Space colonization, resurrection of ancient species (read dinosaurs) and mind-boggling machine intelligences, the most awe-inspiring visions of humanity's future are typically born from science fiction: that magical blend of captivating, often non-human heroes and the wild strangeness of a new world. Seemingly foreign, yet, all too familiar.
Science needs science fiction to inspire the next generation of scientists, especially as we've entered the century of biotech (I may be biased on that). Yet biotech remains underrepresented in the genre among an abundance of time travel, superheroes, space adventures and so forth, (which are great, too!). Hence, this selection highlights some outstanding works (new and not so new) I’ve recently enjoyed reading to fill in the gap for biotech aficionados.
1. The New Weird: In Borne by Jeff VanderMeer, biotech is a magic power
VanderMeer of Southern Reach fame, an eco-sci fi trilogy of which Annihilation just made its Netflix debut, is a unique novelist. His work blends the technology backdrop of science fiction with once endearing, once horrifying fantasy creatures in delightfully weird ways and wraps them all into a fast-paced story funnel infused with elements of mystery, action and surrealism alike. Readers of Franz Kafka and H.P. Lovecraft might enjoy it especially. The novel climaxes in a somewhat cosmic finale, which works surprisingly well (no spoilers, but you’ll see what I mean!).
The world grown from the petridish of VanderMeers imagination reveals a post-apocalyptic wasteland, over which the now-defunct biotech conglomerate simply called “The Company”, presides. Its magic power, genetic engineering that is, has blossomed in all its wonderfully peculiar and bloodlusty ways with a life - and a mind - of its own. Its products lurk in the niches of a hostile topology laid bare and roamed by all sorts of chimeras: from savage feral children, a magician and proxys of the ferocious ruler and simultaneous victim - the giant flying bear (yes, a flying bear!) Mord.
We follow the protagonist Rachel, a scavenger, who plucks a mysterious organism (a GMO to put all GMOs to shame, really) from the fur of sleeping Mord and names it, well, Borne. The genre-bending creature turns out to be a nonhuman sentience in the shape of a polymorphous blob “like a hybrid of sea anemone and squid: a sleek vase with rippling colours that strayed from purple toward deep blues and sea greens”.
Rachel becomes its mother, nurtures him (she calls it a he), educates him, but Borne’s already a learning machine…and as it turns out, an eating machine, too, with increasing appetite. The endearing “growing up” phase rapidly tightens around the explosive triangle of Rachel’s jealous companion Wick and the deepening mysteries about Borne.
Tensions broil up quickly, as Wick, in contrast, starts to ponder Borne as a molecular ingredient to his work: making “memory beetles” in his DIY swimming pool lab. The beetles are just some of many fanciful biotech products, like “diagnostic worms”, which have become engrained in human life and vice-versa.
And so their hideout, the Balcony Cliffs, rapidly turns into a pressure cooker of secrets, as the world around them spirals out of control and its creatures come crushing down on them in all their viciousness. I loved the scene where Rachel and Borne run into a pack of ruthless Mord proxies on a scavenging mission, because what Borne choses to do is fascinating (still no spoilers!).
The detail-rich story is a tour de force of imagination nestled between science fiction and science fantasy, the realm where everything is possible. The elements of the potion certainly work their magic beautifully.
The book is available here.
2. The 'Netflix and Chill' one: Altered Carbon by Richard Morgan brings you digital brain backups
In lieu of an Altered Carbon Netflix binge, you might want to indulge in the original novel from 2002. Richard Morgan’s neo-noir cyberpunk detective story is set in the far future and explores timely themes of posthumanism extending far beyond a mere whodunnit/sci-fi crossover.
Morgan’s Tomorrowland is as astonishing as it is stealthily addictive. It posits a high-tech world over which the “meths” (short for Methuselah) are reigning, whose power, webs of self-centeredness and lifespan, know no limits (almost a bit vampiresque). The lead Takeshi Kovacs is an ex-UN envoy (read elite, augmented government soldier) and a native of Harlan's World (a planet far, far away), who, after his last death, finds himself brought back in new body in Bay City (formerly San Francisco).
The story’s central technology is the re-sleeving of people, whereby the backup of their consciousness is restored from an implanted cortical stack (or remote storage for the wealthy) and re-booted in a new body (the “sleeve”) - for a fee of course. Unsurprisingly, the sleeves come in a wide range of different qualities with according price tags. Dying is for the poor and in Altered Carbon, that means most people. The murder victim in this detective story though isn’t dead, but still very much alive, albeit memory-impaired: He’s the most prominent “meth”, Laurens Bancroft. He hires Kovacs to investigate his own murder.
As Kovacs embarks on his perilous plight to uncover the clues, the story delves deeper into the large-scale social injustice wrought upon society by the “meths”. As it turns out, they are impelled by a bloodlust that’s at once extravagant and savage, paired with the means to indulge in it. As one can ponder, it might, at some point, become slightly boring to live forever.
The novel shines a harsh neon-light onto the steely coldness of the ruling class, while the story is popping with funky ideas, which on their own, would make for an entertaining, yet considerate read. For instance, there is the AI-run hotel named Hendrix (with stark differences to the one in the Netflix series), a twisty, psychedelia-inspired establishment with rooms named after Jimmy Hendrix songs.
Genre readers will be pleased with the familiar violence-filled grittiness (there's also some stomach-turning torture in VR) that emanciates from the ad-plastered skyscrapers of the vertical city, while Kovacs represents the genre’s go-to chrome-hard-boiled detective bearing a secret soft spot nestled somewhere beyond his scarred, muscly chest.
One weakness of the book that the show has addressed to a good extent is the lack of agency of female characters and marginalization of people of color. The strong adherence to genre tropes appears programmatic at times, but is mostly integral to keep the story moving. Whether or not you’ve already seen the series, it’s a must read and there are a great many differences between the show and the book!
You can get the book here.
3. The masterful debut: Autonomous by Annalee Newitz unleashes the biohacking spirit
The novel is penned by the founding editor of the science fiction and tech website Io9, and is also known for her non-fiction and short stories. Her debut novel, one of the strongest of the year, draws you in with a fast-paced and action-laden plot, yet strikes the balance with its complex and flawed characters in the grim landscape of the devastation of humanity’s autonomy.
In a world ruled by radical capitalism, a patent war has escalated to create a world of healthy have’s and sickly have not’s, enforced by the IPC, the International Property Coalition. The latter require neuro-enhancing drugs to be able to perform their jobs, struggling to free themselves of indendured servitude, not that much different from the bots. No doubt, the story draws heavily from our present reality to create an extrapolated contemporary reality, rather than far-fetched fictional dystopia.
Idealistic biohacker Judith “Jack” Chen is roaming the world on her patent pirate submarine, driven to reverse-engineer drugs for people in need. But worrisome news emerge about a batch of Zacuity, the popular productivity pill, possibly her batch! Some users have worked themselves literally to death, addicted to work. At first, she’s devastated by guilt and sets out to find an antidote. But then, Zach uncovers new clues that spark a horrific suspicion: Was it really her pills or the original product of the big pharma megacorp Zaxy, which caused these deaths? We follow Zach through Las Vegas, the Arctic and Casablanca to find out.
The story encapsulates (no pun intended) gender identity, biohacking and AI as well as the idea on commoditization of humans and emancipation, for instance, from the “franchise” system, which has replaced human rights. Newitz builds a detailed world, a playground to explore the greyscales of self-justification, interwoven into hackerculture galore.
The book ends in narrative closure and yet, with intent, the grim unresolvedness of the towering large-scale problems offers an authentic, rather than simplistic resolve, which would undermine the complexity and scale of the world drawn. This leaves us instead with the skillfully created crushing sense of powerlessness of the fight. Blurbs by William Gibson and Neil Stephenson (his book is reviewed further below) set the right tone for an excellent read.
You can get it here.
4. The Blockbuster: The Martian by Andy Weir teaches you botany in space
The former computer engineer turned indie writer turned bestselling scifi author Andy Weir tells in this geeky survival space thriller the story of Mark Watney. From its origins of a self-published online serial novel, Weir built a passionate, growing fanbase , so much that it garnered the attention of Crown Publishing - and the rest is not only literary, but also cinematic history (unless you’ve been living under a Martian rock, of course).
Mark is our good-spirited protagonist, a NASA astronaut stranded on Mars alone after his crew left him after an accident, convinced he was dead. But quickly we learn what Mark is made of - the drive to make it home alive is his fuel. His survival instinct knows no bounds, nor does his knowledge of botany and mechanical engineering, which is his weapon of choice in this fight, as he famously realizes “I am going to have to science the sh** out of this.”
And so he’s faced with the crushingly insurmountable mission of colonizing the red planet, building an organic, closed-loop farm to sustain his live, while establishing communication with the home base and building a spacecraft of some sorts. Packaging up the organic matter churned out by his digestive system as soil fertilizer, is only the first “hack” that makes the gravitas of the meme-worthy phrase all the more literal. As his crew ultimately learns about his survival, their desperate endeavour to bring him back to Earth begins - behind the back of NASA’s upper echelons, who want this unfortunate accident forgotten.
This is a story about unleashing human ingenuity in the most dire of circumstances, MacGyver on Mars. The spare glimpses of emotional deep dive are outweighted by lengthy technical passages, making it perfect for readers of hard science fiction and those, who enjoy some learning while reading.
It is nothing short of a packing plot, though. The Martian pairs the throat-grabbing sense of desperate isolation in the rather unfriendly Martian wilderness with the portrayal of interstellar collaboration amid chaos with a truly nail-biting finale.
Thanks to an inclusive narrative style and humor amidst a bit of technobabble, one cannot help but root for Mark, for his win is a win for humanity and all of us!
You can get your copy from Amazon here.
5. The Cyberpunk Titan: Snow Crash by Neil Stephenson makes you wonder about viruses
Stephenson is a veteran author, breaking into cyberpunk’s realm with his new hard science fiction book. The story is set in a future megacity-state “the size of a dozen Manhattans” and its “burbclaves” (inspired by suburbia’s gated communities), whose residents have become fully immersed, if not absorbed entirely, by the permanent virtual reality scape Metaverse.
A high-tech wonderland to roam free as avatars in relief of the high-tech low-life in a branded city, a franchised dystopia that Stephenson superimposes with an ancient filter made of anthropology, linguistics and religion (as cyberpunk works tend to). Everything is a form of language and languages are code and code..triggers things. Snow Crash is a mysterious computer virus that is haunting the Metaverse , the books own version of the cyberspace, in this case an advanced, wireless VR-based internet, that couldn’t be more timely, as the world’s tech titans are competing to re-shape our experience of the internet.
It opens with an action-heavy car-chase scene, which introduces Hiro Protagonist, a sort of freelance pizza delivery driver and hacker. As you guess correctly, he’s the hero protagonist of the story. At the end of the opening, he gets a sidekick and a virus breaks loose from a file he obtains, propelling the story forward.
He will become somewhat of a central node assembling files (for instance named “Babel”, given to him by his ex-girlfriend), information and other cues to track down the source of the virus, while escaping the clutches of grimey Mafiosos (and his employer), who operate like a franchise chain. To some readers, the cyberpunk tropes might be too on-the-nose, while others might view it as a cyberpunk parody. No matter which view you side with, this is a read worthy of your time.
It's available here.
Stay tuned for the next blog posts. You can always sign up here, so you don’t miss any news! If you’re looking for something shorter, perhaps for your commute, feel free to have a look at my cyberpunk-ish story Replicon.
Thanks for reading, space travelers and let me know in the comments or on socials, if you’ve discovered a great book you think I should feature!
This blog explores how digital biology and emerging technologies like machine intelligence are ushering in new futures and features some scifi and biohacking, too.