Lars Schmeink

Biopunk: Posthuman Survival
in the Anthropocene

During the 1980s and 1990s, whenever Hollywood needed a scientific discovery that would radically alter our society or threaten our way of life, it would turn to information technology, towards the development of artificial intelligence, or towards computer hacking. Cutting-edge scientific developments (and dreams of future progress) were culturally interpreted by films such as The Terminator (Cameron, 1984), Blade Runner (Scott, 1982) or The Matrix (Wachoswkis, 1999). The looming dystopias of our late 20th-century imagination were mostly cyberpunk visions, based on computer technologies and the rise of artificial intelligences.

But with the media attention surrounding the Human Genome Project (HGP) – launched in 1990 and finalized in 2003 – and its goal to fully map our DNA, there has been a noticeable shift in our cultural imagination of the dystopian future. Roughly since the turn of the century, biology has become a similarly controversial science, especially in its subfield of genetics. The first cloning of sheep Dolly in 1996, Craig Venter’s firm Celera announcing the successful mapping of the human genome in 2000 — three years before the HGP — and other radical break-throughs in genetics, all helped draw attention to the heretofore media-starved scientific discipline. Genetics has not fully supplanted cybernetics as the culprit of our doom, but it certainly has diversified Hollywood’s (and other creatives’) imagination regarding the most important threats to our continued existence.

Fig. 1
DNA mapped in the Human Genome Project – Image courtesy of PublicDomainPictures / 17907 images

My argument, here and in more detail in my book Biopunk Dystopias, is that in contemporary science fiction (sf), genetics is used to negotiate a conceptual change that is referred to as the posthuman. This mode of sf, which I call biopunk, is concerned with how genetics might be used to change what it means to be human. When we colloquially refer to the posthuman, we usually mean any form of life that moves beyond the limitations of human biology – we think of superpowered beings or mutants, such as the X-Men, or we think of a genetically engineered humanity 2.0, such as the beautiful designer people populating the film Gattaca (Niccoll, 1997). Genetic engineering has taken over our imagination, to the extent that new biopunk versions of older stories now appear: the spider that bites Peter Parker in Spider-Man (Raimi, 2000) is a genetic hybrid instead of its 1960s-comic radioactive counterpart. In Splice (Natali, 2009), the 200-year old story of Victor Frankenstein – genius, scientist, and creator – and his creature gets an update, brought into the age of genomics with two similarly romantic genius scientists splicing together a human-animal hybrid, which then turns on them. And since the 2000s we have seen an explosion of new zombie fictions, most of which feature man-made viruses that turn (dead) humans into zombies, such as the Resident Evil series (Anderson, 2002–17), which is partially responsible for the trend. The posthuman in the 21st century has many faces – most of them are creations of genetic engineering, and certainly not all of them are pretty.

Culturally speaking, then, biopunk is “good to think with” to borrow a phrase from Claude Lévi-Strauss. It helps us to think through the radical changes we are experiencing in our society and our environment. In that regard, biopunk is connected to two important critical concepts. First, biopunk can present a creative outlet for a new form of thinking that aims to overcome the limits of humanist thought: critical posthumanism. This thinking decentres the human, especially in its conception of privilege, exceptionalism, agency and autonomy. Instead it connects all forms of life, and it “urges us to think critically and creatively about who and what we are actually in the process of becoming”1Braidotti, Rosi. The Posthuman, Polity, 2013, p. 12.. In critical posthumanist thinking, ‘what it means to be human’ is related to our surroundings, to the life around us, human, animal, artificial, planetary. In this, critical posthumanism unites many intersectional thoughts in feminism, Marxism, postcolonialism and other forms of identity politics, in that it announces a radically new stance of thinking, or as Cary Wolfe has proclaimed, “the nature of thought itself must change if it is to be posthumanist”2Wolfe, Cary. What is Posthumanism? U of Minnesota P, 2010, p. xvi..

Second, and this is directly related to critical posthumanist thinking, is the fact that we have become so massive a force on this planet, that we actually effect global geological change. Scholars have pointed out, that as humans have become a force on the planetary level, this means that we live in the Anthropocene, the geological age of the human3Steffen, Will, Paul J. Crutzen and John R. McNeill. “The Anthropocene: Are Humans Now Overwhelming the Great Forces of Nature?” Ambio, vol. 36, no. 8, 2007, pp. 614–21.. The humanities have adopted this term and use it to open our thinking to our impact on the earth itself, on all systems of life around us. Both posthumanism and the Anthropocene are thus central when we want to think about “Methods for Surviving the Future”, as this Leviathan symposium is titled.

In the face of the Anthropocene and our wish to survive any changes the future may hold, genetic engineering promises us flexibility on how we imagine our posthuman future. If the world becomes uninhabitable to humans due to climate change, designing posthumans that can survive, if not strive, in this new environment might be the solution. This idea was first expressed in the sf of the 1950s and called “pantropy,” which according to Chris Pak, refers to “the genetic modification of humans for habitation of alien environments”4Pak, Chris. Terraforming: Ecopolitical Transformations and Environmentalism in Science Fiction, Liverpool UP, 2016, p. 3.. By changing the DNA of humans to survive higher UV radiation, or by “iron[ing] out problematic details in human anatomy […] and [replacing] them with structures that were more durable, more efficient or less ‘untidy’”5Weisberger, Mindy. “The 'Perfect' Human Body Is Not What You Think.” LiveScience. 22 June 2018., anatomists such as Alice Roberts will be able to create the perfect human body in terms of survival in extreme habitats. Roberts’s model creation for a museum specimen is posthuman and pantropic: “flaring, feline ears; a marsupial’s pouch; and oversize, octopus-like eyeballs”5Weisberger, Mindy. “The 'Perfect' Human Body Is Not What You Think.” LiveScience. 22 June 2018.

Fig. 2
An example of pantropy: BBC presenter Alice Roberts and her ‘perfect’ double – Image courtesy of BBC/Professor Alice Roberts.

To give a biopunk example of pantropy, one could turn to Margaret Atwood and her novels Oryx and Crake (2003), The Year of the Flood (2009) and MaddAddam (2013). Atwood describes a devastated near future in which climate change has made large parts of the earth uninhabitable: Temperatures and sea levels have risen, fertile lands have turned into deserts, and humanity’s hunger for energy has depleted most natural resources. The elite population now lives in class-segregated communities and revels in bacchanalian ignorance and consumption, while the masses barely survive in squalor and constant fear of disease, crime, and natural catastrophe. Nation states have given way to global corporate rule and biotechnological progress, and capitalist consumption has had a major impact on society and the environment.

In this future, renegade scientist Crake genetically engineers a plague that wipes out humanity, which he sees as faulty and destructive. As an alternative to the human species, Crake designs a race of posthumans that is supposed to repopulate the earth after the demise of the faulty species. He designs them by splicing human and animal DNA, engineering what he considers improved features, and editing out negative ones: The Crakers are docile, vegetarian and suited to live completely outside of our capitalist consumption society. They can resist high levels of UV radiation, repel insects with a citrus smell, fend off predatory animals via marking their territory, and they favour communal social interaction6Atwood, Margaret. Oryx and Crake. 2003. Anchor, 2004, pp. 363ff.. The Crakers are, as Gerry Canavan argues, “a hyperbolic version of the fantasy that we might turn back the clock and begin history anew”7Canavan, Gerry. ‘Hope, but Not for Us: Ecological Science Fiction and theEnd of the World in Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood.’ Lit: Literature Interpretation Theory, vol. 23, no. 2, 2012, pp. 152.. They represent our wish to not merely pantropically adapt to the Anthropocene, but somehow culturally and socially return Earth and our way of life on it to pre-industrial times.

Paolo Bacigalupi, in The Windup Girl (2009), similarly describes a world of climate change, rising sea levels and gene-modified life-forms. In his story, genetically altered New People have little trouble adapting to the new harsh environment. The story tells of one such Windup Girl awakening to resistance and survival against the dominant human species. The message is clear: genetic engineering allows humans to become posthuman and survive in hostile, alien environments. But it also questions what we mean by human and how we value any form of newly created posthuman life. Through pantropy, biopunk challenges our conception of human exceptionalism. A few other examples in sf include Peter Watts’s Rifters trilogy (1999–2004), in which humanity has been genetically altered to survive life on the ocean floor, or his Firefall series (2006–14), in which altered posthumanity becomes a means for long-term space travel. With a slightly different focus but with similar posthuman changes, humans have evolved into posthuman forms through extended space travel and life in zero-gravity environments in James S. A. Corey’s Expanse series (2011–)and its adaptation by SyFy (2015).

But changing ourselves to survive a new Anthropocene climate might not be enough. We might also need to address issues of failing resources, especially – as Bacigalupi’s writing has revealed – in terms of food shortages. Here, biopunk explores the issues surrounding the genetic alteration of animal and plant life. In The Windup Girl, engineered crops fall prey to engineered diseases and the result is a “calorie war” featuring both nation states and food corporations. In Atwood’s novels, food shortages are addressed by designing new animal life that supposedly eliminates ethical problems of animal husbandry. The novel, for example, introduces so-called ChickieNobs, which allow high-intensity growth of chicken parts without the meat ever becoming an animal in itself. This, of course, is reminiscent of current experiments in lab-grown or cultured meat said to hit the stores as early as 2021– and thus making Atwood’s vision only slightly a matter of science fiction.

Fig. 2
Oka – Image © Netflix

Biopunk, as a cultural form discussing the critical politics of posthumanism, helps us realize how genetic engineering shifts boundaries and ethics of capitalist modes of consumption, especially when it comes to animal life. In the film Okja (2017) by South Korean director Bong Joon-ho, for example, using animals for food production is thrown into question when the newly engineered species of superpigs is found to be highly intelligent, self-aware, and sentient. Early on in the film, Okja is shown to live in harmony with her farmer’s family, caring for the little daughter Mija. But within the capitalist system, both Mija (as a child, as a woman of colour, as a farmer of low economic power) and Okja (as a non-human, as genetically engineered and thus as intellectual property) are being used by the exploitative corporation and not granted any form of agency. They are used as marketing tools, then quickly discarded. Thousands of highly cognisant animals are shown to become food for ceaseless human consumption. Here, the film highlights ethical problems in the way we consume animal life. Okja thus asks us to consider the value of animal life, the status we are granting it and how this is challenged by genetic engineering.

But the extrapolation that biopunk provides does not end there. One of the key issues of surviving the future will be the question of eliminating existing diseases and going beyond the biological limits of human lifespans, even if we are not pantropically engineering ourselves. In dealing with the Anthropocene, we do not need to change ourselves to impact life on a global scale; the consequences of technology can be far-reaching and unexpected. Genetic engineering is at the heart of some of the most radical changes proposed for the future. As an example, I want to point out a current trend in zombie films that imagines the manipulation and mutation of viruses. In I am Legend (Lawrence, 2007), a gene therapy for cancer mutates and causes the death of billions and the conversion of millions more into Dark Seekers, a mix of zombie and vampire essentially taking over the world and killing what remains of humanity. And in Resident Evil, a corporation weaponizes a viral gene therapy for muscle dystrophy into a killer virus, that unfortunately reanimates the dead as flesh-hungry zombies. Common to these zombie fictions is that the motivation for gruesome action lies in the potential of genetic engineering – not of humans, but of viruses. All of these films show a few remaining survivors struggling to get back to their idea of civilisation but in the end having to realise that humanity has to make way for a forceful new posthumanism. So what if instead of using genetics to explore methods of surviving the future, we unintentionally eliminate ourselves from the equation?

In The Girl with All the Gifts, a variation of the ant-attacking fungus Ophiocordyceps unilateralis has broken the species barrier and infected humans. Instead of creating “zombie-ants,” the fungus wraps around the brain of the human host and then hi-jacks its behaviour in order to spread the fungal infection via bites. These “hungries” are zombies by another name, undead in their loss of human agency, other in their behaviour and appearance, and depicted as a threat to the anthropocentric world order.

Fig. 3
The Girl with All the Gifts, film still – Image © SquareOne Entertainment

The film then introduces a group of children, who carry the virus but are more controlled – in fact, they are shown to be human-like, intelligent and with high cognitive abilities and emotions. The lead scientist Dr. Caldwell, believes these children to represent another stage of the fungal infection, coldly studying and dissecting them, and interpreting their reactions as mimicry of humanness. Over the course of the film, we sympathise with Melanie, one of the hungry-like children. When the film suggests that she is in a symbiotic relationship with the fungus and holds the key to cure the infection, we do not agree with Dr. Caldwell that the goal of normalcy and stability justifies any means. Melanie is a creation of posthuman genetics, not purposefully engineered but a consequence nonetheless. Due to her status as “cure,” her agency and subjectivity are limited. She is treated as a commodity, a walking scientific break-through. But using Melanie to restore a semblance of human civilisation would kill her and essentially all other children like her. Science determines their value within the existing system of power; a system that is anthropocentric and driven by humanist conceptions of exceptionality. Melanie’s non-human death would be justified by the gain for humanity.

However, by the end of the film Melanie has learned about her status and the power it holds. She confronts Dr. Caldwell about the consequences of extracting the cure from her. She understands immediately that this moment decides the fate of both humans and posthumans and asks pointedly: “why should we have to die for you to live?” Melanie represents a new form of society that might supersede and replace the human. She comprehends her own posthuman subjectivity and the toxic hierarchies at work in the old world-order, and forcefully claims a new thinking, a new position – the truly posthuman thinking that Wolfe called for. Melanie dramatically points us to our own complicity with the old world and decides against it. As Victoria Carrington has pointed out, these children are “not human nor are they on … [a] journey towards (re)becoming human. These zombie children are an evolutionary leap. A new form of life suited to changed conditions”8Carrington, Victoria. “The ‘Next People’: And the Zombie Shall Inherit the Earth.” Generation Z: Zombies, Popular Culture and Education Youth, edited by Victoria Carrington et al., Springer, 2016, p. 32.. Carrington concludes: “What the humans perceived as ‘dead’ creatures are, in fact, the rise of the new world order“8Carrington, Victoria. “The ‘Next People’: And the Zombie Shall Inherit the Earth.” Generation Z: Zombies, Popular Culture and Education Youth, edited by Victoria Carrington et al., Springer, 2016, p. 32.. As a resolution, Melanie goes out into the night and decides to release more spores by igniting the seed pods of the fungus, which will infect the rest of humanity and clear the slate for the posthuman.

When confronted with the posthuman decision to live, the old order – represented in the film by Sergeant Parks, who is looking for Melanie and gets infected with the spores by accident – rightly believes the world has ended. What Parks does not realise is that it has only ended from his humanist and anthropocentric world view. From a critical posthumanist perspective, we might assume the opposite, as expressed by Melanie in her last words to him: “It’s not over. It’s just not yours anymore.”

When considering how biopunk might suggest methods for surviving the future, we can turn towards technocratic visions of pantropy, and designing ourselves anew; we might imagine human-animal hybrids, or animals genetically engineered to become what we need to survive; and we can be wary of the risks that our genetic impact might have on microbial life, and the ways we unintentionally impact the world and change it for the worse. But – and this, I would suggest as a hopeful rather than a bleak outlook – we might in the end steer towards a future that no longer contains just a world-for-us anymore and instead transition to what might be understood as a new posthuman world order. Methods for surviving the future might just be possible, even if they do not necessarily include our survival.

This paper was adapted from a talk at the Bluecoat in Liverpool on the occasion of Shezad Dawood’s Leviathan exhibition and a symposium entitled “Methods for Surviving the Future” on October 2nd, 2019. The material discussed here is taken in part from my book . Biopunk Dystopias: Genetic Engineering, Society, and Science Fiction, Liverpool UP, 2016.

About the Author

Dr Lars Schmeink is a cultural and media scholar working on science fiction and posthumanism in contemporary culture. He has written extensively on ‘biopunk’, a form of science fiction exploring the societal effects of biotechnology and genetic engineering. Dr Schmeink is the project lead for ‘Science Fiction’ in the ‘FutureWork’ initiative funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research. He is the author of Biopunk Dystopias: Genetic Engineering, Society and Science Fiction (2016, Liverpool UP), and the co-editor of Cyberpunk and Visual Culture (Routledge, 2018) and The Routledge Companion to Cyberpunk Culture (Routledge, 2020).