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Entry updated 11 November 2019. Tagged: Theme.

Item of terminology borrowed by sf writers from theoreticians of future Technology, and increasingly popular in sf from the late 1980s. It seems to have been first used by K Eric Drexler in 1976, and popularized by him in his highly optimistic book on the subject, Engines of Creation (1986).

Nanotechnology – the term loosely combines "nano", the SI (metric system) prefix denoting 10-9, with "technology" – means the technology of the very small indeed. The term microtechnology encompasses Machines of the order of a micrometre across; nanotechnology envisages machines very much smaller than that, perhaps of molecular size. Indeed, its working components would be atoms; the nanomachine might be like "motorized DNA". Drexler called these theoretical tiny machines "assemblers". As to the uses of these molecule-size Robots, there is little that cannot be imagined: scraping fatty deposits from the insides of hardened arteries, brain surgery on individual neurons, food-making, ore-mining ... The suggestions have been endless. Assemblers would be of a size small enough to conduct the most delicate operations within human cells – although Kim Stanley Robinson has suggested it might be better to imagine, rather than tiny medics, ten million molecule-sized steamrollers charging up one's capillaries to perform brain surgery. Assemblers would also necessarily be capable of self-replication, which raises two questions: could they be considered a lifeform?; and could they get out of control, self-replicating until all available building materials were used up? Their number would increase exponentially: if a single assembler took 15 minutes to double, then at the end of ten hours of doubling there would be 68 billion of them, and in just over two days the assemblage would outmass the Sun (assuming that sufficient mass and, more subtly, sufficient energy-providing "food" were available – which would obviously not be the case). This vision of all-consuming runaway nanotechnology – analogous to the older fear that nuclear chain reactions could uncontrollably devour all matter – is often referred to as the Grey Goo scenario.

Whether or not all this is a realistic prospect is another question. Certainly it has been much discussed, and a number of laboratories have worked on some of the preliminary problems. The scanning tunnelling microscope, developed at the IBM laboratories in Zurich, has been used (April 1990) to manipulate individual atoms – even, in an episode of startling chutzpah, spelling out (using 35 xenon atoms) the IBM logo. Once we reach the stage of manipulating individual atoms, the construction of molecule-machines is a logical consequence. A lively account of the early development of theories about nanotechnology can be found in Great Mambo Chicken and the Transhuman Condition (1990) by Ed Regis. The twenty-first century has brought regular announcements of real-world achievements like working molecule-sized motors – an impressive "proof of concept", but still requiring nanotechnological mass-production and cybernetic co-ordination techniques to be of serious practical use. In sf, the practical issues are easily waved aside.

Fictional precursors of nanotechnology are not uncommon in sf consideration of the Great and Small. Philip E High's These Savage Futurians (1967 dos) imagines a succession of Machines constructing smaller machines, the penultimate stage being a shoebox-sized automatic factory mass-producing molecular Robots: these, injected by millions into the bloodstream, track down and literally electrocute inimical micro-organisms.

The concept of nanotechnology, not always named as such, appeared regularly in 1990s sf. The most distinguished works of that decade to which it is fundamental include Queen of Angels (1990) by Greg Bear and The Diamond Age; or, A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer (1995) by Neal Stephenson; the future society of the first has largely assimilated nanotechnology as another useful Technology, while that of the latter has been fundamentally transformed by it. The intelligent briefcase around whose actions and fate Michael Swanwick's eccentric tale Stations of the Tide (mid-December 1990-January 1991 Asimov's; 1991) pivots is, according to his acknowledgements, a work of "nanotechnics". Perhaps more significant is the number of Hard-SF works in which the existence of nanotechnology is merely taken for granted, forming part of the overall background of futuristic technology. Examples include Peter F Hamilton's Night's Dawn sequence opening with The Reality Dysfunction (1996), whose galactic society makes extensive use of "nanonics" to provide a quasi-telepathic interface with technology; and most of the work of Linda Nagata, especially a tale like The Bohr Maker (1995), which is set in a world so irradiated by nanotech that its effects seem supernatural. Star Trek: The Next Generation adopted the term "nanite" in its episode "Evolution" (1989), and Red Dwarf introduced "nanobots" in "Nanarchy" (1997); these played various roles up to and including that of deus ex machina in later episodes and series. Specifically to avoid the Star Trek term "nanite", the linked Doctor Who episodes "The Empty Child" (2005) and "The Doctor Dances" (2005) invoked alien "nanogenes" as the cause of a grisly pseudo-plague.

A theme anthology is Nanodreams (anth 1995) edited by Elton T Elliott. [PN/DRL]

further reading

  • K Eric Drexler. Engines of Creation (New York: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1986) [nonfiction: hb/]

see also: Hostile Waters: Antaeus Rising.

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