In the distant future of science fiction narratives, all aspects of human physiology could be predictable, adjustable, and fully customizable. When this is achieved through robotic enhancement, it’s called cybernetics, but when it’s a more organic solution, the work enters into the often disgusting world of bio-augmentation.
The type of technology available in a sci-fi universe can often be one of the most important decisions in world-building. When a writer grants access to faster-than-light travel or teleportation or cloning or humanoid robots, they set the tone and evoke the tropes for that concept. Selecting something as evocative as biological augmentation as the central tech sets the audience up for some body horror with their speculative fiction.
Biological augmentation is the scientific process of altering the physiology, DNA, or body chemistry of a living being. This could be as simple as grafting on a new limb to replace a missing one or as complex as completely rewriting a being’s central nervous system to grant superpowers. The specific circumstances of this trope demand intentional alterations, so something like the genetic mutants in X-Men or the accidental gamma radiation of the Hulk wouldn’t count. These surgical success stories can result in super soldiers, but they can just as often create post-human monsters. They almost always feature some deeply unsavory side effects, and even the success stories can wind up looking nightmarish.
Bio-augmentation is an extremely common background element of science fiction stories. When a sci-fi writer wants characters to have superpowers or otherwise incredible capabilities, surgical enhancement is as good an excuse as any. Marvel, both in comics and on the screen, abuses the concept of “super soldier serum” so frequently that it’s safe to guess it’s part of the origin story of every new character. Steve Rogers was a tiny sickly man who wanted to serve his country, and though he lacked physical capabilities, he had the strength of character. Some scientists pumped his body with serum and put him in a pod, and he turned into the Captain America people know and love now. Nearly a dozen other MCU mainstays have similar stories with less successful results. This bio-augmentation is a simple way to explain people with strength and speed beyond human capabilities while also tying them into their nation’s goals. It’s rarely a focus of the narrative, but it’s extremely common to comic book characters.
Bio-augmentation is generally a more recent movement in the sci-fi genre, as it’s preceded by cybernetic augmentation. Much like cybernetics have cyberpunk, bio-augmentation has biopunk. Biopunk addresses the possible upside and downsides of using science to change human physiology. Most of the body horror genre fits into biopunk. The works of David Cronenberg often explore nightmarish enhancements made by half-explained chemical and surgical processes. Despite it being more organic than cyberpunk, it still explores many of the same themes of identity and adaptation. Lowlife heroes use their new nightmarish bodies to battle with the corporations that seek to profit from the tech that allows them to pervert the flesh. Cyberpunk can go to some pretty dark places, but biopunk narratives will typically approach similar concepts with a more liberal approach to viscera. Cyberpunk has many offspring, but this one certainly deserves more eyes, though it likely won’t use them pleasantly.
Video games absolutely love bio-augmentation. Bioshock is named after the concept because its central narrative is a cautionary tale about the possible downsides. The underwater city of Rapture isn’t just corrupted by the inherently toxic ideas of Ayn Rand, its denizens are corrupted by the use of Plasmids. Biohacking through ADAM is the drug that transformed once-normal beings into the monsters that stalk Rapture’s halls, but it’s also the tool that the protagonist uses to survive. The main character enjoys brief body horror cutscenes every time they shoot up a new superpower, but injecting the power to shoot bees directly into the bloodstream is simply too tempting to resist.
The Spartans in the Halo franchise underwent a more standard super soldier routine, but with some added details. The process effectively castrates its subjects and not every candidate winds up John-117. Many end up permanently disfigured by the process. Mass Effect‘s universe regulates bio-augmentation, but soldiers are almost guaranteed to go under the knife. Samus from Metroid receives an IV full of alien DNA to make her the hero she is today. Half of Final Fantasy VII’s cast was transformed into an organic weapon by one nightmarish DNA experiment or another. The Metal Gear franchise actually subverts the trope, by demonstrating Solid Snake’s genetic inferiority, then depicting him defeating better versions of himself anyway.
Biological augmentation is a simple concept with nightmarish implications. From the moment scientists gain the power to hack the flesh, a new world of power and horror opens, and anything becomes possible.