Sunday, April 14, 2013

Biopunk -- the short stories of Anastasia Leach


This week, Belfort and Bastion is proud to announce a new book, Prometheans, a collection of short stories by the talented Anastasia Leach. You can see it here.

This will be Anastasia's first book-length publication. For us, however, it will also be a major departure. This is our first book in the field of biopunk fiction.

What's that you ask? Good question. The answer we'll provide is one we've taken from the ever useful Wikipedia, "Biopunk (a portmanteau synthesizing "biotechnology" and "punk") is a technoprogressive movement advocating open access to genetic information… Biopunk hobbyists or biohackers experiment with DNA and other aspects of genetics."

You read that right. Biopunks, biohackers, and DIYbio fans "hack" the stuff of life itself. They work with the code of the cell, DNA, as computer hackers work with software. These people are real. They are serious. They have labs at Universities, kitchen sinks, and basements across the world.

Biopunk science fiction, meanwhile, considers the implications of all that.


We'll go a bit more into biopunk later. (Who knows? Perhaps, if we beg hard enough, we'll get Anastasia to write something on the subject herself.)

But, let's turn now to the book, Prometheans. It contains four thought-provoking stories and the best way to describe them is probably just to reproduce the book's cover language. Ergo:

*"Prometheans"— The good news: you may be immortal. The bad news: everyone wants a piece of you, the literal kind.

*"A Happy Place"— The Geiste are quantum minds in human bodies. In theory, they should be a thriving blend of both. In practice...

*"Colony"—There is something alive in the dark water. But, not to worry, it's only looking for a home.

*"The Mentor"— A kid with a knack for synthetic biology has a girl to impress and a bully to deal with. What can possibly go wrong?

Each of these looks at some aspect of the world that is almost certainly coming—whether it be contact with alien life forms, the consequences of the widespread knowledge of the techniques of genetic engineering, or the results of human-machine hybridization. Not to provide any spoilers, but it will give you some idea of the range of these tales that they include everything from radical human mutation to a new profession, i.e. psychotherapy for artificial minds.


And Belfort and Bastion is particularly proud to have Prometheans in its catalog. First and foremost that's because we're delighted to have Anastasia writing for us. She is simply damn good. In fact, she may prove to be that illusive thing, a major talent. (Yes, we know that's what every publisher says about all its writers. But, in this case, there's a real chance it is true.)

Also, we're pleased because she has elected to write in the biopunk genre. Oh, she isn't restricted to it. She writes other material as well. If we're fortunate, we'll get a chance to publish some of her efforts in those other fields. Stay tuned for future developments.

 But, that a writer of such skill has turned to biopunk is important. Frankly, we…and here "we" means us all, the whole human race…need such people. We need articulate, intelligent, thoughtful individuals who can direct our attention to the rapid developing world of biotech, biopunk, biohacking, DIYbio, and all the rest.

Think about it. In just the last few decades…actually, in just the last few years… we have gained the power to do things with life that were once unthinkable. We can now modify DNA. We can create living things that have never existed before, ever, anywhere, and any time. We have learned to use the fundamental building blocks of life as tools for our purposes.

Mind you, these powers…godlike and fearsome…are not restricted to the few and the mighty. We're not just talking governments and giant corporations. Small companies can do it. Small research organizations can. Small labs, too. Indeed, today, almost anyone, in any laboratory, anywhere, can do all of the above and much more.

And, everywhere, there is springing up a generation of biohackers, individuals who have learned or taught themselves the arts manipulating life itself.

Consider the meaning of that. We hear endless discussion, warnings, and Jeremiads on the dangers posed by cyber criminals and terrorists. Now and then we get news of some individual who has attempted to develop a nuclear reactor or a dirty bomb in his backyard. We read, then, many strident editorials in important publications about how We View With Alarm These Developments.

But, you don't hear much about biohacking. It is almost unknown outside of a very small circle.

Yet, which would have the greatest effect? The hacker who penetrates the firewall and humiliates a few MBAs? Or the biohacker, from whose lab comes something…whether microbe or superman…which could reshape the very nature of humanity?


So that's why need biopunk writers. And good ones. We need someone to ask right now what will important questions. What will it mean when any bright high school kid can reprogram living beings? When any halfway competent lab tech could create synthetic beings in a test tube? When any fanatic in a backroom can construct a virus more potent than AIDS, more virulent than plague?

We need people like Anastasia to help explore these issues. To confront us with them. To make us ask "What are we going to do?"

And, oh, by the way, the one thing we cannot do is avoid the world that Anastasia writes about. We can't somehow pass laws against it. We can't stop the dispersal of information. Already, the tools and the knowledge of biohacking are too widespread. The genie is not going into its bottle anytime soon.

In short, as a culture, we must remember a certain myth. We must recall the Titan who stole fire from heaven and gave it to a sad and shivering humanity. The Titan was punished by the gods, but what he'd done could not be undone. The balance of power between mortal and divine was forever shifted. The flaming sword was already in the hands of Man.

In other words, we …and particularly our Leaders…must recall that Prometheans already walk among us.

Let us hope that Anastasia and others like her will be heard. And listened to.


Monday, April 1, 2013

Something For Everything by Robert L. Folkner


This month, Belfort and Bastion is proud to announce a new book and a new writer. The former is Something For Everything and the latter is Robert L. Folkner.

So what's the novel about? Ah, that's complicated. In some ways, it's Faust. In others, though…

Well, let's just say that this is a subtle bit of social criticism. And very, very potent.


When Folkner first approached us with the book, 'twas I who got the job of shepherding the manuscript through development. As I understood the pitch, it was a of reworking of the Faust story, but with the main characters being teenagers—sort of Goethe for the Young Adult Fiction market. And that's a good thing. Every publisher worth its salt is busy looking for the next R.L. Stine.

But then I got the manuscript. And, guess what…I had completely misjudged the work and its creator. Oh, Faust was there, no doubt. Something for Everything tells us the story of two young men, Bradley Hollenger and Ricky Stromberg, living in a rust belt city and dreaming of better things, even as they are all too clearly fated for lives of dreary struggle. Then, one of them meets a mysterious pair of twins…as we learn, supernatural beings.

The obligatory deal is struck. And the fortunate young man finds his life transformed. All that was denied him is now available.

Ah, but the price, we learn, is steep.

As I say, when I first saw the proposal, I thought that's all there was to the book—an interesting, serviceable (if not particularly original) plot and well-done characters. And, both are present. Both are nicely crafted. The writing's clear and clean. The two boys are well delineated and artistically drawn.

Except, when I began reading the thing in detail, I realized that while these things are indeed present, there's a great deal more going on between these pages. Mr. Folkner isn't just telling us a story. He is presenting us with …



First, background. Folkner is one of that vanishing breed, an American industrial worker. He lives in one of the grimy, factory towns he describes. He earns his daily bread by operating a complicated machine that shapes metal. He lives with the very real threat that someday his livelihood will vanish. Such is the fate of the American Man (and Woman) in our postindustrial age.

Yet he is also an educated man…largely self-educated, but thoroughly so. He has spent decades reading history and literature, art and science. He observes his world, and our world, with a trained eye.  (He reminds me a little of that other great autodidactic, Eric Hoffer, who worked the docks during the day, and produced brilliant philosophic treatises at night. Naturally, the Learned and the Wise have never forgiven Hoffer. I wonder if Folkner will be as little loved by the Academy.)

And I should have thus seen what he was up to just from my knowledge of his biography. But, I really didn't get it …didn't understand how completely I'd misjudged Something For Everything …until I heard a quote about the book. Among of its early readers was one of Mr. Folkner's co-workers. The friend loved the book because, he said, he "identified with the Bradley Hollenger character [since he] himself grew up in a crumbling, decaying part of Minneapolis."

And that's when it hit me. Where are these people living? I mean, Folkner's characters? These two boys and their families? Not Hollywood or Beverly Hills. Not southern Manhattan or the Gold Coast. Not the centers of American wealth and power where, logically, a writer would put a Faust story (or, at least, have his characters drift towards).

No. They are in a dirty, grim, rust-belt city…where layoffs and pink slips are the norm, bitterness a given, and despair a way of life.

They are, in short, confined in that greater prison of our collective soul—postindustrial America. They are our analogs and designates, or metaphors and surrogates, our body-doubles…the boys (and girls) we were once or are now, taught to believe that the world was ours for the taking if we only worked hard enough and followed the rules, only to find that the world has (somehow) been snatched away from us at the very last minute.


Thus, you can find Bradley Hollenger and Ricky Stromberg on the streets of any American city or town…and, increasingly, on any campus. The middle class withers, jobs flow overseas or to machines, the young discover they are unemployable, and the aged become desperate.

And what takes the place of hope in such a world? When so little is genuinely offered to us? Consumer goods, of course. Or rather, the wish to have them. Day and day out, we are presented with a barrage of images…on TV or in movies (product placements) or on the web…of Things We Are Told We Really Want (but actually can't afford). Cars and watches, jewelry and clothes, electronic and other toys, these crowd in upon our consciousness and corrupt our very souls.

And in this postindustrial age of poverty and want, who are our heroes? Who are the people we are told to admire? They are no longer the creative or the forceful. Rather, they are champions of consumption. They teach us not self-discipline or wisdom, but rather what and how to buy, regardless of the cost. Somehow, by some mysterious and terrible process, the Kardashians have become our gods, the Beverly Hills Housewives are the captains of our souls…

And who are Mr. Folkner's deadly twins? The Two who come to tempt the boys? Is it not obvious? Is it not plain? They are those men and women who stand glittering and lovely on the brand new flat screen 3D display, offering us all that we desire (so long as they get to define what it is we want).

Ah, but there's the rub. If we should, somehow, obtain those goods and toys, we find they are unfulfilling. We find that they do not ease that horrible ache within us. Indeed, we find that possessions leave us desiring more than ever, like the junkie who cannot quite get enough of his injection, or the compulsive eater who can never get her fill. We feel the emptiness within us, so we buy to fill it, but those purchases leave us more hungry than before, and so we must buy more.

And so on, unto the grave.


And so we come to the deeper meaning of Mr. Folkner's book. He comes to us not just as a novelist but also a fabulist and an educator. What he is telling his readers, and particularly the younger ones, is that postindustrial consumer society is a trap. It offers everything…all the marvels of the material world…but it delivers nothing.

Indeed, possession becomes a kind of, well, possession. We buy possessions for the sake of buying, and somehow we become possessed. We are possessed by the demons of consumption. Purchasing  becomes a religious duty. The career becomes all important. The paycheck (a large one) is more vital than the self. Family, friends, artistic and personal expression, quiet contemplation, all wither before the demands of the credit card.

This is Folkner's warning. Pay heed, he says, to what really matters. And what really matters may not be what you are told you desire.

It may be, in fact, the exact opposite of what you hear on TV, of what you read about celebrities, and what appears (sparkling and golden) when you click links on Web pages.

Thus Mr. Folkner's message to the young, and, yes, to us all.

Still, there's one other point I need to raise about him. If the above was all he achieved, then Folkner would have done the reading public a service. But he goes beyond that. He is no mere Cassandra. He does not simply point out the problems of the world.

He offers a solution. To wit, he offers Voltaire.


Probably the most famous words that Voltaire ever put to paper come near the end of his Candide. You know, of course, the tale. After long years of disappointment, the young Candide realizes that only by tending to one's affairs may we achieve something like utopia: Il faut cultiver notre jardin.

What Folkner says is like that. Only, he tells us, by resolutely avoiding the temptations of excessive consumption, or grandiosity and megalomania, can we find something like happiness.

To live, we must turn our backs upon the Twins and the more obsessive aspects of consumer society. We must learn to see their offerings (their bait) as being the shining but empty dangers they really are. We must learn not to fall for their scam. Their deadly, addictive, hollow gifts.

We must, in other words, cultivate our own garden.

And there, of course, is where Folkner is at his most important. His message is vital. He tells us the postindustrial age is not pleasant. We have been badly cheated. We labored long decades… generations! make America great. We invested our talent, our sweat, and yes, our blood.

But, somehow, somewhere along the way, a tiny elite took away the value that we'd worked so long to create. Wealth was shifted wholesale from the middle class to the rich. Jobs were "out sourced" and "off shored." Our present was made grotesque and our children's futures were stolen. And then, to add insult to injury, those who have taken the most from us have announced that it was, after all, our own fault; that if only we weren't lazy and stupid, like "the 47%," then we wouldn't be in this mess.

Folkner, however, tells us…No. He says Pay No Attention To Them. He says work, yes, but work for your own well-being and that of your family, your friends, and your community. Work, but expect only small changes, little changes, and…given enough time, maybe generations…eventually that grim, post-industrial city will become once more shining and wonderful.

And the Great? The Powerful? The Twins? Those who stole our heritage and now consider us parasites and fools?

Well, one day, they may look up…look away from their toys, their Lear Jets and Penthouses…and realize (OhMyGod!) that they are utterly irrelevant. Utterly without purpose. Utterly unimportant.

And forever exiled from the Garden.

~The Editors

Something For Everything is now on Amazon here.