Biopunk Worlds of Paolo Bacigalupi

by Aleksandra Mochocka (Author)
©2019 Monographs 192 Pages


This book explores literary techniques that allow science fiction literature to be a platform for activist interventions. The focus is on the body and food as storyworld existents in selected texts by Paolo Bacigalupi, whose writing is directed towards raising awareness of the environmental crisis. The book opens with a discussion of the position of science fiction as popular literature, genealogical debates, genre conventions of cyberpunk and biopunk, cognitive estrangement, metaphoric strategies and metonymic tactics. Then, it undertakes an analysis of Bacigalupi’s texts (The Windup Girl, «Small Offerings», and «Fluted Girl», among others) in the context of such ecocritical concepts as hyperexuberance, Capitalocene, and the temporal dimension of the environmental catastrophe.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title Page
  • Copyright Page
  • Acknowledgements
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • Citability of the eBook
  • Contents
  • Introduction
  • 1 Science fiction as popular culture
  • 1 Popular culture as the space of resistance
  • 2 Science fiction as popular literature
  • 3 Science fiction as intervention – Suvin’s definition
  • 4 Science fiction techniques of reading and writing – Broderick’s definition
  • 2 Bacigalupi’s biopunk narratives
  • 1 Reconfiguring cyberpunk
  • 2 The question of nature and culture
  • 3 The question of temporality
  • 3 The body as a metonymy and metaphor
  • 1 Modifications and control in “The Fluted Girl”
  • 2 Im/mortality in “Pop Squad”
  • 3 The techno-bodies in “The People of Sand and Slag”
  • 4 Mutilation in the Ship Breaker series
  • 4 Food as life
  • 1 Thirst, hunger, strawberries, and sweet meat
  • 2 Bio-hazardous crops and forgotten fruit in The Windup Girl
  • 3 Convenience food in “Pump Six”
  • 4 Overconsumption in “The People of Sand and Slag”
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography


Paolo Bacigalupi’s science fiction can be read as ecologically oriented interventions. This is a stance that I take as the author of Biopunk Worlds of Paolo Bacigalupi. I have always been fascinated with the creative affordances of science fiction, affordances that allow not only for the emotionally engaging and aesthetically satisfying results, but also for the profound impact on what the readers think about or believe in. The following book agrees with Yanarella’s (2001) assumptions that “much science fiction is formulaic, but need not to be” (p. 5). According to Yanarella (2001), who follows John Cawelti’s theory here,

its plot structures, symbols, devices, and icons often take on the form of the conventional and predictable, but always with the deeper intent of estranging the familiar (i.e., representing the everyday world as a strange land) and illuminating the “novum” (i.e., radically new within the old and familiar). (p. 5)

Chapter 1, “Science fiction as popular culture”, situates Bacigalupi’s writings within the boundaries of science fiction and discusses literary devices that are specific for the genre. It represents the premise that whereas it has not been finally decided if science fiction is a genre per se, or rather a mode of writing and reading, there is a corpus of texts that can be recognised as science fiction, and regardless of the paratextual factors those texts possess certain inherent features that might be treated as the point of departure in establishing science fiction poetics.

Inside this chapter, Section 1, “Popular culture as the space of resistance”, serves as a brief review of the theories pertaining to the perception of the said culture as a platform of political activism. The perception and, as follows, delineation of popular culture has changed throughout the twentieth century, from the point in which it was criticised as repetitive and stupefying to the point where, in the twenty-first century, it is associated with participation and collaborative co-creation. Various definitions of popular culture reflect the values that are ascribed to the texts that stay within its limits, and the values, in turn, are related to the socio-historical background in the given period. For this reason, while the Frankfurt school scholars were generally apprehensive about popular phenomena, later theories offered a more positive evaluation of popular culture as a space of resistance, recognising the fact that from the perspective of the underprivileged it is the culture of their own. Popular culture does not have to be subversive or politically oriented, yet its inclination towards tinkering, co-creation, and bottom-up approaches makes it open for any kind of socio-political interventionism.

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Section 2 of the first chapter – “Science fiction as popular literature” – positions science fiction as a corpus of texts involved in the interplay of conventions and inventions, and tries to characterise science fiction in relation to its defining features. Science fiction used to bear the brunt of hostility towards un-cultured texts associated with the mass-market circuit and up to the present day there are authors who, writing science fiction though they do, prefer not to be associated with the genre. To provide an example, as Schmeink (2016) has it, Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy “functions as a liminal work on the demarcation line between <<literary>> and <<genre>> fiction. Atwood herself has been instrumental in the demarcation, insisting on her work being <<speculative fiction>> rather than <<science fiction proper>>” (p. 71). Section 2 characterises science fiction as commercially oriented mass-produced bulk of texts that nevertheless have to comply with the poetics that secures a certain level of originality and facilitates socio-political interventions. John Cawelti’s theory of conventions and invention is introduced here, along with the brief account of various definition of the genre. In Section 3 of the first chapter, “Science fiction as intervention – Suvin’s definition”, Darko Suvin’s definition of science fiction as the literature of cognitive estrangement is discussed and presented as criticised, yet not fully rejected. Section 4, “Science fiction techniques of reading and writing – Broderick’s definition”, supplements Suvin’s understanding of science fiction with a theory that allows for analysis of genre-specific writing and reading techniques, that is Damien Broderick’s theory of metaphoric strategies and metonymic tactics.

Chapter 2, “Bacigalupi’s biopunk narratives” starts with the section on “Reconfiguring cyberpunk” that touches upon the question of the relationships between cyberpunk and biopunk. After a review of the features of classic cyberpunk, it introduces the characteristics of biopunk as provided by Lars Schmeink (2014), and continues to discuss the consequences of labelling Bacigalupi’s fiction as closely related to cyberpunk. Frederick Buell’s (2003) concept of hyperexuberance and his criticism of cyberpunk texts as proliferating the same is discussed here, to point at some notable differences between cyberpunk and Bacigalupi’s biopunk. One of such notable differences is, apparently, the application of the motif of the body. Section 2 of the second chapter, “The question of nature and culture”, is an analysis of a short story that utilises the body as its pivotal motif and may serve as an illustration of how Bacigalupi changes and adapts selected cyberpunk formulas to achieve decisively ecocritical results. Section 3, “The question of temporality”, highlights the temporal dimension of the environmental crisis and discusses Bacigalupi’s application of that concept.

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Chapter 3, “The body as a metonymy and metaphor”, focuses on the body as the central image in Bacigalupi’s fiction, and provides the analysis of fragments taken from selected texts, namely: The Windup Girl, The Water Knife, “The People of Sand and Slug”, “The Fluted Girl”, “Pop Squad”, “Pump Six”, “Small Offerings”, “The Gambler”, and the Ship Breaker trilogy. The opening of this chapter discusses selected aspects of body modification discourse and Bacigalupi’s alleged interpretation of the body-related contemporary practices. Section 1, “Modifications and control in <<The Fluted Girl>>”, is an analysis of the short story in which the body is used to discuss the question of control in the capitalist societies. Section 2, “Im/mortality in <<Pop Squad>>”, and Section 3, “The techno-bodies in <<The People of Sand and Slag>>”, discuss two short stories, respectively, and Section 4, “Mutilation in the Ship Breaker series”, reaches for the said young adult fiction. Chapter 4 is devoted to the discussion of the motif of food in the above-mentioned texts. The titles of sections: 1. “Thirst, hunger, and control”; 2. “Bio-hazardous crops and forgotten fruit in The Windup Girl; 3. “Convenience food in <<Pump Six>>”; and 4. “Overconsumption in <<The People of Sand and Slag>>” relate to the images that Bacigalupi employs in his texts both to create the storyworlds and, by doing so, to convey specific socio-political messages.

1 Science fiction as popular culture

Science fiction can be approached as a genre of popular literature. To recognise the fact means taking into account that the intrinsic characteristics of science fiction could be situated within the broader framework of popular culture, and analysed as such. Popular culture is sometimes associated with low-grade texts produced by media corporations to dominate, manipulate, stupefy, and control the masses. Partially rooted in the theories of the Frankfurt school, such an approach fails to take into account the understanding of popular culture as a space of resistance that allows for the articulation of voices otherwise unrecognised. Popular culture (and literature) does not have to be obligatorily subversive or resistant to the hegemonic narratives. It may be oblivious to them, or it may actively and purposely support the existing power structures. It is true that “the shaping and packaging of most urban popular culture today results from sophisticated celebrity and product marketing on the part of media organizations before any element of consumer choice enters the marketplace” (Ferguson and Golding, 1997, p. xxiv). The point is, however, that at its best, it could develop its subversive potential. Politically oriented, interventionist science fiction is subversive precisely because it belongs into the realm of popular literature – not despite being situated there.

It could also be suggested that science fiction utilises genre-specific strategies that require genre-specific analytical tools, and may discourage the readers who are not versed in the science fiction megatext. Both aspects are related to reading science fiction as a genre facilitating social activism. The following section is concerned with those issues.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2019 (April)
popular literature body food science fiction ecocriticism cyberpunk
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2019. 190 pp.

Biographical notes

Aleksandra Mochocka (Author)

Aleksandra Mochocka, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor at the Institute of Modern Languages and Applied Linguistics at Kazimierz Wielki University, Poland. She teaches and researches science fiction, transmedia narratives, and non-digital games.


Title: Biopunk Worlds of Paolo Bacigalupi
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193 pages