Tuesday 12 October 2010

Biopunk Interview with John Sundman

So I recently the chance to interview biopunk former indie extraordinaire author John Sundman, and I picked his brain on just what exactly biopunk was. Yes, I did say former indie - John has went mainstream, and bagged himself a publisher for Acts. Is a film deal in his future?
Who knows...

Edited: as John corrected in the comments, two of his books are still indie, so he's only a little mainstream, then... and I'm not suggesting mainstream is a bad thing. His book will hopefully now get the audience it deserves.

So, John, could you introduce yourself to my readers, and tell them about yourbooks?

I'm a 57 year old guy who lives on the island of Martha's Vineyard, 5 miles south of Cape Cod, Massachusetts. I'm a freelance technical writer, volunteer firefighter, food pantry worker and novelist. Before moving to the Vineyard I spent 15 years in the computer industry--in Massachusetts and in Silicon Valley (and on a seemingly infinite number of transcontinental airplane flights between them). Before that I studied agriculture and spent time in west Africa doing development work. Although I've lived in this fairly remote spot since 1994, I have had stints ranging from weeks to years working for high tech companies from the comfort of my living room, so altogether I've spent 25 years or so in or near the computer/software industry. I've also done plenty of low-tech work here on the island-- from truck driving to construction work to being a pallet jockey in a warehouse. In the unlikely event that that is not enough background, you can check out this recent interview with me on Jane Friedman's blog on Writer's Digest.

My first novel, Acts of the Apostles, is a geek/hacker thriller about nanomachines, neurobiology, Gulf War Syndrome, and a Silicon Valley messiah. The book it's most often compared to is Cryptonomicon, by Neal Stephenson, but it's really a thriller in the mold of The Bourne Identity or Day of the Jackal. Only, it's not about assassins, it's about little machines that rearrange your DNA and take over your mind.

My second book, a novella called Cheap Complex Devices, is about -- or pretends to be about--a storytelling contest between two artificial intelligence programs. It's similar in some ways to the novel Pale Fire, by Vladimir Nabokov, and it's deeply influenced by Douglas Hofstadter's book Goedel, Escher, Bach.

CCD is also kind of a metafictiony commentary on Acts of the Apostles; in fact, according to one interpretation, the novella Cheap Complex Devices is the output from the brain of a comatose character in Acts, as modulated by a computer with a faulty, self-aware floating point processor. In other words, it forms kind of a binary star system with the first book. This review, I think, gives a pretty good sense of what CCD is all about.

The Pains, also a novella, is an illustrated dystopian phantasmagoria that kind of re-imagines the story of Job --a decent man who is obscenely tormented by a cruel God or an indifferent universe, or whatever--in a world that is an amalgamation of Orwell's 1984 and Ronald Reagan's 1984 (and some weird place I went a long time ago after smoking some opiated hashish and drinking LSD-spiked sangria). In some ways The Pains is a meditation on chaos theory, and it's also kind of an oblique commentary on my other two books.

Although each book stands alone I consider them parts of a single work, which I call Mind over Matter.

The books are available for sale as printed books from my website and through Amazon, and as ebooks in a variety of formats from my website and Amazon and a bunch of other ebook distributors.

This interview is actually about the genre you write in: could you explain what biopunk is for people who have never heard of it?

Well, if "cyberpunk" is the genre that looks at digital systems from a hacker's point of view, then I guess biopunk looks at biological systems, and in particular, brains, from a hacker's point of view.

Hackers look at complex systems as challenges; they are things to be broken into and manipulated for personal gain, for political reasons, to fix things that are broken, for bragging rights, and, perhaps mainly, for fun.Most non-biohacker people make a distinction between, for example, living, carbon-based biological systems and silicon-based digital systems. Biopunks don't make that distinction. A system is just a system, and the question is, how do you hack it? Let's mix this frog genome with this butterfly genome and graft it into a cyborg! Cool, right? To most people the answer is, um, no. To a biohacker, the answer is, yes, cool!

Now if the system is, for example, *you*, your brain, you may like it just fine the way it is, and you may not want somebody else (where "somebody" might be the government or some squicky corporation) to hack it. So then the challenge becomes, How do I define who I am? How do I maintain the integrity of my system?Depending on their ethical stance, hackers don't always care who a system "belongs" to, they may even think that ownership is a bogus concept. Mountain climbers climb mountains "because they're there". Surfers surf waves "because they're there." Hackers hack systems "because they're there."

In Acts of the Apostles, there's talk of "biodigital convergance", in which the techniques of biology are increasingly brought into the digital realm, and biological approaches are brought to the digital realm. Consider, for example, the idea of an "artificial chromosome" that is designed on a computer and then built nucleotide by nucleotide in a submicroscopic factory and used to create a new form of life.

All of my novels deal with themes like these. In Acts of the Apostles the story is about nanomachines that manipulate DNA. In Cheap Complex Devices, it's never entirely clear who the storyteller is -- it might be a person, it might be a computer program, it might be a brain in a vat or even a swarm of bees. And at the center of The Pains there is a mysterious laboratory of frozen heads, which are probed and manipulated with (what I hope are) interesting and unexpected results.Still, I don't really consider myself a biopunk author (and I'm certainly not a biopunk or biohacker myself). I consider myself a modernist, or maybe a postmodernist novelist who writes about the concerns of our times in light of what modern science tells us about who and what we are, as human beings.

All meaningful literature, I think, examines the human condition with some seriousness of purpose. Maybe I've been contaminated by the hacker worldview, but I don't find it possible to write about the human condition without at least some acknowledgment that we are, in some ways, systems. We're chemical systems, we're biological systems, we're logical systems. What are the implications of this fact?For a non-fiction investigation of these topics, see my essay How I Decoded the Human Genome. (link at end)

Checking online, I see William Gibson's Neuromancer is touted as the father of biopunk. Which biopunk novels or films have influenced your work, and how?

As much as I like Gibson, I don't think he gets credit for creating biopunk. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein gets that honor. All biopunk is in some sense a variation on Frankenstein, so let's not disrespect Ms. Shelley! (And yes, Frankenstein does influence at least two of my books; in some ways all three of them.)

I did read Neuromancer before I ever set pen to paper as a novelist, but I'm not sure how much it influenced me. Frankly I had not read a whole lot of science fiction, or speculative fiction, before I accidentally became an SF writer.

Philip K. Dick is another pre-Gibson SF novelist who goes deep into bio-punkish territory. Among contemporary writers, I think China Mieville (Perdido Street Station, The Scar, etc) and Jeff Vandermeer (Veniss Underground, etc) are leading practitioners. Their most biopunkish books came out about the same time mine did, however, and I didn't read them until after I had written my books, so I don't claim them as influences.

My main influences, I think, come from another direction. Douglas Hofstadter's "Goedel, Escher, Bach" ("a metaphorical fugue on minds and machines in the spirit of Lewis Carroll") was a major influence; Hofstadter's concept of the "strange loop"

pervades all my books individually and the set of them as a whole.Similarly, self-aware novels of the kind analyzed by Robert Alter in his book "Partial Magic" have had a big influence on me.

Some of these are "modernist"-- Nabokov's Pale Fire was the direct model for Cheap Complex Devices. But self-aware books from all eras, such as Don Quixote, Tristram Shandy, Ulysses, Notes from Underground, and Heart of Darkness are the kind of ghosts that float in my mental space when I'm writing.

And for some reason the Jesus story as conveyed in the Christian Gospels keeps cropping up in my books. I have no idea why that is, other than, I guess, that's kind of a quintessential story that examines questions like "what does it mean to be good?", "what does it mean to be human?" and "what happens when we transcend our current biological constraints?". Which is not to say that my books are allegorical or anything like that; they're not. But I do have a deep fascination with questions how mind and matter relate to each other, and the Jesus story has that in spades.

You mentioned nanomachines amongst several other things there. Nano-machines is something darpa, as one example, is very interested in. Do you think its likely that we will see lots of the tech in your books come topass in real-life?

Nanotechnology, as a general field is already well established, although when I started writing Acts of the Apostles 15 years ago very few people had heard of the term and there were only a few books written on the subject. As for nanomachines that rearrange DNA in place -- like the "Feynman machines" of Acts of the Apostles: yes I think we'll see such things within a decade or so. Already there are programmable machines that can find specific DNA sequences. (That announcement was made just a few months ago, so I was a good decade ahead of the curve on that one.) As yet, I don't think there exists anything which can not only find a particular DNA sequence, but change it into something else. However I was chatting recently with Dr. George Church, director of the Center for Computational Genetics (a Harvard/MIT laboratory), and he said the the basic ideas in my book were not far off the mark at all, and that people were actively working on such things in laboratories around the world.

Now, the part about using such tools to create an Overmind? Well, that's pretty much hocu pocus, so I'm not counting on that too soon. Although, on the other hand, people ARE actively studying how to read minds by looking at brain activity. Once that happens, of course, we'll be in the proverbial "singularity" territory, which means that by definition what happens then will be incomprehensible to mere humans like us now.

In The Pains and Cheap Complex Devices I didn't really imagine any new technologies, I merely extrapolated from the ideas in Acts, took them to absurd extremes in order to get at their philosophical implications. In Cheap Complex Devices I was looking at some of the ideas from the field of artificial intelligence and what it means to be a self-aware system. In The Pains I was looking not only things like chaos theory and the nature of thought; I was also trying to understand the "imperative to control" that seems to be at the root of so many social systems. In The Pains, with its melting frozen heads and so forth, I was making fun of the whole Transhumanism movement because I think some of its premises are ridiculous. On the other hand, who knows? Maybe someday you will be able to freeze your head and reconstruct it molecule by molecule using nanomachines like those in Acts. So maybe my mockery is misplaced. If so, I probably won't live long enough to see it -- unless, of course, somebody freezes my head and then revives me centuries down the road just to prove to me that I was wrong.

In cyberpunk, the punk part refers to the dystopian future. The world that technology was supposed to improve has steadily gotten worse. Is therea part of biopunk that relates to the punk aspect?

Oh, absolutely! My books are dystopian and creepy as all get-out -- although I do try to make them "light" too. In a way, I think that I started writing novels because I was so uncomfortable with all the technological utopianism that I saw all around me -- this whole idea that "technology" will solve all of our problems. That's why my first book is called "Acts of the Apostles" -- the "apostles" in the book believe in their technology in the way that earlier peoples, and some varieties of religious people today, think that God will solve all of our problems -- if not in this life, then in the next.The malicious computer hacker creates malware for all kinds of reasons, from profit, to revenge, to sport, to the simple desire to fuck shit up. I don't see any reason to believe that the same kinds of impulses won't crop up when designer DNA and ab-initio life creation becomes commonplace. In fact this is the subject of the novel I'm working on now, Creation Science.

Touching on a question you yourself asked, from a biopunk point of view, what does it mean to be human?

Sorry, I'm going to take a pass on this one. As an artist, I think it's my job to ask hard and important questions in a way that will make people want to discuss and find answers for them. I'll leave the answering part for others. However, so as not to seem a total chicken-shit I won't cop out completely. If you read my two-part essay in Salon, "How I Decoded the
Human Genome", you'll see, at least, how I personally approach the question.


  1. Thanks for the opportunity. Please note. I think Undlerland press still qualifies as "indie"? If not, then nearly so. But anyway, I am still the publisher of my other two books (Cheap Complex Devices and The Pains), so I'm still squarely in the "indie" camp, yo!

    regards, jrs

  2. Well, that was just damn interesting all the way through. What a cool genre.

  3. @David isn't it? I'd never heard of it before meeting John, but it sounds fascinating.

  4. The ability to find a specific DNA sequence and replace it with another specific sequence has been around for a while now, if we're talking about, say, individual yeast cells. Doing it for every cell in the human body is more challenging, but the basic principle is the same.