Nanotech Database

Article Title:
Nanotechnology in the Age of Posthuman Engineering: Science Fiction as Science.

Milburn, Colin

Journal Information:
Vol. 10, Num. 2


Milburn shows that the boundary between science fiction writers and writers of theoretical applied science is hopelessly blurred. (279) Writings on nanotechnology partake of, and benefit from, this fluid border. In 2002, when Milburn wrote, nanotechnology was dismissed by some as a visionary science. K. Eric Drexler's vivid prose and future scenarios Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology troubled other scientists. He and other pioneers in the field asserted that nanotechnology was already inevitable. Nanotechnology responded with "various rhetorical strategies intended to distance its science from the negative associations of science fiction." (266) Among those was what Milburn calls the "Feynman origin myth." Richard Feynman's 1959 talk 'There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom,' delivered to the American Physical Society at the California Institute of Technology, described the possibility of engineering on the molecular level. Milburn argues that nanowriters use this talk to lend the entire field the imprimatur of a respected Nobel Prize winner. Milburn argues that "The Feynman myth would work only if it clearly had no precedents, if it was truly an 'original' event in intellectual history, if Feynman had offered a unique, programmatic conception of how nanotechnology was to be accomplished. Yet this is not the case: Feynman merely depicted a speculative vision of a possible technology." (283) Furthermore, Feynman's talk clearly shows the influence of a Robert Heinlein short story, "Waldo." Milburn argues that science fiction cannot " be stripped from nanoscience without loss, for it is the exclusive domain in which mature nanotechnology currently exists…and any eventual appearance of practical molecular manufacturing —transforming the world at a still-unknown point in the future—would surely constitute a tremendous materialization of the fantastic. Accordingly, I suggest that molecular nanotechnology should be viewed as simultaneously a science and a science fiction." (267) Furthermore, someone like "Drexler cannot be so simply exiled: he has persuaded not only individual nanoscientists but also governmental funding boards about the inevitable nanofuture, and accordingly, nanotechnology should acknowledge the heavy speculation that remains fundamental for its own development as a research field." (280) In future, developments in nanotechnology will cause us to rethink the border of our own bodies, for "bodies in the grasp of nanologic can be reassembled or reproduced with engineering specificity." (288) One instance is cryogenics. Milburn notes that Walt Disney, "perhaps the world's most famous cryonically preserved character."(293) "In a wonderful semiotic tangle, the discourses of nanotechnology, cryonics, hyperreality, and posthumanism all converge under the sign of Disney." (293) Milburn concludes, "[n]anotechnology and all of its implications are on the horizon, bodied forth by the speculations of science and of fiction. With the nanofuture in sight, we must prepare for our posthuman condition . . . for it may be a small world, after all." (295)