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Lars Schmeink, Biopunk Dystopias: Genetic Engineering, Society and Science Fiction (Liverpool University Press, 2016, 288 pp, £26)

Reviewed by Fabio Fernandes


Schmeink begins his study by quoting J.B.S. Haldane when, in 1923, he claimed that biology would be the next big thing after aviation and radiotelegraphy. Mentioning the Human Genome Project and the Transhumanist Declaration of 1998, Schmeink charts the cultural history of that paradigmatic shift, starting with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818). Schmeink regards the rise of biopunk as a symptom of what Zygmunt Bauman terms ‘liquid modernity’, a posthumanist critique of an ‘already dystopian’ present, in which the ‘future will only get worse, and that society needs to reverse its path, or else destroy all life on this planet.’

Chapter three offers a comparison of two literary narratives: Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy (2003-13) and Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl (2009). Both authors have created scenarios wherein capitalism has run its course to exhaustion, leading to global ecocatastrophe and the development of transgenic species. Schmeink explores variously how the change of beauty standards calls for tinkering with the human body in order to justify the creation of more services related to fitness and beauty products, as well as the introduction of transgenic species for specific purposes, such as transportation, production of goods and food. This also entails the possibility of hybrids with a mixture of human and animal DNA.

Schmeink takes up this theme in chapter four, in which he compares the Human Genome Project with Eduardo Kac’s artistic interventions, before offering an in-depth analysis of the movie Splice (2009). A brief mention of Donna Haraway’s ‘Cyborg Manifesto’, however, only emphasises the extent to which he chooses to ignore her analysis of Foucauldian biopolitics. Biopunk could be regarded as opposing the cyborg concept, but instead of viewing it as a critical response to the work of Haraway and N. Katherine Hayles, he chooses not to pursue this line of thought via his adherence to Bauman. This is particularly so, in chapter five, when Schmeink examines the videogame, Bioshock, arguably the quintessential textbook case for biopolitics seen from a Marxian perspective. This is not to say, however, that Schmeink’s analysis does not have its moments: the inclusion of Ian Bogost’s concept of ‘procedural rhetorical frame’, which entails persuasion by making the player enact the ideology of the game, is also of great importance to understanding the biopolitics of Bioshock.

Chapter six focuses almost exclusively on the TV show Heroes (2006-10), although only its first season was of any innovative narrative value. By contrast, the long-running X-Men, dealt with in a footnote, would have been a better choice. Odder still is the final chapter in which Schmeink chooses to analyse a special issue of the International Journal of Politics, Culture, and Society, titled ‘The New Sociological Imagination’. The issue, he explains, was scheduled for publication around the end of 2001, but it was delayed by the 9/11 attacks carried out in the US. The essays had a positive view of the new millennium that collided with the pessimistic views of a post-9/11 historical reality related to terror: ‘In 2005 the essays appeared nonetheless, accompanied by explications of the shifting realities of the historical moment: What had changed from pre- to post-9/11, and how did this influence sociology?’ He then proceeds to quote other authors of the essays who mention the zombie as a symbol – or a symptom, according to Elizabeth McAlister – of ‘an apocalyptic undoing of the social order’. But also of ‘numerous critical analyses linking the zombie to slave labor, colonialism, capitalism, consumerism, dehumanization, xenophobia, ecocriticism, social crisis, and lately viral networks such as media, disease, and globalization.’

But what are Schmeink’s goals with this final chapter in the context of the book’s project? The wide scope of definitions here doesn’t seem to be very effective. He writes of a ‘Zombie Renaissance’, exemplified by movies such as Resident Evil and 28 Days Later (both 2002), and the TV series The Walking Dead (2010-). For him, ‘their [collective] innovative take on the zombies’ allowed ‘for liquid modern anxieties (as expressed by Bauman before 9/11) to meld with an uncertain posthuman condition, in order to produce critical dystopian imaginations of biopunk futures’. Schmeink’s take on this seem to be about fear of the Other, which ends up being reasonably enlightening when he talks about infection as a biopunk trope and the collapse of physical or social boundaries.

Despite the book’s flaws, the conclusion is satisfying, giving the reader food for thought about ‘genohype’ with reference to scare stories about DNA hacking and genetic determinism. Both the introduction and the conclusion keep a tight focus on biopunk as involving bioethical issues and hinting at a biopolitical approach that could have been put to good use in the chapters.

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