Chapter 13. Do Biohackers Dream of GM Sheep?

Ryan Bethencourt

Where do we go to dream? It’s a question I asked myself as I heard the news about the FDA cracking down on 23andMe, a service that dared to dream outside of our regulatory system’s confines. As we travel down new and unexplored paths, where do we go to move away from the understandably conservative thinking of our industry and think about biotechnologies that will, as Astro Teller from Google X labs says, make a 10x improvement to our world? I grew up reading mind-expanding sci-fi from Asimov, Sagan, Bear, Heinlein, Egan, Stross, and many others, and yet I couldn’t find a list for those of us who wanted to dive deeper into the oddities and possible futures of the technology of life. So after a discussion with Kyle Taylor, the head scientist for Glowing Plants, in which we discussed one future possibility of engineering crops to grow on the surface of oceans to feed the hungry billions of the world, I thought it would be worth reaching out across the Web to compile a list of other future possible biotechnologies.

Hopefully some of the books and short stories in this list will help inspire the next generation of biohackers, scientists, and DIY biologists.

Short Stories

  • Ribofunk, by Paul Di Filippo, is an excellent short-story collection.
  • BioPunk, edited by Ra Page, is a short-story anthology penned by different authors. The short stories were commissioned to be based on actual current research, and authors were paired up with a scientist or ethicist that fact-checked the story and also provided a commentary. The stories were of varying quality and relevance, but it’s definitely an interesting concept.
  • Roo’d, by Joshua Klein. Cyberpunk meets DIYbio. It’s a self-published, CC book, and it’s better than some of the best authors in the same genre.
  • Chaff, by Greg Egan, is a biochemical warfare story that takes place in the Amazon.
  • For something a little different, "Genocide Man" is a webcomic story based on open source biotechnology that enabled various ideological groups to create designer plagues and super soldiers, wiping out most of the world’s population. The titular character is a rogue law enforcement agent whose job is to stop carriers of dangerous ideologies from committing genocide again by killing them all first. He has a portable lab the size of a large suitcase that can produce viruses tailored to only kill specific people or gene lines. Sounds intense and post apocalyptic, but could be a fun read!

Long Reads

  • Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley: the original biohacker sci-fi anthem, and it’s definitely worth a read!
  • Nexus and Crux, by Ramez Naam: hard bionanotech, and totally recommended.
  • The Windup Girl, by Paolo Bacigalupi. He does for biotech what William Gibson did for cyberspace with Neuromancer in 1984—it has changed the way some of us think about biology as a political technology completely. And it’s a great story (it won the Hugo and Nebula awards).
  • Oryx and Crake, by Margaret Atwood, is a dystopian novel set in a not-so-distant apocalyptic future in which mankind has been eradicated by the jealousy of one man.
  • Embassytown, by China Miéville, has a strong organic tech strand and was highly recommended.
  • Rule 34, by Charles Stross, has a synth-bio subplot.
  • Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick is the book that inspired Blade Runner. It’s a must-read classic!
  • Darwin’s Radio, by Greg Bear, is a fascinating idea based on the development of an endogenous virus that controls humanity’s evolution while in the womb.
  • Blood Music, by Greg Bear. This is what happens when you add human-level intelligence (or beyond) to cells. The world gets really weird and intriguing!
  • Altered Carbon, by Richard K. Morgan. A true inheritor of the cyberpunk genre and pure, hard-edged biotech sci-fi. If you want to glimpse into the possible future laced with substrate independent minds, genetically tailored and built bodies, and a world in which body swapping is the norm, this is the book!
  • Accelerando, by Charles Stross. Lots and lots of genetic engineering as we accelerate toward and past the technological singularity. It’s a wild ride!
  • Methuselah’s Children and Time Enough for Love, by Robert Heinlein. These two stories capture the earlier mentions of applying the tools of natural selection and Mendelian genetics to extend human lifespan into the hundreds of years and beyond.
  • Hyperion Cantos, by Dan Simmons, is a fascinating trip through the possible future of humanity’s directed evolution leading to a rainbow of different human races, many of which are designed to be able to survive in deep space.
  • Blindsight, by Peter Watts. Nominated for a Hugo award, a Campbell award, and a Locus Science Fiction award, this book covers both extraterrestrial biology and an offshoot of humanity.
  • The Breeds of Man, by F. M. Busby. A genetically engineered cure to the ravages of AIDS that leads to sterility, so a new genetically engineered version of humanity is developed, with a twist!
  • The Stars My Destination, by Alfred Bester, had some very interesting biotech details scattered through it and a sci-fi adaptation of the Count of Monte Cristo.
  • Ware Tetrology, by Rudy Rucker, is huge for biotech: it melds AI, evolution, tech, and biotech.
  • Deathworld, by Harry Harrison, had some mind-bending evolutionary implications in it.
  • Starseed Transmission, by Ken Carey, paints an amazing picture of a distant future (or parallel reality) where biotech exists on a much different level.
  • The Uplift War, by David Brin, was captivating, with the main concept focused on galactic civilizations using biotechnology to find near-sapient creatures and force them into full sentience.
  • The White Plague, by Frank Herbert, was one of the first books that featured a tailored viral plague, which inspired other authors to expand on his visions of the future.
  • The Child Garden, by Geoff Ryman Page, explores the positive use of viruses, to the point that biotech becomes the only tech.
  • Diaspora, by Greg Egan, is a journey through post-humanity’s future, when humanity has speciated into three distinct groups. It focuses on the nature of life and intelligence in a post-human future and is a must-read for those who want to glimpse what might be for minds that may exist in a substrate, independent way.
  • Rainbows End, by Vernor Vinge, has some very cool visions of large-scale genetic and molecular engineering.

Where do you go to dream of biotech futures to come? Tweet me (@ryanbethencourt) if you have any additional suggestions, and I hope you enjoy a few of the short stories and books on this list!

A special thanks to everyone who contributed suggestions and commentary, including: Andrew Hessel, Nathan McCorkle, Alexander Hollins, Gunther Mulder, Matthew Pocock, Andreas Stuermer, Will Canine, Paul Schroeer-Hannemann, Philipp Boeing, Mackenzie Cowell, Dr. Brian, Pat Moss, Jen Zariat, Jake Raden, Alex Hoekstra, Chris Folk, Xander Honkala, Kent Kemmish, Colin Ho, Jonathan Yankovich, Antony Evans, Ty Larson, Damon Millar, Lianne and Stephen Holmes, Richard Hodkinson, Gabriel Stempinski, Justin Dormandy, Keith Causey, and Alan Schunemann.