Thursday, April 23, 2009

Gregor Mendel died for your sins! Biopunk and Ribofunk

Ribofunk is speculative fiction which acknowledges, is informed by and illustrates the tenet that the next revolution--the only one that really matters--will be in the field of biology. To paraphrase Pope, ribofunk holds that: "The proper study of mankind is life." Forget physics and chemistry; they are only tools to probe living matter. Computers? Merely simulators and modelers for life. The cell is King!
~ Ribofunk: The Manifesto, by Paul Di Filippo (1996)

In the mid- and late 1980s the hot new science fiction subgenre was "cyberpunk". The stories were usually set in a gritty near-future Earth, where massive international corporations are more powerful that individual governments. The stories themselves heavily featured hackers and crackers and artificial intelligences, hence the "cyber" part of the name.

With the advent of the Human Genome Project and greater focus on biotechnology in the media in the 1990s, there was a natural evolution to stories where it was DNA that was hacked, rather than computer networks. The Such stories have been dubbed by some "biopunk" or the catchier "ribofunk", a term invented by Paul Di Filippo.

In a recent interview with Marshall Payne at The Fix, Paul Di Filippo talked about how he coined the term:
During the waning days of cyberpunk, I half-jokingly tried to predict the next big movement in SF. I took the prefix “ribo” from the cellular component ribosomes1.
I'm personally fond of the term, even though it was originally coined as a parody of the term cyberpunk. I think the greater rhythmic complexity of funk music helps capture the idea that biological systems are more complex and unpredictable than computers. And ribosomes are organelles found in all forms of life that help translate the gene sequences expressed in a cell into proteins (click the link for a cool video). As such, ribosomes play an important in translating changes in the genome made by human genetic engineers into detectable changes in the organism. I think that's fitting.

And I can't argue with Filippo's Ribofunk Manifesto: "the next revolution--the only one that really matters--will be in the field of biology."

Of course ribofunk just sounds catchy, which is important too.

When Di Filippo's Ribofunk collection of stories was published in 1996, he talked to Jeffrey Fisher at Wired about the impact of biotechnology on evolution and society. Instead of the conventionally beautiful, hyperintelligent, and uniformly bland engineered humans of the future that some people have posited, he imagined a much more interesting population:
I think humanity is not wise enough to know what genotype or somatype is going to be the most successful or the most fit - simply because we're not fully in control of our environment. You could engineer a human to survive the greenhouse effect because you think that's what's going to happen, and then all of a sudden the glaciers are creeping down on you. So what we should be encouraging is a kind of chaotic, wildly creative assortment of genotypes and somatypes. And I think that's going to happen naturally. I don't think there'll ever be any impetus toward monoculture; we'll see diversity become more rampant.
So what novels might be included in the biopunk/ribofunk cannon? Matt Staggs at Enter the Octopus has a list, as does the Genome Alberta blog. Different people have different takes on what should be included, but the elements that I'd include:
  • not-too-distant future setting
  • extensive use of genetic engineering, particularly on humans
  • a dystopian feel
That's a pretty broad definition, I know. Some of the books I'd include in the subgenre:

  • Ribofunk by Paul Di Fillipo (of course)
  • Holy Fire by Bruce Sterling (cyberpunk with biotech elements)
  • The Scab's Progress in Babylon Sisters and Other Posthumans by Paul Di Fillipo and Bruce Sterling
  • White Devils by Paul Mc Auley (which features biopunks)
  • Clade by Mark Budz (Kevin Anderson in the New York Times review of this novel supposedly coined the term "biopunk")
  • Winterlong: A Novel by Elizabeth Hand
  • Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
  • possibly Richard K. Morgan's Thirteen
Human genetic engineering seems to be a pretty standard element in recent works set in near future dystopias, so I'm not sure where the line should be drawn - or even if it should. Arguing about such SF subgenre designations is all part of the fun.

1. There are some sources that say the "ribo" is from ribonucleic acid (RNA), but in every interview with DiFillipo I've read, going back to 1996 he's said the source was "ribosome". I fixed the entry in Wikipedia, and we'll see if it stays.

(Interview via SF Signal)

Image: Ribosome translating mRNA into protein
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