It bewilders me that people see a strict separation between the subgenres of biopunk and cyberpunk. Cyberpunk fiction has always had a healthy dose of biological technology. For visual media, sound examples are Blade Runner (Ridley Scott) and Videodrome (David Cronenberg). For written media, good examples are Dr. Adder (K. W. Jeter), Wetware (Rudy Rucker), Schismatrix (Bruce Sterling), and Blood Music (Greg Bear). All of this media was released in the 1980s, and all of it was considered cyberpunk until veteran cyberpunk author, Paul Di Filippo, wrote something called the Ribofunk Manifesto. To quote an interview with Filippo by Locus Magazine in 2003,
“I began to see drawbacks or blind spots in the cyberpunk worldview. To be kind of silly or parodic about the whole thing, I coined the term ‘ribofunk’ — ‘ribo’ out of biology (the ribosome) and then another musical form, ‘funk’ instead of ‘punk’ — and made a little Xerox manifesto, tongue-in-cheek at this point. Then I was infected by my own idea, my own joke, and I started to do a bunch of stories that were later collected in Ribofunk.”
Paul Di Filippo was not the only one to be infected with his idea. To an extent, ribofunk/biopunk grew out of a similar frustration which created cyberpunk in the first place. Cyberpunk arose out of disenfranchisement with traditional science fiction stories where spaceships with gleaming halls carrying swashbuckling scientists to fight psychic aliens had become a kind of norm. The cyberpunks wanted a kind of science fiction that was on the street level, where you could see the dirt. These punk elements were more realistic, especially in the 1980s, than the utopian visions like Star Trek.
Biopunk’s disenfranchisement came out of the tropes that had come to be associated with the cyberpunk movement, outlandish leather-clad cyborg anti-heroes walking rain-slicked streets, while neon gleamed off chrome. Filippo expresses this, in the Ribofunk Manifesto, with his description of what Ribofunk’s style should consist of:
Ribofunk must be as sensual as sex, as unsparing in sweat, cum, bile and lymph as the the body is prolific in these substances.
and from a 1996 interview with Wired,
The funk style – a hot skittery style in contrast to the more laid-back, cerebral style that you might find in some cyberpunk – ties in naturally with the whole biological revolution.
As I’ve already pointed out, these things already existed in cyberpunk from the very beginning. Dr. Adder certainly fits this description and is arguably the first cyberpunk novel, having been finished in 1974, but considered unpublishable until the advent of Neuromancer (William Gibson). The book opens with the protagonist having sex with genetically modified sex chickens, which also provide giant eggs to the populace of Los Angeles. How’s that for body fluids?
This bio-veneer has been pulled over great works of cyberpunk media, artificially distancing them from the cyberpunk movement where they fit in perfectly. Examples of this are Dark Angel, Orphan Black, Existenz, The Windup Girl, and The Repossession Mambo (which spawned two movies). Orphan Black, for instance, from its very first season establishes mega-corporation control over clones, with transhumanist intentions. Take out clones and make that a computer chip, and no one would deny that it is cyberpunk and neither should we. They do that in season four by the way; Orphan Black is not biopunk. It is cyberpunk that has been bungled up in flesh and body fluids, Videodrome or Existenz anyone?
Cyberpunk has been succinctly defined as “High Tech, Low Life.” High Tech doesn’t have to mean electronics; biotechnology is equally “High Tech.” The Low Life aspect almost never comes into question, thus the remaining -punk suffix. This is not to say that all genres that share the -punk suffix are cyberpunk. Steampunk (although a compelling argument could be made for William Gibson and Bruce Sterling’s The Difference Engine), atompunk, dieselpunk, elfpunk, etc.to, definitely are not. These subgenres are all fixed in retro-futuristic worlds that are fantastical and rooted in alternate histories. Cyberpunk and biopunk are rooted in OUR future and never were retro-futures, although we caught with them. Cyberpunk (that isn’t satirical) and biopunk being written today is still set in the future. So everyone, grab your bio-computer, don your vat grown leather jacket, double check that cyberjack, and head out into the neon-lit streets.