I love reading science fiction from the 80s and 90s because it is like traveling back in time to visit the future. Ribofunk, a collection of loosely connected short stories by Paul Di Filippo, is my latest time warp. The stories all take place in the same speculative future, sometime in the mid-to-late 21st century, where advances in gene editing and other biotechnologies have led to a society in which the body is subject to all kinds of wonderful innovations and horrific afflictions. Neither fully dystopian nor sweetly utopian, the book is powerful for its ambiguity and the way it draws out logical conclusions about where we might be headed if we don’t start having serious conversations about bioethics in both the personal and political spheres.

Questions of bioethics seep into just about every political debate there is, from abortion and health care to climate change and tech antitrust. It’s hard to think of a question facing our polis that doesn’t eventually boil down to how we treat the human body and what it means to be alive. Is the anatomy something sacred that should be preserved as is, or is it something malleable that should be altered for the better if it means achieving a higher quality of life?

The stories in Ribofunk go way beyond any technology that is available or feasible today. Gene editing has allowed humans to integrate animal traits into their bodies, and the hybridity of humans and animals has created a biological underclass — slaves, really — that have less than 50 percent human DNA, known as “splices.” People purchase splices on the open market for a variety of predictable and horrible purposes. Traditional drugs have been replaced by genetic cocktails called “tropes” which can create all kinds of feelings and abilities. Various cults have formed to honor and remember species that have been wiped from the earth. In the 1990s, disaffected teenagers got tattoos and piercings when they wanted to stick it to their parents; in Ribofunk, they get dolphin flippers grafted onto their backs out of a sense of solidarity with the extinct mammals. One faction of the urban underworld, called the Incubators, even harbor eradicated diseases like smallpox and polio in their own bodies to prevent the microbes’ total extinction.

Not all aspects of the Ribofunk society are dystopian and scary. We learn that humanity has learned to clean up most of its nuclear and chemical pollution through genetically engineered bacteria that can simply eat it all up and excrete clean air and water molecules. The energy revolution has been long completed and the sea levels are returning to “normal.” Although people mourn the extinction of so many species, biotechnology has allowed us to revive many of them straight out of Jurassic Park. International bodies like the IMF, the European Community, and the newly formed North American Union, form a global “adminosphere” that, for all its major flaws, seeks to preserve democratic institutions and peaceful diplomacy. Of course, the treatment of the splices undermines any grand arc toward progress, but many of the stories revolve around the movement to liberate and recognize this hybrid class.

When I first started reading these stories, the splices annoyed me. They seemed too outlandish — almost cartoonish — to be taken seriously, even in science fiction. But the more I read the more I realized they raise an important question. It is a question regarding the value, not only of human life, not even of life itself, but of what we might think of as artificial life. In these stories, people are willing to mourn the loss of the bacteria that causes smallpox, but they don’t give a fig about the sentient creatures that were created in a lab to serve them. The ambiguity that forms the crux of these stories is that humanity has progressed to a place where we value even microbial life if it is natural, but not sentient life if it is manufactured. A society based on this logic is the same kind of society that would let Junior die of the measles rather than give him a vaccine, that would allow millions to starve rather than invest in genetically modified seeds. In other words, it’s not far off from reality.

Ribofunk appeared in 1995, at the end of a literary movement often referred to as cyberpunk. The cyberpunk genre depicts a corrupt future with flawed protagonists, who try to do their best in awful situations. William Gibson’s Neuromancer is commonly thought of as the first example of cyberpunk, and it is much like Ribofunk except that the tech in the story is primarily circuit-board hardware. Di Filippo’s big innovation at the time was to assume that future would be more bioelectric. People wanted to call his invention biopunk, but he coined the term ‘ribofunk’ instead. Punk is metallic and industrial, whereas funk is groovy and organic. “The cell is king,” he said.

Looking at the world today, one might be tempted to think that Di Filippo was wrong in his predictions. After all, we are all carrying around inorganic pocket computers and relying on robotics more than genetic mutations. But is that likely to continue? CRISPR has recently shown hopeful results in reversing the effects of Sickle Cell Anemia in volunteer patients. Scientists in Australia are considering using CRISPR to eradicate a species of invasive toads. A recent New Yorker article profiled a Russian scientist who believes we can use bioelectricity to regenerate human organs.

The future is now. And while it is way too early either to run amok with new technology or preemptively shut down research, we are certainly late in the formation of local, national, and supranational panels of philosophers, doctors, theologians, and biologists to have fact-based ethical discussions about what the future of humanity could and should look like. Only with these types of institutions will we be able to optimize our biological potential while preventing our worst nightmares.

W. W. Matteson is a writer who lives in Hope, where he weaves tales about Maine's coast and mountains.