While it is not quite clear when and where the term ‘biopunk’ was first used, its heritage reflects two distinct traditions of literary science fiction (sf): that of cyberpunk on the one hand, and that of biological sf on the other.1

The latter, of course, is the far older tradition, with biology providing a “thematic emphasis emerg[ing] very early in the development of science fiction” (Parker 35), including such foundational texts as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) or H. G. Wells’s The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896). The thematic focus of biological sf most relevant to biopunk is genetics, whether genetic mutation or “the feasibility and desirability of planned genetic alteration” (Parker 35).  Cyberpunk, the other tradition informing biopunk, plays directly into mainstream culture’s scientific interest in genetics and the issues “about the nature of life itself, about what it is to be human, about the future of the human race” (Reiss 13). Many of cyberpunk’s themes connect with biological sf. Bruce Sterling, for example, writes about the loss of control by governments and big corporations as technology is no longer a tool of those in power, but “visceral,” “pervasive, utterly intimate” (Preface xiii). Technology is for everyone to use and invades the minds and bodies of cyberpunk society. By extension a central theme in cyberpunk is that the borders of what constitutes the ‘human’ are being crossed, blurred, or erased. For example, in the documentary No Maps for These Territories (Neale 2000), Sterling reminisces upon cyberpunk’s earliest days: “We were able to make computers glamorous… This was a supermodel among technologies. […] They were going to be cute; they were going to be miniature; they would be designed; they would be adorable. The boundaries of the human body would be crossed.” Brian McHale notes that biopunk, just as cyberpunk, is founded upon the “centrifugal self” but in terms of prominent themes ascribes to it the revision of “Gothic-horror motifs of bodily invasion and disruption” (257). What differentiates biopunk from cyberpunk, therefore, is that it deals with the hybridization of the human not with machinic elements but with other organisms: human, animal, bacterial, fungal, viral, and so on. In biopunk fiction, the invasion of the body is intimate and visceral as it takes place on the level of the cell, or smaller still, on the level of the nucleotides that form all living matter.

It should therefore come as no surprise that Sterling, with his focus on violating the human body and mind-body invasions, evident in the Shapers and Mechanists populating his Schismatrix Plus universe, would prove instrumental in biopunk’s outgrowth.2 By the late-1980s when cyberpunk’s original core started expressing dismay at how quickly their anti-authoritarian punk sensibility was being co-opted into what Lewis Shiner dismissively called “sci-fiberpunk” (25), Sterling imagined a world radically changed not by computer technology but by genetic engineering.3 His short story “Our Neural Chernobyl” (1988), named for the catastrophic nuclear accident two years prior, becomes “biotechnology’s worst disaster” during the late 20th and early 21st centuries, a time that Sterling in the story calls the “Age of the Normal Accident” (1). Drawing parallels to the “subculture of computer hacking” of the 1970s and 1980s, Sterling imagines the development of entrepreneurial freedoms in ‘gene-hacking’ as do-it-yourself biologists start making full use of “an enormously powerful technology suddenly within the reach of the individual” (3). In Sterling’s future scenario, biohackers build upon the breakthrough success of using a viral-RNA sequence to insert and cut DNA at will and with playful ease, prompting genetic experiments catering not only to chronically ill patients, but also for illegal uses, such as drug-users craving a permanent high. One such experiment causes the ‘neural Chernobyl,’ triggering a growth burst in brain cells, which leaves humans riding a cognitive high of “eccentric genius” before suffering from “dendritic crash” and plunging them into “vision-riddled, poetic insanity” (5-6). But more than merely impacting drug-users, the virus has an unintended side effect as it jumps the species barrier and infects animal life, essentially enhancing the cognitive abilities of non-human animals. The story closes with a view on a posthuman world changed by genetic enhancements both of the human and the non-human animal, a possible world where we “share the planet with a fellow civilized species” (8) and “a fraction of the population has achieved physical immortality” (9) by genetic mutation.

As an early example of biopunk, “Our Neural Chernobyl” provides us with links to a cyberpunk heritage, while at the same time forking off from that heritage to evoke a strong sense of social responsibility, negating cyberpunk’s countercultural, radical, even anarchic politics in favor of a utopian position that finds science integrated into a communal network. In the end, “Our Neural Chernobyl” demonstrates that biopunk may be closely related to cyberpunk, but it has developed into one of the most eminent forms of science-fictional exploration into biology. Not only does it pick up on a changing culture of scientific research (i.e., the kitchen sink research of do-it-yourself-biology), but it opens up the term ‘biopunk’ to a form of activism that addresses this research and its political, social, and judicial consequences.  

Greg Bear’s Blood Music (1985), a novel-length expansion of his short story “Blood Music” (1983), is also centrally important in biopunk’s formation. In Bear’s story, biotech-researcher Vergil Ulam creates “[a]utonomous organic computers” (15), microscopic organisms for medical purposes that possess intelligence, adaptability, and self-replicating powers. When confronted with their imminent destruction, Ulam rescues them by injecting them into his body, where the organisms evolve and finally become self-aware. They begin to ‘infect’ and assimilate all biological life and interconnect it into a new and growing mass of cellular consciousness. As Bear’s story makes evident, biological boundaries are porous and can be crossed to create new and hybridized existences: forms of life that remind us how little needs to be changed to change the world. “Our Neural Chernobyl” challenges the ‘human’ by virtue of both non-human animal sentience calling into question human uniqueness and by the uncontrollable mutation of the retrovirus generating unstable and shifting human subjectivities. Blood Music does the same by depicting sentient single-cell organisms linking together to create a distributed consciousness that assimilates human ‘selves.’ As exemplars of the biopunk that would follow them, “Our Neural Chernobyl” and Blood Music undermine liberal humanist subjectivity by rejecting human exceptionalism and autonomy, instead revealing multiple and complex subjectivities, constituted through hybridization with non-human animals, retroviruses, and artificial biological organisms.

1. Constitutive Elements of Biopunk

As Thomas Foster has pointed out (and many of the entries in this collection further demonstrate), cyberpunk needs to be viewed as a cultural formation interacting with the posthuman: it acts as “an intervention in and inflection of a preexisting discourse, which cyberpunk significantly transformed and broadened, providing a new basis for the acceptance of posthuman ideas in contemporary American popular culture” (Foster xiii).4 In spite of its posthuman potential, however, cyberpunk often retains a humanist subjectivity based on a position of human exceptionalism and the underlying idea that “there is a distinctive entity identifiable as the ‘human,’ a human ‘self’” (Nayar 6). Cyberpunk, in many instances, depicts cybernetic technology as a means to enhance humans and overcome “any number of natural human limitations such as aging, death, suffering” (Philbeck 175). As a result, cyberpunk’s transhumanist concepts of cyborg enhancement, up to its extreme position of uploading one’s consciousness into fully realized machine-bodies, are ways to allegedly free humanity from its biological limitations, or so the transhumanist arguments go. The humanist self, though, is untouched by these enhancements, transcending its bodily prison to consolidate its position of exceptionalism.

Biopunk may therefore be a better vehicle for posthuman lines of inquiry than cyberpunk; after all, cyberpunk’s desire to transcend human biology is a “fantasy of escape” (Braidotti 91) and a “grafting of the posthuman onto a liberal humanist view of the self” (Hayles 286-87). Biopunk, on the other hand, is founded upon what Donna J. Haraway refers to as “to become with many” (4). After all, Haraway reminds us that only 10 percent of the cells in a human body consist of human genomes while “the other 90 percent of the cells are filled with the genomes of bacteria, fungi, protists, and such, some of which play in a symphony necessary to my being alive at all, and some of which are hitching a ride and doing the rest of me, of us, no harm. I am vastly outnumbered by my tiny companions” (3-4). According to Haraway’s understanding, human has thus always already been a hybridized existence, inextricably linked to other species. Therefore, biopunk powerfully explores the potential and the consequences that stem from this realization and best embodies the idea of a hybridized and pluralized posthumanity “constituted by and constitutive of multiple forms of life and machines” (Nayar 2).

Biopunk not only addresses the question of how the human relates to other forms of life, but it also challenges human relations with the environment, with the world. Cyberpunk’s enclosures, zones, and virtual worlds are representations of the impact of human technology, their differences highlighting the fragmentation of ontology into what McHale calls “multiple-world spaces” (250). In other words, our practices shape and form the world we live in; culture and technology define the boundaries and makeup of our world. In their focus on technologically-shaped worlds, many cyberpunk texts see the world, as Veronica Hollinger points out in her contribution to this collection, as defined by technology, with nature notably absent. Simply put, issues of human influence on ecology, or what is today referred to as the Anthropocene, act merely as background noise and not as narrative centers in cyberpunk. The scant attention paid to them lends credence to Gerry Canavan’s critique that cyberpunk has traditionally offered a shortcut “for getting outside scarcity and precariousness—simply leave the material world altogether, by entering the computer. In virtual space, with no resource consumption or excess pollution to worry about, we can all be as rich as we want for as long as we want (or so the story goes)” (9).  

Biopunk, on the other hand, highlights the unrepresentability of the world, preferring to leave the scale of the human behind to address a “grey ecology” which “propels us beyond our own finitude, opens us to alien scales of both being (the micro and the macro) and time (the effervescent, barely glimpsed; the geologic, in which life proceeds at a billion year pace)” (Cohen 383). In other words, biopunk is an intervention in the discourses of the Anthropocene by exploring human life on a micro scale, the Harawayian becoming-with of viruses and bacteria. At the same time, biopunk also challenges our conceptions of life on the macro scale. For example, both the retrovirus of “Our Neural Chernobyl” and the single-cell lifeforms of Blood Music spread to all forms of life; their impact is global and will be irreversible for the Earth as a whole.

Moreover, 21st century biopunk, such as Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake (2003) or Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl (2009), emphasizes the destructive potential of genetic engineering for ecological balance. Bacigalupi’s novel follows a gene-hunter through a world of global trade war over food seeds as genetic manipulation on a mass scale—crops, diseases, and even pests—has been used as a corporate strategy to destroy the competition and dominate their respective markets. The Windup Girl showcases the devastating result of unhindered genetic manipulation: a precarious world food supply, profound impact on the climate, aggressive invasive species killing ecological habitats, and a new form of humanoid life enslaved to its creators via genetic chains. Similarly, genetic engineering in Atwood’s novel (and its two sequels, collectively known as the MaddAddam trilogy) has global-scale implications for all life. The story follows the actions of Crake, a rogue geneticist who creates a global plague that kills most of humanity and makes room for his newly engineered species of posthumans. In flashbacks, the novel depicts the ecological catastrophe caused by human interventions, prompting Crake to dismiss humanity as flawed and in need of replacing: newly created genetic hybrids destroy the ecological balance and the Earth has in large parts become uninhabitable. Genetic engineering, in these novels, threatens all life on the planet.

2. Biopunk as Cultural Formation

Much like cyberpunk is now a “cultural formation,” a “historical articulation” of a variety of practices, be they textual, cultural, social, economic, or even political (Foster xvi), so too is biopunk. It has left its narrow confines as merely a biologically-inclined cyberpunk and now represents textual, medial, cultural, social, and political practices that delve into a variety of issues of life-altering biological research, of critical posthumanism, and of the Anthropocene, including not only the texts noted above but such narratives as Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis trilogy (1987-89), C. J. Cherryh’s Cyteen (1988), Nancy Kress’s Beggars in Spain (1993), or Paul Di Fillipo’s Ribofunk short story collection (1996). These examples address biopunk’s thematic issues—i.e., biological research, posthumanist critiques, humanity’s global and massive impact on the world—but also showcase biopunk’s variance in Butler’s feminist stance, Cherryh’s space-opera adventure, Kress’s more philosophical and economical musings, and Di Filippo’s wild and surreal satire. 

Biopunk is similarly infecting styles and fusing genres in recent film and television formats: Dark Angel (Cameron and Eglee 2000-02) centers on action and cyberpunk noir in a story about genetically created soldiers with superhuman powers escaping from a sinister corporation, while Heroes (Kring 2005-10) uses genetically engineered superhuman powers as part of a traditional family drama series, focusing on interpersonal relations and the consequences of becoming posthuman.

Biopunk’s proliferation as a cultural formation is not just topical though; its stylistic choices (for example, in cinematic visual expression) vary just as strongly. Gattaca (Niccol 1997) is a film about a genetically perfected society, in which babies can be engineered via germline-manipulation to the specifications of the parents. It highlights heightened social injustices in limiting individual lives to genetically determined paths, especially those not engineered but born naturally. In terms of visuals, it favors an avant-garde aesthetics of modernism with strong architectural designs, thus linking modern-day genetics to a filmic vision of periods such as 1920s expressionism. Films such as Brandon Cronenberg’s debut Antiviral (2012) or Vincenzo Natali’s Splice (2009), on the other hand, lean towards the abject imagery of body horror. While Antiviral uses sterile, overly-lit showrooms and hospitals for its story about extreme, visceral fan cultures that ‘consume’ diseases carried by celebrity hosts, Splice prefers the dark Gothic and almost Frankensteinian ambience of underground laboratories and old farmhouses to present the creation and upbringing of its spliced human-animal hybrid, as well as its impact on its creators. Biopunk is visually heterogeneous and can be found in many different stylistic variants.

One prominent example of biopunk’s thematic proliferation is the use of its tropes in zombie fictions, such as I am Legend (Lawrence 2007) or The Girl with All the Gifts (McCarthy 2016), both of which feature a scientifically created infection (viral or fungal respectively) almost wiping out human life. Both narratives follow survivors, as is typical for zombie fictions, and focus on the (futile) attempts to rebuild a human civilization. These narratives, however, make it explicit that the zombie-like posthumans have sentience and represent a newly-formed society after the human,5 a world without us: in I am Legend, scientist Robert Neville realizes that his daily hunts and experiments make him the monster that has become ‘legend’ to this new society of posthuman creatures; in The Girl with All the Gifts, zombie-girl Melanie realizes that science demands her death for a cure to the plague. Confronted with the choice to save humanity or her own kind, she asks why the new society should die for the old to keep living? In the end, she sets herself ablaze and thus opens the fungal seedpods that will fully transform the Earth into a world without humans. As these examples show, biopunk’s motifs of genetics and posthuman becomings have, over the last decade or two, fully saturated all aspects of popular cultural production.  

The variance and spread of biopunk motifs in narrative fictions mirrors a mainstream focus on genetics that has disseminated biopunk even further into the larger orbit of cultural practice. For example, the Quantified Self movement, with its purpose of self-measuring as many bodily functions as accurately as possible, also has an interest in genetic testing as provided by services such as 23andMe, which analyzes DNA samples. Knowledge about one’s own genetic makeup is used to tailor training or nutrition and thus improve sports performance—ultimately, these practices mirror the extreme genetic determinism that is present in Gattaca and its genetically-determined society. Modes of thinking connected with biopunk can be found in everyday common practice, but it is within the realm of artistic creation that biopunk reveals an important posthumanist critique. This is especially true in the area of conceptual, procedural, and/or performative “bioart,” which “involves biotechnological methods and/or manipulation of living systems” (Hauser 84). Here biopunk functions as a critique of human exceptionalism and scientific hubris, as well as hinting at the porous boundaries of life and the global impact of technoscientific developments.

Artist Eduardo Kac, for example, genetically engineered a bio-luminescent bunny with the help of two French geneticists and curated the public discourse around this creation into the artwork “GFP Bunny” (2000). He blends the scientific act of genetic engineering, the social act of discussing its implications, and what Kac terms the “social integration,” meaning the reactions of both the public and of policy makers towards the transgenic animal. Two other artists, Ionat Zurr and Oron Catts of the Tissue Culture and Art Project, grew tissue from pig cells into wing shapes, confronting media and the public about their “hyberbolic discourse” of “genohype”—referring to expectations of radical change through genetics and the language of miracles in regards to research in biomedicine. The TCA grew three kinds of wings (which they describe as “bird-like,” “bat-like,” and “winged lizards”) in miniature size (4 cms. long) to showcase the cultural meaning and values given to wings (“the good, the bad, the extinct”) and the over-the-top claims of science (for example, genetically curing diseases such as cancer or Alzheimer’s). As with Kac, the biotech creation is only part of the artwork, enhanced by the surrounding discourse (the piece was submitted to a show on genetics in art and rejected for its negative portrayal and criticism), as well as the official policy surrounding it (the artists’ wish to file a patent for pig wings, to “‘initiate and control’ the pig wings market”). As these examples show, bioart, in its performance of public discourses, cultural practices, and controversies of policy, can be understood as an expression of biopunk, connecting critical posthuman thinking to our scientific and social life worlds.

3. Activism

Taking up the critique voiced by these artists and turning it into social activism is a loose group of do-it-yourself-biologists (DIYbio), biohackers, or biopunks (self-proclaimed) that came together around the turn of the 21st century and in “The Biopunk Manifesto” found a kind of philosophical treaty to express their values. Meredith Patterson, author of the manifesto and a computer scientist, is seen as a leading figure in the biopunk movement and approaches biology through its connection with information technology—thus conceptually drawing a parallel between cyberpunk and biopunk, between the anti-authoritarian practices of hacking code and hacking DNA. Speaking for biopunk activism, she demands scientific research be open, free, and in the hands of the public, arguing for empowerment through “scientific literacy” and the goal of “making the world a place that everyone can understand.” In her manifesto, she explicitly states that engineers and scientists (professional or hobbyist) need to become political actors and activists, involved in policy because both corporations and politicians “wish to curtail individual freedom of inquiry.” As such, DIYbio is part of the movement towards open practices (i.e., open data, open publishing, open education, open source, open access), and biohackers have joined with lawyers and social activists to fight, for example, against the patenting of human genomic information or against the restrictions of access to biological materials.

The biohackers and biopunks organized around “The Biopunk Manifesto” are remarkably similar to Sterling’s biohackers in “Our Neural Chernobyl”: they see the potential of biology for changing the world but refuse to leave it in the hands of big science corporations or government institutions; they instead claim it as a public good. They are “the visionaries whose imaginations were set on fire by the knowledge that we had finally sequenced the human genome” (Newitz). In their pursuit of knowledge, they do not need the high tech equipment of corporate laboratories, but rather rely on “the hack”; or, as journalist Marcus Wohlsen has pointed out, “[b]iohacking in the form promoted by DIYbio is about engineering elegant, creative, self- reliant solutions to doing biology while relying not on institutions but wits” (5). In this utopian conception of biopunk, freedom of data, scientific method, and research provide solutions to problems posed in medicine and biology, such as the hacking and curing of diseases (through crowdsourcing its genetic deciphering) or the creation of cheaper therapies (by decoupling them from corporate interests).

These positive outcomes are a strong motivational factor in the biohacking scene, but the actions taken, especially in regard to experimentation, are not always without critique. The discovery of the CRISPR technology (a genetic editing tool that allows for the cutting and insertion of DNA) has recently led to self-experimentation among biopunks and to several publicly documented uses of the technology. Josiah Zayner, for example, injected himself with CRISPR at a conference in October 2017 to cut out a gene that stopped muscle growth. He claims that his symbolic action is to promote free and open science, making genetic engineering a commodity that consumers can experiment with as they see fit (CBC), although it seems somewhat self-serving that he owns a company selling CRISPR sets to the public. But not all such experiments are for self-promotion: at the same time as Zayner, Tristan Roberts injected himself with a gene to produce antibodies against HIV, wishing to speed up lengthy trials for new treatments (CBC). As these cases show, and as Sterling has warned, powerful new biological technologies are now in the reach of the public, and biopunks are seizing them for a variety of reasons: in order to wrench power over biology and genetics away from big science corporations, in order to create unconventional solutions to medical problems, in order to challenge themselves scientifically, or simply in order to turn a profit.

No matter how one views the methods and values of the DIYbio-scene, it is clear that biopunk’s thinking lies at its core, blending concepts that used to be fiction with possibilities that are becoming more real by the minute. Biopunk has therefore bloomed in perhaps unexpected ways to become a cultural formation, extending its motifs and issues from literary fiction into the breadth of cultural production, political activism, and social practices. Genetic engineering, stem cell research, cloning, tissue culture production, and other biotechnological developments are pressing issues of our life world, and it falls to biopunk to provide us with both a dictionary to define our discourses, fictional and factual, and a cultural roadmap to navigate the social and political implications of these new technologies. Biopunk is the imaginary for our biotechnological progress, it is a central theme of our posthumanism, and it is a key discourse in and of the Anthropocene. In sum, it is a key part of our science fictional reality.


1.         For a more detailed introduction to the complicated history of the term, see Schmeink, “Biopunk 101” and Biopunk Dystopias.

2.         For a detailed case study of the story cycle, see Maria Goicoechea’s contribution to this collection.

3.         For the developments of Movement-era cyberpunk, see Graham J. Murphy’s contribution to this collection.

4.         For a detailed discussion of the different posthuman interventions of cyberpunk, see Julia Grillmayr’s contribution to this collection.

5.         Following Fredric Jameson’s famous dictum that “it has become easier for us to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism” (cit. in Hassler-Forest 6), Dan Hassler-Forest connects zombie societies not just to the imagination of a world beyond the human, but to the imagination of “what kinds of worlds might be possible beyond capitalism” (151, emphasis in original).

Works Cited:

  • Bear, Greg. Blood Music. Gollancz, 1985.
  • Braidotti, Rosi. The Posthuman. Polity, 2013.
  • CBC – Radio Canada. “Meet the Human Guinea Pig Who Hacked his own DNA.” Quirks & Quarks, 11 Nov, 2017, cbc.ca/radio/quirks/diy-dna-hacks-wounds-take-longer-to-heal-at-night-why-daydreams-are-good-quirks-bombs-and-more-1.4395576/meet-the-human-guinea-pig-who-hacked-his-own-dna-1.4395589.
  • Canavan, Gerry. “If This Goes On.” Green Planets: Ecology and Science Fiction, edited by Gerry Canavan and Kim Stanley Robinson, Wesleyan UP, 2014, pp. 1–21.
  • Christie, Deborah. “And the Dead Shall Walk.” Better Off Dead: The Evolution of the Zombie as Post-Human, edited by Deborah Christie and Sarah Juliet Lauro, Fordham UP, 2011, pp. 61–65.
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  • Hayles, N. Katherine. How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics. U of Chicago P, 1999.
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  • Schmeink, Lars. “Biopunk 101.” SFRA Review, no. 309, 2014, pp. 31–36.
  • —. Biopunk Dystopias: Genetic Engineering, Society, and Science Fiction. Liverpool UP, 2016.
  • Shiner, Lewis. “Inside the Movement: Past, Present and Future.” Fiction 2000: Cyberpunk and the Future of Narrative, edited by George Slusser and Tom Shippey, U of Georgia P, 1992, pp. 17–25.
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  • —. Preface. Mirrorshades: The Cyberpunk Anthology, edited by Bruce Sterling, Ace, 1986, pp. ix-xvi.
  • Wohlsen, Marcus. Biopunk: DIY Scientists Hack the Software of Life, Current, 2011.
  • Zurr, Ionat and Oron Catts. “Big Pigs, Small Wings: On Genohype and Artistic Autonomy.” Culture Machine, vol. 7, 2005, culturemachine.net/index.php/cm/article/viewArticle/30/37.

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