Friday, March 21, 2008

The Epidemic of Pandemics - Biopunk

The last few decades have seen advances in medicine, and advances in newly discovered diseases. Also advancing is the fear of the "coming epidemics." Countless books on the topic have been written, both non-fiction and fiction (see Meteors, Marx, and Lovecraft on non-fiction/fiction). This is a topic that seems to be in the social consciousness. Perhaps the best way grasp the scale is to look at the fiction (this includes film). In most of these fictional works, a genetically designed virus decimates humanity, or a virus that has been lurking in some hidden location suddenly appears and it steamrolls over the planet. The popularity of this works reveals a macabre interest, and perhaps a growing fear.

For years, the terror of technology held sway over many people. Now the fear of a microorganism seemingly dominates the landscape of imagination. And don't count out bacteria; they are just as lethal, even if overlooked in most fiction works. The two, technology and biology, are often combined to create unstoppable horrors. Such books and films came in many forms: cyborgs from the future; human organ farms; clones; mad scientists with killer petri dishes...

All of the above also described the fiction genre of "biopunk." It has existed for a number of years, and the label never did quite catch-on as did "cyberpunk." In fact, the label is so obscure that I'm not sure it is even fair to label works as biopunk. Either way, we have it, and it does seem to focus on a trend in fiction and in culture. And once the label is understood, that produces more material - for good or for ill.

If you're still wondering what biopunk is, think of most any work that involves biology as a key element, maybe even to the point where the "biology" can be considered a character. It can take the form of genetic engineering, human experimentation (drug testing), or even organ theft. This last one, by the way, is a non-fiction topic as well. It seems that "biopunks" are organ hunters - people who find organ donors or people who "appropriate" organs for transplant. And I'm certain most of us have heard the tales about organ theft. And if not, watch this YouTube video - it does have something to do with the topic, so wait until the end. It is titled, Charlie the Unicorn.

Some fiction works that fall under the category of biopunk are:

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
Darwin's Radio by Greg Bear
The Reality Dysfunction by Peter F. Hamilton
Holy Fire by Bruce Sterling
There are countless others. I would add William Deitz's Bodyguard series to the list, as they also deal with the same topics. Of course, Horrors Beyond 2: Stories of Strange Creations contains a number of tales that fall under the heading - "strange creations" are sometimes biological.

Another category of fiction that fits the bill (in some cases) might be Zombie fiction. Usually classified as apocalyptic fiction, zombie films and books sometimes have a bit of bio-hacking in order to bring about the zombies. The computer games and film series Resident Evil, and 28 Days Later come to mind.

Outside of fiction, some of the real world biopunks are those who play with DNA -- hacking the genetic code. This is a bit more sophisticated than traditional hardware or software hacking, often requiring a considerable amount of costly equipment to undertake the venture. This means it is limited to corporations and governments, a connection back to cyberpunk. Plenty of fiction springs from this area as well. And being in both out thoughts and imagination, it seems these works are readily accepted, along with the notion of an unknown, but coming epidemic - or perhaps an apocalypse.

Decades ago, it took quite a bit of background information to propose that a super virus was lurking in the remote regions of the world, or that a vast corporation was brewing up one (see the classic 1949 novel Earth Abides, by George R. Stewart). Today, we simply accept the possibility. This makes biopunk fiction easier to write - and perhaps read (and speaks to our acceptance of the notion). No lengthy setup. A virus has hit and that's that. Likewise, readers seem to respond to the lack of technical data dumps, rather just waiting for the devastating results. Oh, and there is a very early work by Mary Shelly that today would be classified as biopunk.

Oddly, this sub-genre, if it can be called one, has garnered little direct attention, while the fiction within it is quite popular (even excluding the zombie works). Perhaps, if we use fiction as a thermometer for society, the increased number of biopunk books, stories, and films reveals a symptom, or a worry of the readers. Most of the these stories culminate in disaster. Yes, the protagonists survive (sometimes), but the world is often very changed or destroyed. I wonder what that says out us and our fears and dreams?


Charles Gramlich said...

I had not heard the term biopunk but it's pretty cool. I like it and indeed recognize the concept.

I tend to think that the key to all this kind of post-apocolyptic fiction is the underlying knowledge that humans have of their own eventual destruction. Unlike animals, we know we will die, and we also know that it is highly likely that our entire civilzation will die. For many centuries, religious groups of various types have been predicting that the end is near, and I think the idea of a killer virus is an extension of that.

Would you consider "The Stand" by King to be one of the first Biopunk novels?

William Jones said...

Charles - It does seem that humans have a soft spot for the apocalyptic. Although there were periods throughout history were the belief in "progress" would bring about a perfect, undying world ("undying not being "undead"). But I do see your point with the plague being an extension of an inescapable, inevitable death.

As for King's "The Stand," I think it started as biopunk, but transformed into apocalyptic as the locus of the novel was on religion more than the virus/plague. Maybe that makes it a "fridge" biopunk novel. :)

moonbeast said...

Doesn't HP Lovecraft's own Herbert West The Re-animator qualify as one of the earliest 'biopunk' fiction? We're talking about zombies and weird science here.

William Jones said...

Moonbeast - I would say that "Herbert West," the story, certainly has the requirements for biopunk - probably more than we realize. The story was written during the U.S. Eugenics craze, so it is difficult to overlook the description of West (somewhat Aryan). While Lovecraft nor science in his day understood genetics, it *thought* it did, and Herbert West fits into the biopunk - both for its theme and for its creation/re-creation of life.

Also, I think the story is ones of the earliest "modern" biopunk tales. What I mean by "modern" is late 1800/early 1900s. Certainly there are other works written at an earlier date that deal with biology. But biopunk also deals with out society/culture. That makes "West" a very good, early candidate.

John Goodrich said...


Last night I workshopped the virus/biopunk story I intend to submit to you in a week or so. So yay, excellent topic!

With the rise of drug-resistant TB and terrifying diseases like Ebola and Hanta virus, as well as the anthrax attacks post 9/11, biopunk isn't just fiction. In America, where we don't have time for colds or the flu, the idea of someone dying Jim Henson style is terrifying.

But there is also hope--Smallpox has been eradicated, so we know that if humanity has the will, disease can be over come. And therein lies the basic "survival horror" conflict: Can we set aside our differences long enough to save itself?

William Jones said...

John - What timing! You're right, there is a greater awareness of disease and infection, and that has become a part of life throughout the world. Although one argument that has been going on for a while is about the eradication of viruses (viri - though many researches don't like the Latin "viri"). The argument proposed is that they are no so much eliminated as mutated into something else.

But as most everyone has mentioned, the "killer virus" is a part of many cultures (I think there is a joke in there), and one readers seem to enjoy confronting.

And the enjoyment of facing the horrors of the world is another topic completely.

Steve Buchheit said...

After the zeitgeist surrounding genetics research and biotech in general, a few years to let the anthrax attacks sink in, the "oh noes, we's all gonna die from de avian flu" silliness (never hurts that the government is aware and working, however the public dis(?)information campaign was really just silly) the background of ebola outbreaks in the late 90s, it can all come bubbling out in the horror.

The late 1800's early 90's also saw a change in medicine, which was quite the topic (homeopathic vs allopathic), part of the reason why Shelly's Frankenstein concerned "salts." The late 19 teens had the last great influenza outbreak, which while general ignored for a long time, festered in the collective consciousness. the 20s and 30s saw the rise of "scientific medicine" and the germ theory of diseases. X-rays, nuclear medicine, cancer research, all of them worked their way into the fiction of the time.

John Goodrich said...

My great-grandfather was a doctor during the great Influenza epidemic. According to family legend, he was so busy he had to snatch sleep as he was traveling from home to home.

He liked a nip of whiskey between patients, too. His nurse, who was a teetotaller, caught the flu and died of it.

Sean M Davis said...

I think that disease is a very scary thing for humans to deal with, because it attacks not only our health but our pride as well. Its not going out in a blaze of glory, not the peaceful exit nor the meaningful sacrifice that many people want their deaths to be. Its humiliating. Its lying in a bed that stinks of your own piss and shit, unable to do anything for yourself. Even worse, I think, are incapacitating mental diseases like Alzheimer's.
But getting back to the subject at hand.
You mentioned that people have become so used to the "lurking biothreat" that a lengthy setup isnt needed any more. I agree with that, up to a point. I'm talking here about the remake of Dawn of the Dead.
Among the other problems I had with this movie, I couldn't wrap my head around the beginning. The fact that there wasn't even an attempt made to establish a "patient zero" or any kind of cause really really bugged me.
I guess in a way, the movie was more about social commentary than logic, but still. I'm of the opinion that stories, even horror stories should conform to their own internal logic. 28 Days Later I could buy, Dawn of the Dead I couldn't, and it was precisely because of that lack of explanation.

Cairo said...

Okay, sorry to drift off topic a bit here, but I am wondering if what you describe here is really biopunk. You say:

"If you're still wondering what biopunk is, think of most any work that involves biology as a key element, maybe even to the point where the "biology" can be considered a character."

You also mention the terror aspect.

But is all that really enough?

I mean if we use Cyberpunk as an example I think there's something more to what makes it cyberPUNK. Cyberpunk is not just about the terror of technology, and it's not just about technology being the "main character."

Wikipedia (the definitive source for all knowledge, hahaha) says:

"Cyberpunk is a science fiction genre noted for its focus on "high tech and low life." It is also a subgenre of industrial rock music. The name is derived from cybernetics and punk and was originally coined by Bruce Bethke as the title of his short story "Cyberpunk," published in 1983,[1] although the style was popularized well before its publication by editor Gardner Dozois. It features advanced science, such as information technology and cybernetics, coupled with a degree of breakdown or a radical change in the social order."

That doesn't really help me much actually. So my question is, what puts the PUNK part in bioPUNK?

On another note (wandering even further off topic) I noticed ESP is doing "the lost Cyberpunk novel" BLACK GLASS from John Shirley. That is way cool. I am looking forward to that one. But I'm confused as to how it was actually "lost." Did he leave it in his basement somewhere and it took him this many years to find it? The ESP website doesn't say. Can you shed any insight, or do you not know where it got lost either?

William Jones said...

Sean - I see your point about Dawn of the Dead. If I recall, even in Night of the Living Dead, while much of the film was dedicated to set-up, the cause or explanation wasn't explored in depth. Then again, zombie/survival fiction has taken on a life of its own (excuse the pun). So it is perhaps beyond the need of cause. For those who are moderate fans of the sub-genre, this certain does cause a problem. I'm always interested in why zombies need to eat when they have not active digestive system. Except for the thematic reason of "consuming," or the argument it is pure instinct, it seems they'd hit their "food" limit rather quickly.

Cairo - There are a few big questions there. The definitions of cyberpunk varies, and I'm not sure Wikipedia is a more valid than any other source - including myself. I can tell you that one aspect of cyberpunk is the rejection of authority (be it corporate, government, or any other system). And usually, but not always, computers and technology were simply the means by which the "low" could combat the "powerful" (aka, a corporation). This is seen in real world computer hacking today and years ago.

For the most part, the authors of cyberpunk fiction were not so much interested in technology as they were society. "Suits" versus the disenfranchised is more of what cyberpunk was/is about.

As for the "punk" in biopunk, it is perhaps the notion that corporations, governments, scientists, or any others, do not fully understand what they are doing when dabbling in bio-technology. And as technology was a main ingredient in "cyber"punk, biology is an important element in biopunk. Often these stories suggest cataclysmic results, or are plotted around crimes and classism (the wealthy can afford life extension, while the poor cannot), with bio-engineering as the locus of the tale.

Regarding John's "lost cyberpunk novel" from ESP. I can say I've already read it, and it is a wonderful novel. It should release later this year. It wasn't lost in a basement. :) John does explain how it was "lost" in a foreword, so I won't reveal the details. The story is quite interesting. I will say it was a project that he and William Gibson started years ago. And now, John has completed it, updated it, and made it very significant to the modern reader. While it comes from the tradition of cyberpunk, it is also very new and original.

Cairo said...

Okay, the definition you put forward for biopunk definitely makes it a lot clearer for me now.

Thanks for the clarification!

Also, you state: "John does explain how it was "lost" in a foreword, so I won't reveal the details."

No fair! Now I have to wonder until I can get my hands on a copy!!!

Also can't wait to get a copy of your new Pearson book!!!