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Grey Goo

Entry updated 29 April 2018. Tagged: Theme.

Popular term (also spelt "gray goo" in the USA) for the nightmare scenario of uncontrolled Nanotechnology in which the hypothetical tiny self-replicators reproduce without limit, converting all available organic matter – or in some cases inorganic matter, or both – into more and yet more devouring grey goo. Such a Disaster is threatened but averted in Assemblers of Infinity (September-December 1992 Analog; exp 1993) by Kevin J Anderson and Doug Beason. Earth has been destroyed by grey goo in the back-story of Walter Jon Williams's Aristoi (1992). Wil McCarthy's Bloom (1998) opens with a grey-goo infestation of a human colony City on Jupiter's moon Ganymede, developing with horrific speed from a single "spore"; again, Earth itself has already succumbed before the story begins. In Moonseed (1998) by Stephen Baxter, the destruction of Earth by the titular Alien nanotechnology is described in painful detail, including supervolcano eruptions as the planetary crust dissolves. Jasper Fforde's Lost in a Good Book (2002) features a more humorous "pink goo" threat to convert Earth's biomass into a pink dessert food known as Dream Topping, a problem disposed of by Time Travel into the far past, where the organic gunge serves the useful purpose of kick-starting Evolution. "Bouncers" launched by the Festival in Singularity Sky (2003) by Charles Stross are spacegoing Weapons that unhurriedly dismantle hostile Starships in a grey-goo attack. An alternate Earth of 300 years hence has been rendered uninhabitable by a "Nanocaust" of weaponized grey goo in Alastair Reynolds's Century Rain (2004). The total destruction of humanity by devouring nanobots in Rudy Rucker's Postsingular (2007) proves to be not merely reversible – by hacking a back door in the programming of these "nants" – but a prelude to information-rich Utopia.

Before active Nanotechnology became a popular sf theme (and often an unspoken Near Future assumption), several precursors of Grey Goo were imagined. The eponym of The Blob (1958) comes from space like Baxter's Moonseed, and resistlessly converts animals and people into more Blob until eventually neutralized by extreme cold (likewise deployed in Bloom above as the only truly effective defence in the human settlement's anti-goo arsenal); a film with a similar premise is Bijo to Ekitai Ningen (1958). Also in the Horror in SF vein, The Clone (1965) by Kate Wilhelm and Theodore L Thomas portrays a spreading, invasive and all-consuming blob with unnerving plausibility. Brian M Stableford's Stapledonian The Walking Shadow (1979) postulates Blob- or Clone-like "third-phase life" as the ultimate Far Future end-point of Earthly Evolution. A better known Biological quasi-apocalypse is the restructuring and amalgamation of virtually the entire biomass of North America by engineered lymphocytes in Greg Bear's Blood Music (1985); as in the above-cited Bloom, Moonseed and Postsingular, the seeming devastation turns out to have its upside.

Imagined physical Devolution may eventually lead to a kind of grey goo in the form of protoplasmic slime, as in Arthur Machen's "The Novel of the White Powder" in The Three Impostors (fixup/coll of linked stories 1895), where a Drug offering bestial pleasures ultimately causes its addict to lose all human shape; the same fate eventually befalls the protagonist of Edmond Hamilton's "The Man Who Evolved" (April 1931 Wonder Stories), and a similar transformation occurs in the film Altered States (1980). Piers Anthony's Macroscope (1969; cut 1972) features a Ray that unpleasantly reduces human beings to puddles of undifferentiated tissue, which unlike any skeletal structure can withstand the rigours of interstellar travel via gravitational collapse; at journey's end the travellers are restored through a process that recapitulates Evolution.

Still more tangentially, one of Robert Sheckley's AAA Ace comedies, "The Laxian Key" (November 1954 Galaxy), introduces an Alien Machine known as the Meldgen Free Producer. This, at ruinous cost of energy rather than matter, creates unceasing supplies of the Meldgen foodstuff called Tangreese: an unprepossessing grey powder of which the planet Meldge already has a huge glut thanks to other unwisely activated Free Producers. In this update of the folktale about the mill that endlessly ground out salt, the only way to turn off the device is with a Laxian Key (not included).

The Real Time Strategy game Grey Goo (2014), designed by Petroglyph and published by Grey Box, involves three-sided asymmetrical warfare between humans, Aliens and a blobby nanobot horde, the titular Grey Goo. [DRL]

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