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Entry updated 15 March 2021. Tagged: Theme.


A favourite area of Imaginary Science in sf is the shrinking or other transference of living protagonists to miniature, microscopic or even subatomic stature, leading to adventures at the appropriate scale (see Great and Small). Scientific rationales for the process are not easy to construct, since the major obstacles include the basic Physics of mass/energy conservation. Thus authors may resort to outright Magic, as in Mark Twain's "Three Thousand Years among the Microbes" (written 1905; in Which Was the Dream?, coll 1967), or to inexplicable freaks of nature like the lightning bolt which notoriously causes Timeslips and in Francis Rufus Bellamy's Atta: A Novel of a Most Extraordinary Adventure (1953) conveniently shrinks the hero to a size comparable with that of the eponymous ant who becomes his companion.

Other traditional facilitators of sf miniaturization include mysterious Rays, as in "Submicroscopic" (August 1931 Amazing) by S P Meek and Paul Starr's "The Invading Blood Stream" (December 1933 Astounding) – the latter featuring a plot to invade the USA with an army half a million strong, miniaturized and hidden in the bloodstream of ten "carriers". Also popular were Drugs, like the gas of The Adventures of a Micro-Man (1902) by Edwin Pallander, the chemicals in "The Girl in the Golden Atom" (5 March 1919 All-Story) by Ray Cummings and the injected "Shrinx" of "He Who Shrank" (August 1936 Amazing) by Henry L Hasse. Radioactivity does the job in Dr Cyclops (1940), a radioactive cloud in The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), unlikely audio waves in Attack of the Puppet People (1958; vt Six Inches Tall UK; vt The Fantastic Puppet People), radiation again in World of Giants (1959) and scientific-looking Rays in Fantastic Voyage (1966) – in whose novelization, Fantastic Voyage (1966), Isaac Asimov bravely dismissed conservation laws with: "We neither get rid of atoms nor push them together. We reduce the size of the atoms, too; we reduce everything; and the mass decreases automatically." Joseph Skidmore's "A World Unseen" (February-April 1936 Wonder Stories) anticipates Fantastic Voyage with its shrinking of two men to perform urgent surgery within a woman's body.

An apparently electrical device shrinks Tarzan to one-quarter size in Edgar Rice Burroughs's Tarzan and the Ant Men (2 February-15 March 1924 Argosy All-Story Weekly; 1924; rev 1924), but the effect eventually wears off; other, more clearly electrical shrinking machines appear in the films The Devil-Doll (1936) and Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (1989) and the television series Dr Shrinker (1976). The Hulm Projector in Barry N Malzberg's The Men Inside (1973) – an altogether darker, more cloacal excursion into Fantastic Voyage territory – is another miniaturization device whose inner workings are wisely not revealed. Further works featuring miniaturization include Gerry Anderson's SuperMarionation series The Secret Service (1969) – in which a young agent is regularly shrunk by the "Minimiser" for covert operations – The God Machine (1973) by William Jon Watkins, and the Micronauts sequence by Gordon Williams opening with The Micronauts (1977).

The size-shifting Comics character The Atom, in his 1961 "Ray Palmer" incarnation (named for the small-statured Raymond A Palmer), used a lens of white-dwarf Star matter – later incorporated into the material of his tight-fitting Superhero costume – to provide the rays that shrank and restored him. Lindsay Gutteridge's Cold War in a Country Garden (1971) makes vague reference to hormones as the agent of miniaturization. Michael Crichton's Micro (2011), completed by Richard Preston after Crichton's death, reduces people to the height of half an inch with a very strong magnetic "tensor field" (whose effects, to provide added suspense, are damaging if not reversed within several days) – again scientific nonsense. Ironically, Fritz Leiber's Fantasy The Swords of Lankhmar (May 1961 Fantastic as "Scylla's Daughter"; exp 1968) pays more attention to mass conservation than most sf: the hero reduced to rat-size by a magic potion finds himself standing in a large puddle of sloughed-off flesh, and his return to normal stature in the absence of this tissue reservoir is wittily finessed – though the question remains of whether a rat-sized manikin's small allocation of cortical matter could support human Intelligence.

More extravagant forms of miniaturization include the malfunctioning Faster-than-Light Spaceship of James Blish's "Nor Iron Bars" (November 1957 Infinity Science Fiction), whose crew find themselves within a carbon atom and make a landing on an electron; and, in Bob Shaw's Ship of Strangers (fixup 1978), the Cosmological conceit of a "dwindlar" region of space whose contents undergo shrinkage to the vanishing point only to reappear (still shrinking) at a size that engulfs the universe. Decadent applications of the now familiar concept include the future sport (see Games and Sports) of the "micro-hunt" in William Tenn's "Winthrop was Stubborn" (August 1957 Galaxy as "Time Waits for Winthrop"; vt in Time in Advance, coll 1958) – reducing oneself in size to battle savage micro-organisms. James H Schmitz's "Company Planet" (May 1971 Analog) offers the more utilitarian notion of a pocket card-case with a "shrink section" wherein small contraband items are reduced to dust-mote size.

Modest levels of miniaturization, achieved through Eugenic programmes, are occasionally suggested as an answer to Overpopulation: that this is happening, and that people are smaller than of old, is a terrifying, Paranoia-inducing secret in Colin Kapp's Manalone (1977). Philip E High's These Savage Futurians (1967 dos) features a second intelligent species on Earth (evolved from ants) which, it emerges, has solved the problems of Lebensraum and coexistence with humanity by systematically reducing in size to explore subatomic realms.

The only plausible route to the world of the ultra-small may be the copying of consciousness to some kind of advanced Avatar (which see for examples). A remarkable early instance is Raymond Z Gallun's People Minus X (December 1935 Astounding as "Avalanche" as by Dow Elstar; much exp 1957; vt Dawn of the Demi-Gods Book 2: People Minus X 2006 ebook), in which various characters' minds are copied into invisibly small Android replicas of themselves made from "vitaplasm". Greg Egan's Schild's Ladder (2002) takes the notion to the limit of smallness, with human-minded avatars exploring a new, teeming biosphere on such a minute scale that the Planck length – roughly, the shortest distance that can even theoretically be measured – becomes a convenient yardstick. [DRL]

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