Take fourteen contemporary fiction writers and pair them with researchers working in diverse fields of bio-medical science; have the writers produce short stories dealing in the speculative ethical consequences of the research, from the utopian to the Frankensteinian; allow a dedicated researcher (or team of researchers) to respond to each story, highlighting technical details of the relevant field, and how prescient (or otherwise) they take the speculations to be. Such are the premises behind this new collection from Comma Press, and the result is a varied set of stories, dealing in everything from cross-species breeding, to animal activism seen from the perspective of a ‘liberated’ frog and the socio-economic repercussions of technologically augmented human bodies. However, for all the appeal of the subject matter, there are problems with the collection’s execution that conspire to leave a sense of something altogether too piecemeal.
Unfortunately, many of the stories (which range in length from 6-19 pages) are simply too short, leaving little room for development of themes and characters. Under different other circumstances, this could be overlooked but not in a collection that sets out to explore big dilemmas at the cutting edge of contemporary science. More problematically, just who the stories address is difficult to say; some of the them are very didactic (for example, Jane Rogers’ ‘Dinner at High Table’), but one is left to wonder who is being taught the lesson. Given the room for sprawling narratives and moral ambiguity that science fiction affords, I certainly can’t imagine the average fan of that genre having much patience with this kind of approach. And while I can imagine high-school ethics classes being made to discuss the issues raised, I’m not certain many of the stories will have sufficient impact to carry the discussion beyond the classroom.
That said, several pieces rise above these problems. Jane Feaver’s story ‘The Challenge’ (the longest in the collection) includes believable characters and a collision between one narrative focused on medical testing and another on the loss of a relative; it skilfully makes an issue of the human capacity to deal with the unexpected. Toby’s Litt’s ‘Call it ‘The Bug’’ is the most experimental story, somewhere between a confessional letter and an homage to Philip K. Dick, hitting the mark for inventiveness. K.J. Orr’s ‘Elegy for a Bio-Pirate’ is descriptively impressive, charting the difficult balance between a developed sense of mise en scene and the economy of words afforded it. Special mention should also go to Nihal Engin Vrana’s afterword on body-modification – it goes well beyond the scope of the other scientific reflections, most of which are unfortunately too fleeting to have much of an impact.
On initial reading of this collection, a thought occurred that proved difficult to shake. Subsequent re-readings shifted it somewhat but not entirely. Quite simply, is this collection an attempt to “justify” the speculative power of science-fiction? If so, then that must represent a deeply problematic undertaking because harnessing that generic potential to ulterior motives all too often deadens the work totally (I recall similar uneasiness when reading Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go). If, on the other hand, Bio-Punk is not attempting ‘justification’, then there are many other works that do more exciting things with the genre’s speculative power – short stories like Vonnegut’s ‘Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow’ are funnier, Jünger’s The Glass Bees crazier, and Houellebecq’s stories fire in more nihilistic directions (Atomised and The Possibility of an Island, most obviously). Perhaps it is wrong-headed to compare Bio-Punk to such heavy-hitters, but it is the latter that strike me as considerably more ‘punk’ – in reading them, the question of justification is never raised.