The scientific aspect of science fiction is what gives the genre its distinct possibilities, but it can also be a burden on its creators. Luckily, those of the genre have found a few catch-all terms to explain anything overly complicated without raising too many questions.
The noble art of explaining sci-fi gibberish with a handful of more digestible sentences has a long history in all media. Writers often need something that can do everything they need within the confines of the story without losing the suspension of disbelief. One of the best all-purpose plot sealing solutions is technology that can do it all, but you don’t see it doing it.
Nanotechnology is an umbrella term for any form of machinery too small to see with the naked eye. Regularly called nanobots, nanites or nanomachines, these little things seem to be capable of anything. In real life, nanotechnology branches out into most fields of scientific study, from molecular biology to the physics of semiconductor devices. Robots already work as a good way to answer logic questions in sci-fi stories, but shrinking them beyond the human eye makes them even more effective. It’s reminiscent of the old thought experiment that suggests anything could be possible with the specification that it’s too small for a microscope to see. In the history of science fiction, there is almost nothing that cannot be explained by the modern marvel of small technology.
In the star trek franchise, how do the Borg assimilate their prey into the Collective and basically transform their bodies into these iconic cyborgs? They inject “nanoprobes” into the bloodstream. How does the T-1000 Terminator 2: Judgment Day change his appearance to imitate everyone he sees? His “Mimetic Pollyalloy” contains nanites that capture data and reform his shape to the desired aesthetic layout. How do Iron Man, Black Panther and Spider-Man immediately transform into suits when danger strikes without carrying them around all the time? Nanites; T’Challa’s are in his necklace, Tony’s are in the arc reactor in his chest, Peter’s are in a small launch pad that fires from Avengers HQ. There are countless other examples of this trope being used to answer simple questions like these. In fact, each of the works mentioned presents other examples of nanotechnology through their countless entries.
The earliest examples of nanotechnology in fiction predate public knowledge of actual use of the concept. The average person would have little or no knowledge of the concept’s existence until the late 1980s when K. Eric Drexler wrote Creation Engines. Drexler drew on Richard Feynman’s important but largely ignored 1959 speech “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom” to introduce the concept to the layman. The concept has about 50 years of history before that in the works of science fiction writers.
Arthur C. Clarke is one of the fathers of the art form, so it stands to reason that he would invent the modern form of the trope. His short story from 1956 The next tenants featured machines that operated on the micrometer scale. This tale featured a self-proclaimed mad scientist who believed that termites were mankind’s finest intellectuals and morals. With this idea as a guiding star, the scientist invents a bunch of new technologies perfectly sized for these insects. The story suggests that the anonymous inventor somehow teaches bugs to use this tiny piece of technology, but it doesn’t matter how it all works. The thrust of the brief narrative is the narrator’s confusion and mixed feelings about the scientist’s beliefs. Even in its first example, the narrative doesn’t feel the need to explain how termites could build a civilization beyond “nanomachines, wires.”
The weirdest thing about nanotechnology in science fiction is that it’s almost never the focus of the works it features in. There are tons of science fiction stories about the human race as a whole dealing with its latest innovation, but nanotechnology is almost always a minor background or detail in the story. Even when nanotechnology is the threat the heroes must fight to save the world, the discipline’s unique traits rarely matter. Most nanomachine stories would work just as well if someone replaced every use of the term with the word magic. The idea of a story in which the specific unique traits of manipulating subatomic matter are always available to any science fiction writer, and could be very interesting.
Nanotechnology can kill or heal anyone, grant overwhelming superhuman powers, cause or solve global crises, and do almost anything in between. They are one of the most variable tropes in the genre, as well as one of the easiest to explain. Science fiction writers have been using nanomachines for decades, it will be interesting to see what they are capable of in future work.
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