the first place. Biopunk, then, is a stark reminder that we need to find new ways of thinking, being, feeling what we are, and a call to action to redefine our relations with everything else that we share this life with.
Braidotti, Rosi. The Posthuman. London: Polity, 2013. Print.
Halliwell, Martin. “Awaiting the Perfect Storm.” Waltzing Again: New and Selected Conversations with Margaret Atwood. Ed. Earl G. Ingersoll. Princeton: Ontario Review, 2006. 253-64. Print.
Haraway, Donna. “Tentacular Thinking: Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Chthulucene.” e-flux journal 75 (2016): 1-17. Web. Feb 16, 2017. <http://www.e-flux.com/journal/75/67125/tentacular-thinking-anthropocene-capitalocene-chthulucene/>.
Jaroff, Leon. “The Gene Hunt.” Time. Mar 20, 1989. Web. Oct 10, 2013. <http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,957263,00.html>.
Kaplan, Sarah. “Scientists create a part-human, part-pig embryo — raising the possibility of interspecies organ transplants.” Washington Post. 26 Jan. 2017. Web. 07 Feb. 2017. <https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/speaking-of-science/wp/2017/01/26/scientists-create-a-part-human-part-pig-embryo-raising-the-possibility-of-interspecies-organ-transplants/>.
Nayar, Pramod K. Posthumanism. Cambridge: Polity, 2014.
Newitz, Annalee. “Genome Liberation.” Salon.com. 26 Jan 2002. Web. 15 Jan 2010. <http://www.salon.com/2002/02/26/biopunk/>.
Patterson, Meredith. “A Biopunk Manifesto.” 30 Jan 2010. Web. 08 Feb 2012. <http://maradydd.livejournal.com/496085.html>.
Prucher, Jeff, ed. Brave New Words: The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2007. Print.
Steffen, Will, et al. “The Anthropocene: Conceptual and Historical Perspectives.” Philosophical Transactions: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences 369.1938 (2011): 842-67. Print.
You can find Biopunk Dystopias and other texts in our Liverpool Science Fiction Texts and Studies series on our website