6 Books, Movies, and Shows to Bend Your Neocortex This Winter
Nanobots that find you a soul mate, a Frankenstein remix, and other stories that turn the neobiological revolution inside out.
As we careen into another decade of bioengineering advances, questions about how, and how much, we ought to manipulate our own biology grow more urgent. Thankfully, the books, movies, and TV series exploring such questions have never been smarter. For proof, check out these underrated biohacking titles from the past few years.
Frankissstein: A Love Story (2019)
A transhumanist entry in the recent surge of feminist reinterpretations of classics
If you’ve ever marveled at the timelessness of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein, at how forward-thinking and eternal the young (20-year-old!) writer was for her early-19th-century time, this novel from celebrated queer novelist Jeanette Winterson will delight you. It feels inaccurate to call Frankissstein a novel, though—call it more of an act of modernization, of revivification, a fitting ritual for a story that changed society’s views about transcending the laws of nature.
The book jumps between two timelines, the first being a fictionalized diary of Mary Shelley’s, from that one summer in which she wrote Frankenstein for husband Percy Shelley, stepsister Claire Claremont, and friends Lord Byron and John Polidori, all the way to her (imagined) meeting of computing godmother Ada Lovelace, the daughter abandoned by Lord Byron. The other is a retelling, of sorts, of both history and novel: in the near future, trans doctor Ry Shelley becomes involved with cis futurist Victor Stein, a Silicon Valley visionary seeking to recreate the brain of his mentor, a collaborator of Alan Turing. The two stories are elegantly similar; Winterson continues Shelley’s line of philosophical inquiry and shows just how little we’ve figured out in the intervening two centuries.
This Mortal Coil trilogy (2017-20)
The Hunger Games meets Orphan Black
If you want to get your kid thinking about the possibilities that await them, or if you are just a sucker for smart adventures, check out Emily Suvada’s post-apocalyptic biohacking trilogy. In a future America where everyone is implanted with a “panel” in their forearm at birth, people are able to hack their own DNA—or to be more precise, they’re able to “wrap” their own DNA in custom mods, as long as they’re proprietary apps made by Cartaxus, an Amazon/Apple-type megacorporation that ends up having just about as much ethical fortitude as you’d expect from an Amazon/Apple-type megacorporation with a name like “Cartaxus.”
Not everyone sticks with out-of-the-box mods; fringe groups experiment with high-concept hacks like feathers (!) while people with debilitating diseases too rare to interest Cartaxus set out to design their own cures. Oh, also: A massive global pandemic is making people first hunger for human flesh, then explode into vapor, so Cartaxus is providing refuge to people in massive underground bunkers—provided they wipe their panels of any non-Cartaxus code first. The protagonist, 18-year-old Catarina Agatta, is the daughter of one of the world’s best gene hackers and has a disease that prevents her from accepting any mods; Cartaxus has re-requisitioned her father, allegedly to work on a cure for the explosion disease, and Cat—a biotech genius in her own right—is stuck out in the world working on a cure herself.
The series is meticulously researched without being weighed down by “hard-sci-fi” exposition; it’s exciting without being simple, and best of all, the technology, and the way it perpetuates inequality, feels plausible. Plus, you—er, your kid—will learn something about the science of gene hacking along the way. The third installment, This Vicious Cure, will be released on January 21, so you(r kid) have a couple of weeks to get caught up.
Ad Vitam (2018)
Imagine Altered Carbon with a distinctly French malaise
People angry about the Gen Z retort “OK, boomer” don’t know how good they have it. In the future imagined by this French series, the youths are literally killing themselves to escape the hellishness their parents have left for them. It’s a future that might even seem desirable to the transhumanists of today: Biotechnology has uncovered a gene in jellyfish that has been reverse-engineered into a process allowing people to stay youthful, ostensibly forever. (It’s not too far into the future; the oldest woman on earth is only 169.)
For the kids born into this world, however, it’s an eternal prison. Society has started treating childhood like a waiting room for the day one is able to start the anti-aging treatments, and even then, some people are ruled genetically incompatible and forced to live a normal life alongside immortals. So when a bunch of youths wash up dead on a beach, seemingly as a result of a mass suicide, one detective must track down the leaders of a death cult. He enlists the help of Christa Novak, a 20-year-old former member of the cult who has been institutionalized since the last mass suicide and has her own reasons to catch the leader. Where Altered Carbon thought about biohacked immortality through the lens of radical inequality, Ad Vitam presents a slightly tweaked view, in which the dangers of consumer biotech lie not just in the überpowerful demigods of the .00001%, but also in the more gradual, banal effects invited by everyone else.
It’s like a super-feminist episode of Black Mirror
Jennifer Phang’s film about a 40-something mother who runs out of options will haunt you for years to come. In a future in which women are becoming increasingly infertile—like right before Margaret Atwood’s Gilead—one biotech company has finally cracked the code on human consciousness transfers. A few weeks before the procedure’s commercial launch, the company lays off its spokeswoman, Gwen, implying that she’s too old (and too Asian) to be the face of a product designed to eliminate aging altogether. Her daughter Jules—whose existence is itself a privilege only the rich can afford—has just been accepted to an expensive prep school; moreover, it quickly becomes clear that her former employer is railroading her into having the consciousness-transfer procedure done in exchange for having her job back.
With her daughter’s future on the line, Gwen makes a choice that, in reality, is no choice at all. Equal parts gorgeous and harrowing, the film is a reminder of the ways that purported biotech utopias can diminish human diversity.
A Black Mirror spin-off series about love and privacy
Look, the French are doing the most when it comes to transhumanist television. Osmosis is the most recent of the bunch. (See also: Transfers, about illegal consciousness transplants—basically Travelers without all the time-travel insanity.) The Netflix original from showrunner Audrey Fouché imagines a near-future Paris where rising-star supergenius Esther Vanhove has developed Osmosis, a technology that uses nanobots that implant themselves in your brain; capture every fleeting desire you’ve ever had, conscious or subconscious; and sift through social networks to single out your soul mate. Once matched, even if you’re separated by distance your respective implants link to create a virtual space where you can meet for some very sexy, emotional time together.
Together with her brother and business partner Paul, a sentient voice assistant Martin, and a few elite employees, she conducts a beta test with a handful of all-too-willing subjects, and it goes just about as smoothly as you’d expect it to.
Living With Yourself (2019)
Think of the Spider-Man meme, but with two Paul Rudds
OK, so this Netflix series uses biohacking more as dark-comedy device than realistic concept. That doesn’t mean it’s not delightful. Paul Rudd’s character Miles has hit a serious rough patch in his life: despite having the exact life he chose for himself—with a high-paying job at an ad agency and a beautiful wife (Aisling Bea) and a gorgeous house in the suburbs—he’s become depressed, listless, and close to losing it all.
Does he consider medication and therapy, you may ask? Of course not! When a colleague comes into the office one day with an entirely new, sparkling personality, Miles decides that’s the kind of magical, extremely expensive fix he needs, so he gathers the savings he and his wife have collected for fertility treatments and goes to a spa, where instead of getting a really good massage (or, you know, Lexapro), he wakes up buried alive in the woods. Turns out the “treatment facility” is two dudes conducting a very illegal operation wherein they clone you but take out all the bad parts of your brain, leaving the best version of yourself to go back to your life none the wiser, while they kill the hard copy. Except it didn’t take in Miles’ case, and now he’s stuck fighting with a New Miles for control of a life the latter is easily better at leading. It’s a light, funny snack of a series that gets at the heart of what we really mean when we say we want to use biotech to “improve” ourselves.