Give Me A Biotech Apocalypse That I Can Believe In

Illustration for article titled Give Me A Biotech Apocalypse That I Can Believe In

So Hollywood trashed the world in 2012, and scourged it in The Road. But neither apocalypse delivered the sweet tang of satisfaction. That's because what the Earth needs now are life-distorting biotech mutation stories. Here's why.


First of all, there haven't been very many biotech apocalypse flicks at all, even though genetic engineering and other genome/proteome-based weirdness are freaking everybody out in the pop science media. Possibly 28 Days Later is the iconic example of a biotech apocalypse, since it's a human-made virus that unleashes the zombie hoardes. But honestly, we can do better than plagues - we've all seen those before. Besides, the upcoming World War Z movie is probably going to hold the whole plague subgenre hostage to its awesomeness next year.

So what would have to happen to produce a really great biotech apocalypse that wasn't just a virus scare with zombies that made us all think disappointedly of I Am Legend?


First of all, the biotech armageddon would have to affect the entire biosphere, not just humans. When it comes to imagining this scenario I always think of Kathleen Ann Goonan's Jazz Quintet novels, which begin with Queen City Jazz. She creates a future where many people move into biotech cities whose entire infrastructure is mutable and organic - genetically-engineered bees keep the cities "growing" by fertilizing the buildings, which are actually giant wildflowers. The problem comes when the city itself is infested with a virus that causes its entire fabric to remake itself to resemble stories from files stored in the city's library. What if your city decided that it wanted to be a film noir Paris, and then reprogrammed every person and building to emulate that (fictional) place?

If you wanted to go even weirder, visit the scenarios that Rudy Rucker comes up with in Hylozoic, where every object on the planet becomes sentient. Suddenly you are having an emotional relationship with your telephone, which has a lot of opinions about how you've abused it in the past.

I'm not saying we need movie versions of these books, though that might be nice if done by the right people. What we need is for mainstream media to catch up to what is happening in literature and in the lab.

Though I wasn't entirely crazy about Minority Report, one thing that film got right was its emphasis on believable technology. The filmmakers went to MIT, checked out labs where futuristic computer interfaces and biotech are being invented, and incorporated them into the film. I'd love to see the movie that got made after some filmmakers spent some time hanging out at the Department of Energy's Genome Research Institute, or the Max Planck Institute in Europe - or, hell, how about just reading even one essay by Drew Endy? In fact, you don't have to read - you can just watch him talk about synthetic biology here:


If researchers can genetically-engineer bacteria whose behavior changes with a flash of light, or build poplars that contain termite genes so that they break down into ethanol more easily, imagine what kind of apocalypse we're facing. That's right - it's not necessarily an apocalypse at all. It's simply a world packed with flora and fauna we couldn't possibly recognize today. In her novels Oryx and Crake and Year of the Flood, Margaret Atwood imagines that this will result in creepy half-human pigs and sheep who sprout human hair that can be sold as wigs. There is something admittedly horrifying about the idea that humanity could reshape the biosphere in its greedy, simian image. What marks the biotech apocalypse is that it's a scenario where life as we know it doesn't end - it turns into new forms of life.


What I'm saying is that I want to see stories where synthetic biology generates cities and technologies like the ones Jeff VanderMeer imagined in his recent novel Finch, where spore people grow buildings and guns from mushrooms. And I want these tales to do what few apocalyptic tales have dared to do: Explore what it means when what has been destroyed isn't the world, but instead just one instance of the world.

One of the most basic truths we learn from evolutionary theory and geology is that the world we live in - the one whose climate and landmasses we fuss about endlessly - is in fact just one version of Earth. For a long period, Earth had a different set of gasses in its atmosphere, and all life lived in the seas. The composition of our biosphere and state of our climate has changed dramatically over the millennia. C'mon Hollywood - give us a story where the world doesn't suffer apocalyptic death, but instead a dramatic rebirth. One that begins in our nanoscopic genomes, not in mega-explosions.


Image via Yanko Design

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Try reading the book "Hot Zone." I can honestly say that while I read that book I hardly slept at all. It's real and it's scary.