Reading List: Bridging the Gaps: Science Fiction and Nanotechnology

Right, forget about the other article on sf and nanotechnology, and just read this one instead. It is a really good, solid piece of work. Its claims are precise, modest, well-argued and interesting. It does end up with some fairly jargon-heavy sentences — “The synchronic dimension of the chronotope is traversed by a diachronic or historical vector” — but by the time you hit them, Lopez has explained all the terms; and he only introduces specialised words that he actually needs.

His argument is a more limited, specific but clearly consequential version of that advanced in the Milburn piece: that the discourse about nanotech (or what he calls NST, “nanoscience and technology”) makes use of narrative techniques characteristic of science fiction in a way that damagingly restricts discussion of the field. Crucially, he notes that he is not questioning the credentials of nanotech researchers, nor the status of the field as a whole; and also that the strategies he is discussing are not specific to nanotech. He develops his argument through close reading of two texts — one from the margins of the field, one from its centre.

Briefly, Lopez suggests that writing about nanotech characteristically makes use of two of the strategies sf uses to construct a world, namely the intrusion of a novum, and the development of a future history. The “chronotope” mentioned above is the “literary space-time” constructed by a speculative narrative; and the chronotope of writing about nanotech is a reframing of the history of technology as having “the attempt to manipulate atoms, initially clumsily but increasingly with more precision” as its central issue. The novum in his first example, Drexler’s Engines of Creation, is the development of a molecular assembler; he explores how Drexler’s text creates a history that treats this development as inevitable, and then extrapolates from it. In his second example, a report from a 2001 American conference sponsored by the National Science Foundation and Department of Commerce, the novum is, slightly more subtly, “the integration and synergy of the four technologies (nano-bio-info-cogno) [that] originate from the nanoscale”. One of the successes of the article is its illustration that, actually, the rhetoric in this report — which predicts, for instance, that intelligent machines will eradicate possibility, and that nanotech will enable direct brain-to-brain communication that will allow a “more efficient social structure for reaching human goals” — is not significantly less heated than Drexler’s. The difference, perhaps, is that Drexler writes of a device-novum intruding into the real world, while the report describes a theoretical-understanding-novum intruding into the scientific world, so its predictions are less foregrounded.

This approach to writing about nanotech is problematic:

SF literature typically incorporates a historical account, or future history, that explains how the fictional world has come about. It normally contains the period before, during, and after the novum. If the narrated world is to be credible, the relationship between the three periods must be one of inevitability. This sense of historical necessity is also reproduced, as I have shown above, when the novum structures NST discourse. […] if the inevitability of these processes are accepted, then there is logically and discursively a rather limited role for ethical reflection or analysis of social implications.
The extrapolative structure of the novum erases the contingencies inherent in technoscientific development by projecting it along a linear developmental path that will most certainly be frustrated. […] This becomes particularly problematic when these developmental paths are invested, as they are within a technological determinist logic made possible by the novum, with the ability to resolve all manner of social, cultural, and political problems. Potential non-technological solutions become marginalized and are not pursued.

Essentially, writing about nanotech that treats it as a novum and models its likely effects on the world by its very nature simplifies and flattens the world: or, put another way, the world is not a single-novum story. Lopez then takes time out in his conclusion to emphasise that “the existence of SF narrative elements in NST discourse does not make the latter a work of literary SF”, and that actually because it is literary speculation — because it is imaginative play — “ironically, literary SF succeeds where NST discourse fails”. Sf can, Lopez argues, use a single-novum distortion to comment on precisely the ethical and cultural problems that nanotech writing attempts to obscure, because “whereas in SF the extrapolated future is a stepping-stone for critical reflection, in NST discourse the extrapolated future is the endpoint of the reflection”.

Ironically, it’s only in this defense of science fiction that Lopez manages to make me want to argue with him, and perhaps even then argue is too strong a term. I’d suggest, though, that one of the most significant trends in the sf of the last couple of decades is that single-novum works have fallen out of fashion, in part because, just as Lopez says of nanotech writing, they often seem to simplify and deform the world. (John Clute’s critique of some of Adam Roberts’ novels, for instance, takes this sort of line.) Instead, paradigmatically in the novels of Ian McDonald, we get (and encourage) futures where many novums collide, which purport to be more “realistic” extrapolations from the world as it is; or we get the William Gibsons of the world telling us that this is precisely why sf has become impossible, that all we have is the spinning of the given moment’s scenarios.

One last interesting point: Lopez suggests that one flaw in nanotech writing is that “totalizing utopian vision … invites similarly generated counter-visions”: that is, you can get a dystopia from the same novum, following the same logic, but changing some of the assumptions going into the model; and in so doing, you can open up a discourse space for the sort of ethical-cultural questions that the conventional nanotech narrative blocks. This makes me think of extrapolation to peak oil, or ecotastrophe, or some other catastrophic point, as a solution to Gibson’s bind: take those single novums far enough, and you clear a space to start doing sf again.

7 thoughts on “Reading List: Bridging the Gaps: Science Fiction and Nanotechnology

  1. My main question is whether what Lopez describes isn’t something which happens with many new technologies/sciences during the days of their infancy.

    For example: remember the cyper hype in the late eighties/early nineties. Suddenly, everyone was dreaming about virtual reality, cyberpsace, data gloves, cybersex, and so on. I remember reading quite serious articles describing the brave new virtual future. As with the nanowriting Lopez describes none of those things actually existed or if they did only in a very primitive form. And in many ways Neuromancer et al. seem to have been much more important in this discussion than actual technology.

    It’s also interesting to see that this hype ended when the web became a reality, when people where finally able to browse the web. The difference between what could actually be done with the first browsers and what the cyberhype described became obvious.

    Maybe this is exactly why nanowriting still exists (does it actually?): The technology is still in its infancy, even more: it’s not even clear what nanotechnology actually is. So we still have to wait for a sobering experience comparable to the first use of Mosaic.

  2. My main question is whether what Lopez describes isn’t something which happens with many new technologies/sciences during the days of their infancy.

    He acknowledges that is is, doesn’t he? But argues that nanowriting is the most extreme example of the form:

    This gap, of course, is not specific to NST and can be found in other fields. […] However, in the case of NST the hype is different. For instance, although biotechnology hype promises wealth, global food abundance, and intimations of immortality through genetic therapy and enhancement, NST’s hype promises more! By drawing on the metaphor of the nanotechnoscientist as the master builder and NST as the toolbox that makes possible the manipulation of the fundamental stuff that makes up the world, NST claims nothing less than to be able to rebuild the world. […] It is instructive to compare the semantic suppleness associated with the metaphors used in the HGP [human genome project] with those deployed in NST. The HGP promised to produce a “plan”, “blueprint”, “encyclopaedia”, or a “program” of life (Rothman 1998, p. 25). In all instances its vision of the future was limited by the frontier between the organic and the inorganic. However, NST’s ‘shaping-the-world-one-atom-at-a-time’ metaphor makes it possible to transcend this boundary: Nobel laureate and nanotechnoscientist Richard Smalley claims, “Nanotechnology is the builder’s final frontier” (cited in NSTC 1999, p. 1).

    So we still have to wait for a sobering experience comparable to the first use of Mosaic.

    I’m not sure what such a moment would look like, for nanotech. Is it that IBM logo?

  3. One difference between nanotech and cyberspace is that the former is more of an industrial technology while the latter is a consumer technology. Ordinary people could use a browser by dialing up with a 28.8k modem, so they could see how the mundane reality of the web differed from the hype. But nanotech’s failures will happen in the lab, so there isn’t the same opportunity for casual observers to be disillusioned. I think it’s more likely that one day we’ll jokingly complain about the lack of replicators the way we currently complain about the lack of jetpacks.

  4. This is very interesting, and raises some questions that are very live, in my working imagination at any rate. But I’m inhibited from chipping into the debate, for fear of coming across like I’m snarking at the ‘Clute’s critique of some of Adam Roberts’ novels’ angle (which is right, I think, as a way of characterising the nature of my novelistic project, though I’d hope not necessarily the success therein).

  5. I don’t think anyone reading is going to be too shocked that you disagree with Clute about the value/desirabiliy/potential of totalising metaphors in sf …

    Have you read The Windup Girl yet? As in so many other discussions, it strikes me as an interesting example, here because in a sense it’s both types of sf — its world is one in which everything is shaped around one feature (environmental catastrophe), which is more plausible as metaphor than as literal extrapolation (the calorie economy), yet which within that constraining singleness has lots of different novums intruding into the story. Or so it seems to me.

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