This is the conclusion of John Cramer's survey of fiction with themes
related to molecular technologies. [See Part
I in Update 8.]
Two mid-80s novels, Greg Bear's Blood Music (Arbor House, 1985)
and Paul Preuss' Human Error (Tor, 1985), both preceding the
1986 publication of Engines
of Creation, deal with the dangers of runaway biotechnology.
In both novels, micro-organisms that have been bioengineered for use in
computing go out of control. In both novels these organic computers evolve
and organize themselves into intelligent systems capable of infecting and
"taking over" and/or enhancing human beings. The outcome for humanity,
by good luck rather than any result of effort or planning, turns out to
be beneficial in both.
Again these scenarios can be taken as warnings that any technology capable
of evolution can "run away" in a direction beyond our control.
This is a concern that has also been expressed in connection with the release
of genetically engineered organisms into the environment. The concern is
a real one, and nanodevices will have to be designed so that this loss of
control cannot occur. On the basis of the pre-design studies that have already
been done, this goal is readily achievable. "Counters" that limit
the number of device duplications, and encryption schemes for DNA coding
sequences are two methods that have been suggested. Probably the danger
inherent in nanotechnology lies in its misuse through human malice and stupidity
rather than from a runaway of evolving nanomachines.
Perhaps the bravest attempt to write the Great American nanotek (or perhaps
biotek) novel and to deal with the impact on a broad front is Leo Frankowski's
Copernick's Rebellion (Del Rey, 1987). In Frankowski's novel
an international agreement has eliminated all government funding of genetic
engineering, thereby nearly killing the field. Martin Guidebo, an erratic
genius who escaped Germany in 1940 with the Nazis at his heels, and Heinrich
Copernick, his war-orphan nephew who is now a successful 1990s industrialist,
decide to develop genetic engineering using their own funds. They have developed
such super-tools as an "X-ray resonance microscope", a microscalpel
using an X-ray laser, and a supercomputer based bio-simulator which allow
them to directly manipulate the DNA programming of organisms and to accurately
predict the results of such manipulations. They use this technology to rebuild
their own bodies and to rejuvenate themselves. They focus their new technology
on the consumer, developing a series of "treehouse" habitats that
provide for all the needs of the humans living in them, and they distribute
treehouse seeds free to all takers. The economic disruption that results
produces a duel between the "stuffed shirts," as Guidebo calls
elected officials, and our rebel nanotek heroes. The escalating warfare
that ensues, after many thousands of deaths and the calculated sabotage
of most pre-organic machines, results in the replacement of our present
politico-economic system with an idyllic anarchy.
Frankowski's technocratic vision is a nice try at a possibly impossible
task. He avoids many of the problems of a real technology revolution by
putting the capabilities exclusively in the hands of just two clever and
lucky men who, to the best of Frankowski's abilities, are described as using
it wisely. The novel is thought provoking but far from satisfying and unintentionally
rather horrifying. By the conclusion, the number of loose ends gives the
novel the aspect of a shag rug. The implication of Frankowski's work is
that even the rather limited biotechnology he describes, which offers considerably
less potential than true nanotechnology, intolerable stresses are placed
on our existing slow-moving ill-prepared political system. Even with "good
guys" at the controls, the result is military intervention, violence,
anarchy, and a large number of dead bodies.
Vernor Vinge, a SF writer of note and a mathematician who understands well
the behavior of the exponential function, has focused attention on the implications
of our exponentially rising technological capabilities, among which are
those implicit in nanotek. In his story collection True Names
Vinge discussed his expectation that this techno-explosion will culminate
in a few decades in what he calls "The Singularity." His novel
Marooned in Realtime describes a group of post-Singularity
stragglers living on a depopulated Earth. They have "spaced over"
the Singularity, having had the fortune (or misfortune) to be suspended
in stasis at the time when it occurred and when the rest of the human population
mysteriously vanished. This premise forms the background for an entertaining
futuristic murder mystery.
In using this format for his novel, Vinge the writer has himself spaced
over the need to describe the Singularity or the events leading up to it,
except with a few obscure hints. This is perhaps inevitable, but it provides
us with little insight as to what nanotek explosion may be store for us
in the coming decades or how we should prepare.
Jeffrey Carver's novel From a Changeling Star (Bantam, 1989)
uses nanotechnology as a central plot element and even has a central character
named E'rik Daxter. Another character is repeatedly "assassinated"
and restored by nanomachines in his body, and intelligent nano-creatures
are one of the power groups. However, nanotek has not impacted Carver's
civilization as a whole. Rather it is a kind of "magic" possessed
in secret by one particular faction. This is an enjoyable book that develops
many interesting ideas, but as a guide to how nanotechnology might impact
our civilization Changeling Star isn't very helpful.
Greg Bear's short story "Sisters" (Tangents, Warner,
1989) concerns the downside of tinkering with the human genome. Letitia
is an NG (natural genome) teenager attending a high school where most of
the students are PPCs (pre-planned children) whose genomes have been manipulated
for enhanced intelligence, physical beauty, and improved athletic abilities.
A latent "bug" in the genetic software of the PPC children becomes
evident, a neural instability leading to epileptic seizures and death. Letitia,
formerly resentful of her inferiority to the PPC children, loses some of
her PPC friends and grows up.
Bear's scenario is all too plausible. Those of us who write computer programs
know that the easy part of programming is the writing of the program; the
difficult part is the subsequent elimination of all the bugs, the programming
mistakes and misconceptions. Surely genetic engineering, which involves
a "mainframe" far more complex than a simple digital computer,
will have similar problems. How will the nanotek engineers of the future
debug design-improvements in the human genome? Simulation? Or trial-and-error?
Gregory Benford's story "Warstory" (IASFM, January
1990) is, at one level, about another genetic engineering accident. The
greenhouse effect has raised the levels of the oceans, and southern California
has become a new Netherlands, protected from the incursions of the Pacific
behind a wall of dikes. The dikes are protected by a living organic coating
that prevents corrosion and repels barnacles and other sea life. But the
coating mutates and begins to eat the seawall it was designed to protect.
Or is this techno-thriller the recreational reading of a stranded pilot
fighting a space-war on Ganymede? The reader isn't quite sure.
Poul Anderson's new novel Boat of a Million Years Tor, 1989),
is, for most of the book, set in the past. But the immortal protagonists
progress through history to the present and beyond, and the last chapters
take place in a future in which nanotechnology and a nuclear war have radically
altered civilization. The details of the nanotek revolution are never explicitly
spelled out, but the sea-changes in economics, aesthetics, and values are
everywhere apparent. This is certainly Anderson's best book since Avatar,
perhaps his best novel ever. The level of thought and balanced judgement
that has gone into this convincing portrayal of a post-nanotek civilization,
though a minor part of the overall work, is impressive. The portrait of
the nanotek revolution, however, is a low-resolution image deep in the background
of a work that is focused elsewhere.
Greg Bear's forthcoming novel Queen of Angels (Warner, 1990)
is set in 2047, roughly a decade after the onset of a major nanotek revolution.
There is abundant nanotek here. The principal protagonist, a woman police
professional, is a "transform" whose body has been restructured
and improved by nanotek. A sculptor, his hands scarred by the careless use
of nanomachines, is supervising the nanotek restructuring of an old building
from the inside out. Concealed in the hollow handle of a hairbrush, a nanomachine
"goo" can be used to convert scrap steel and plastic into a fully
loaded pistol as needed. An intelligent nanotek-based star probe orbiting
an earth-like planet of the Alpha Centauri system is relaying the observations
of its nanomachine "children" on the planet's surface. Specialized
nanomachines are injected into humans to construct neural interfaces that
permit mind-to-mind contact used for therapy. A variant of the mind-therapy
technology, the "hellcrown" is the ultimate instrument of torture,
used to extract massive retribution from criminals. And so on.
Bear tells a fine story and does the best job in SF so far of portraying
the societal impact of nanotek. My instincts say that the real impacts of
a real nanotechnology will be even more far-reaching, even more invasive,
than those depicted in Queen of Angels. But they are also far
more difficult to predict.
Nanotek is a relatively new theme in SF, an new flavor of technical "magic."
SF writers are just beginning to explore its potential, to find ways of
exploiting its potential and dealing with its intrinsic problems and pitfalls.
It will perhaps be decades before the nanotechnological revolution arrives,
but in the interim there will be time for SF writers to prepare us for this
revolution to come. We live in "interesting times."
G. Cramer is a Professor of Physics at the University of Washington,
Seattle, and author of Twistor, a near-future hard-SF
novel published in hardcover by William Morrow & Company in March 1989.
His science-fact column, "The
Alternate View," is published bi-monthly in Analog Science
Fiction/Science Fact Magazine.
Books are listed in order of increasing specialization and reading challenge.
Your suggestions are welcome. And remember, if a book's price looks too
high, your library should be able to get it through interlibrary loans.--Editor
Megamistakes, by Steven P. Schnaars, Free Press (Macmillan),
1989, cloth, $19.95. Useful examination of technology forecasting mistakes
and why they happen. Business-oriented; repetitive in spots. Fails to support
the subtitle's claim that rapid technological change is a "myth."
Spacefarers, Voyage through the Universe series, Time-Life
Books, 1989. Includes pp. 116, 117-121 on proposed uses of nanotechnology
in space, much artwork. FI member Stewart Cobb consulted on the project.
Hypertext 89 Proceedings, from the Nov. 5-8 Pittsburgh
meeting, chairman Rob Akscyn, published by Association for Computing Machinery,
paper, $30. Most concentrated source of published information (28 papers)
on work being done in the field; highly recommended for those interested
in hypertext. ACM order #608891 from ACM Order Dept., PO Box 64145, Baltimore,
MEMS-90, Proceedings of the IEEE Conference on Micro
Electro Mechanical Systems, held Feb. 11-14 at Napa, CA, cosponsored by
ASME; $28. The "bottom-up" approach to building continues to infiltrate
this "top-down" meeting series with coverage of STM work from
IBM Watson, Stanford, University of Tokyo, and Matsusita. Most papers on
micro structures, sensors, actuators, machines, and robots. IEEE catalog
#90CH2832-4; phone 800-678-IEEE.
Molecular Electronic Devices: Proceedings of the Third
International Symposium, ed. F.L. Carter, R.E. Siatkowski, and H. Wohltjen,
Elsevier/North Holland, 1988, $152.75. Proceedings of the 1986 meeting;
primarily for chemists, but does include one paper on mechanical nanocomputers.
The Foresight Institute receives hundreds of letters requesting information
and sending ideas. Herewith excerpts:
On behalf of Don Lavoie, Bill Tulloh, myself, and all of us here at the
Center for the Study of Market Processes, thanks for the publicity you gave
our conference, "Evolutionary Economics: Learning from Computation."
It made a big difference to our attendance and the quality of discussions.
... The conference was a big success.
George Mason University
See the article on the conference elsewhere
in this issue.--EditorYou have expressed interest
in a Soviet publication about Engines of Creation, and before
a copy of it I requested from there arrives, I'd like to share with you
some information. This was a small monthly periodical in "Radioelectronics
and Communications" series, published, together with many other brochures,
journals, books, etc. by the Soviet Znanie ("Knowledge") Society--a
very large and versatile organization for spreading technological and scientific
Popular and serious at the same time, the article was authored by Alexandr
Smirnov and titled "Chips, LSI Chips, VLSI Chips..." This seemingly
irrelevant title is very characteristic for today's Soviet life, when people
do have new freedoms, but have to use traditional organizations, channels,
Pages 3-16 are devoted to a review of a number of works by V.F. Dorfman
(Soviet) on the history of evolution of shape-forming instruments, machines,
and methods, as well as his classifications of shape-forming processes and
equipment. One of the interesting questions touched is why industrial equipment
is bigger, while building machinery is smaller, than the objects they form?
Then, from page 16 to 64, there is a serious, concise (and uncritical) rendering
of all chapters of Engines. As I understand, the first part
was to put a theoretical foundation under the reader's understanding of
the role of nanotechnology in the process of technological evolution.
I liked the whole brochure for both the contents and style and think that
the Foresight Institute itself would hardly give a better representation
of its ideas.
...This country [USSR], despite its collapsing social structures, is worth
working with, considering its large, and mostly unknown to the human world,
pool of creative ideas, traditions of long-term and large-scale thinking,
and, still, the cheapest intellectuals on the planet.
(now in Cambridge, MA)
When we receive a copy of this publication and get it translated, at
least in part, we'll publish more on the state of nanotechnology information
in the USSR.--Editor
The journal Technology Analysis and Strategic Managementpublished in its December 1989 issue an article on the First Foresight
Conference on Nanotechnology. The December 1989 issue of Japan's Journal
of Micromachine Society covered the conference on pages 25-29 and
perhaps beyond--without a translation we can't tell where it stops. The
March 1990 issue of JOM (formerly Journal of Metals)
included a one-page review of the conference by David R. Forrest, former
president of the MIT Nanotechnology Study Group.
The May 8, 1990, issue of Newsday had a two-page article by
Kathy Woolard on nanotechnology, an unusually well-done piece and perhaps
the only newspaper article to mention the engineering problem of thermal
motion and how it is solved. Brava, Kathy.
The June 1990 issue of Ad Astra, the magazine of the National
Space Society, featured a four-page article on nanotechnology by FI member
(and early member of the MIT Nanotechnology Study Group) Stewart Cobb.
The Summer 1990 issue of the Whole Earth Review published a
ten-page writeup of pros (Drexler) and cons (Simson Garfinkel) in the technical
case for nanotechnology and a one-page summary of the First Foresight Conference
by Steven Levy.