- Item of terminology borrowed by sf writers from theoreticians of future TECHNOLOGY, and quite popular in sf from the late 1980s. It seems to have been first used by K. Eric Drexler in 1976, and popularized by him in his book on the subject, Engines of Creation (1987).Nanotechnology - the term loosely combines "nano", the SI (metric system) prefix denoting 10(-9), with "technology" - means the technology of the very small indeed. The term microtechnology encompasses MACHINES of the order of a micrometre across; nanotechnology envisages machines very much smaller than that, perhaps of molecular size. Indeed, its working components would be atoms; the nanomachine might be like "motorized DNA". Drexler called these theoretical tiny machines "assemblers". As to the uses of these molecule-size ROBOTS, there is little that cannot be imagined: scraping fatty deposits from the insides of hardened arteries, brain surgery on individual neurons, food-making, ore-mining . . . The suggestions have been endless. Assemblers would be of a size small enough to conduct the most delicate operations within human cells - although Kim Stanley ROBINSON has suggested it might be better to image, rather than tinymedics, 10 million molecule-sized steamrollers charging up one's capillaries to perform brain surgery. Assemblers would also necessarily be capable of self-replication, which raises two questions: could they be considered a lifeform?; and could they get out of control, self-replicating until all available building materials were used up? Their number would increase exponentially: if a single assembler took 15minutes to double, then at the end of 10 hours of doubling there would be 68 billion of them, and in just over 2 days the assemblage would outmassthe Sun.Whether or not their construction is a realistic prospect is another question. Certainly it has been much discussed, and a number of laboratories have worked on some of the preliminary problems. The scanning tunnelling microscope, developed at the IBM laboratories in Zurich, has been used (April 1990) to manipulate individual atoms - even, in an episode of startling chutzpah, spelling out (using 35 xenon atoms) the IBM logo. Now that we have reached the stage of manipulating individual atoms, perhaps the construction of molecule-machines is not so impossible after all, though it is still a long way from achievement. Nevertheless, preliminary designs are already under way in the real world. A lively account of the development of theories about nanotechnology can be found in Great Mambo Chicken and the Transhuman Condition (1990) by Ed Regis.The concept of nanotechnology, not always named as such, appears regularly in 1990s sf. One of the most distinguished works to which it is fundamentalis Queen of Angels (1990) by Greg BEAR. The intelligent briefcase around whose actions and fate Michael SWANWICK's eccentric tale STATIONS OF THE TIDE (1991) pivots is, according to his acknowledgements, a work of"nanotechnics". Perhaps more significant is the number of HARD-SF works in which the existence of nanotechnology is merely taken for granted, forming part of the overall background of futuristic technology.PN
Science Fiction and Fantasy Encyclopedia. Academic. 2011.