Advanced nanotechnology concepts and science fiction have been intertwined almost from the beginning. In the early years, critics often declared that the idea of molecular manufacturing “Sounds like science fiction” (like Moon rockets, perhaps?). They were right about the similarity, of course, because science fiction writers had pounced on the ideas almost immediately.
There was a little-known reason for this: Soon after the 1986 publication of Engines of Creation, Stanley Schmidt — the influential editor of Analog Science Fiction and Fact magazine — advised his stable of writers to read the book and write about the ideas, which at the time constituted the working definition of “nanotechnology”. Quickly, then, advanced nanotechnology came to be seen through the lens of fiction.
Good science fiction is as much about worlds as it is about people, and at its best, it can be wonderfully thought-provoking. I know of no other medium that can explore how a different world might challenge and transform human life. The stories are always flawed, of course, if held to a rigorous standard of realism, yet in attempting to formulate a coherent story in a coherent world, authors can show how all that seems solid in our world might melt and reform as it has again and again on the long road from peasant farming to the internet economy.
I can’t imagine thinking productively about the coming decades without having dipped into a host of different worlds imagined by others. Seeing the omissions and inconsistencies those worlds may erode the pleasure a bit, yet the exercise of thinking about them is also valuable.
As always, though, the medium filters the message, and the medium of fiction demands drama set against a mostly familiar background.
Alas, molecular manufacturing concepts from the 1990s forward aren’t inherently dramatic (big boxes with small conveyor belts, and all that), and so — in fiction and the popular press — modern ideas haven’t displaced the exciting fantasies created by transmogrifying ideas from 1986. This is how “nanotechnology” initially became equated with swarms of nanobugs that bring both miracles and the perils of unleashing mysterious animistic forces. With this fantasy in place, a genre was born, but one that seldom offers help in thinking about the transformative effects of new means of production and a vast expansion in the kinds and quality of products. It has instead diverted and displaced serious thought.
When asked to recommend a science fiction novel about advanced nanotechnologies, I point to The Diamond Age: Or, a Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer, by Neal Stephenson. It’s a good read, it portrays a complex and surprising world, it’s not saturated with nanobots, and many details of the Diamond Age world show that Neal didn’t stop after reading Engines of Creation — he read Nanosystems, too.