Monday, April 16, 2012

Speculative Fiction Tropes: Nanotech

Today continues the April A-Z Challenge. This month, I'll be blogging (almost) daily about a different speculative fiction trope, one for each letter of the alphabet. Today's entry is on Nanotech.

Nanotechnology is a broad and emerging real-world field of study that is likely to have wide implications for us in the foreseeable future--hopefully good ones.

Put roughly, nanotech deals with the construction of machines and devices on the nano scale, the manipulation of matter at the molecular level. The applications range from relatively "simple" things like the ultra-thin polymer coating on your anti-glare sunglasses to fantastic future applications like nanobots--machines that can manipulate the very atoms that make up the matter around us.

Sounding like science fiction already, isn't it?

Like most emergent tech fields, nanotechnology has been embraced by writers in the speculative domain. A multitude of imaginations have envisioned worlds where nanomachines serve a litany of purposes, from the mundane to the malevolent. They've been used as the foundational premise of some works and ham-handed phlebotinum in others.

In his 1956 short story The Next Tenants, Arthur C. Clarke describes tiny termite-esque machines that operate on a micrometer scale. While the measurements given for these microbots are technically too large to qualify as nanomachines, they possessed all of the qualities and characteristics that we now identify with nanotechnology. As such, Clarke's story is widely viewed as one of the first to depict nanotechnology in fiction.

The Star Trek franchise has featured nanotech concepts many times over the years.

In one episode, a swarm of nanites (another word for nanobots) gain sentience via collective intelligence, infecting the starship Enterprise and eventually evolving to the point of sapient thought.

Other examples in Roddenberry's famous universe include nanite viruses engineered as weapons, and pernicious "nanoprobes" the Borg inject into the bloodstream of their victims to facilitate assimilation.

I've never explicitly referenced any kind of nanotechnology in my works, though I have written some science fiction stories where it might be argued that nanotech was implied by the level of technology depicted. I do have an idea buzzing around that toys with the idea of a nano-apocalypse scenario, but I haven't decided if it's something worth pursuing just yet.

All signs seem to point to a real-life future built on the back of nanotech. As a writer in the speculative realm, that excites me. I feel very fortunate to live in a time when science fiction concepts are becoming reality. I don't know if I'll be the first in line to hold my arm out for the nanoprobe injections, but I will certainly be watching on the edge of my seat when that line begins to form.

Recommended Reading:
Blood Music by Greg Bear
Prey by Michael Crichton
The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson

Recommended Viewing:
The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008)
I, Robot

Recommended Gaming:
Deus Ex
Metal Gear Solid 4


  1. This post reminds me of Innerspace! Why isn't that a recommended view, huh? (I kid, I kid!) Once again a great read- but I wouldn't expect anything less by now :)



    1. Haha, I'd forgotten about Innerspace! Haven't seen it in years.

      Thanks, Randi!

  2. Awesome pick and post, J.W.! 8)

    Nanotechnology is one of the greatest examples of science-fiction becoming reality, and as such it totally makes my little geeky heart beat faster. Also, nanobots are some of the most compelling (if not creepy) sci-fi villains. Just think of the Replicators in Stargate. *shudder*

    I wish I will still live the day when nanites are injected into our bodies in the form of an inoculation against cancer.

    1. You're right, Vero. Nanobots can be such an inherently creepy concept when played right that they make great villains (or weapons used by villains)! Hopefully there won't be too much gray goo resistance in the real world when it comes time to get those injections. There are some people out there who are seemingly terrified by scientific progress, and unfortunately many of them are in positions of power around the world.

      Thanks for the comment, as usual!

  3. Interesting. I remember being all excited about computer programming back when the Y2K issue was gaining world wide attention. I thought I would become famous. Then I discovered it was actually work! lol


    Nice post.

    1. A lot of work! Not my cup of tea at all, haha.

      I remember how big a deal Y2K was. We're headed for something similar this year with the whole 2012 Zombie Mayan Doompocalypse thing. Hopefully people realize how silly it is before going nuts.

      Thanks for reading!

  4. The possibilities are both amazing and terrifying. New follower.

  5. Things get really interesting when Science Fiction and reality start to merge. I can't wait to see what kinds of everyday technologies emerge from nanotech.

    Great post!

    The Golden Eagle
    The Eagle's Aerial Perspective

    1. It's an exciting time to be alive. We might see some amazing things on the horizon.

      Thanks, Eagle!

  6. This reminds me of the idea that whatever a person can write or dream up can be made to come true. Of course, that doesn't apply to all things, but technology wise, perhaps so. I just read the other day that someone has invented a on Bones belt on Star Trek. Interesting, yeah?

    1. I heard about that! Very interesting. I think there's been a few attempts at creating a device similar to a tricorder. It will be interesting to see what the real-life version can do.

      Thanks for stopping by, Jeremy!

  7. Have you read "Decipher" by Stel Pavlou? It has some pretty fun nano-tech in it! Maybe not the best novel ever but it is pretty epic. :)

    Happy A to Z'ing!

    1. I haven't! I'll have to check it out. Thanks for stopping by!


Thanks for reading!