Craig DiLouie celebrates the big ideas of this biopunk collection
Biopunk’s not dead! Craig DiLouie looks back at Sisyphean.
Japanese author Dempow Torishima’s biopunk novella collection Sisyphean offers a Kafkaesque and titillating vision of genetic engineering and post-humanism. Translated into English by Daniel Huddleston, this work stands out for big ideas, amazingly immersive world-building, and grotesque body horror. It may or may not be destined to be a classic, but it has the elements of a cult classic.
Sisyphean imagines a future far beyond our raw beginnings, resulting in extreme diversity in humanity as well as customised life forms harvested for labour, food, furniture, tools, housing and even space colonisation. In this universe, life is both technology and economy, and humanity is literally what you make of it. Torishima’s imagination gives us controlled evolution without end, producing a future humanity we’d find repulsively alien today, though one we might still recognise as all too human. Grotesque but familiar.
In the title story, a purpose-built genetic technician is continually reborn in a facility to manufacture flesh and bone for rich clients seeking form. This work is performed under the oppressive supervision of the President, an amorphous being called an advanced human. The worker questions who he is and where he came from with horrible consequences, as original thought triggers biological fail-safes designed to ensure subjugation.
In the next story, “Cavumville,” a student lives in a town under a biodome on a moon, where the culture and economy is based on harvesting vast menageries of animals that periodically rain from the sky. Everything is fashioned from the animals, such as teaching boards constructed of skin. And everybody in the town is reborn into a new mutated form after death. The student hopes to learn why the townsfolk are reborn.
The rest of these stories continue in the same vein, interlinked while being tied together by several significant themes. In each story, transhumans express desires such as love and power and survival and meaning, try to rediscover their society’s forgotten origins, and challenge accepted truths and societal equilibrium at the risk of punishment for heresy. All against a backdrop of seething flesh, competing life and the distinctly alien.
With its strange cultural practices, visceral body horror, and unfamiliar terms both real and imagined, Sisyphean can be a challenging read even for the dedicated. Something strange (and often disturbing) is always happening, and it’s described in dense vernacular native to the universe, kind of like a biopunk A Clockwork Orange or Ulysses. At times, the story can be quite opaque, and the reader ends up sensing rather than comprehending meaning, as if reading through osmosis. Torishima’s world asks readers to accept it on its own terms.
Sisyphean is demanding but rewarding. It shows us a future in which genetic engineering has changed humanity while keeping what it means to be human. Where flesh is machine, and the soul resides on a machine buried inside changing forms. Strange, immersive, and thought-provoking, it shows what sci-fi can and arguably should do, which is dream big, break boundaries, imagine new worlds, and plant readers in a powerful experience.
One of Us by Craig DiLouie is out now.