One of the reasons I’m doing this short series on the science in my books is because I wish more scifi writers would talk about what’s real science and what’s made up in their stories so that people won’t grow up thinking that Star Trek (ST) science is real. One of the reason I like reading certain historical fiction writers like Kate Quinn and Allison Pataki is because they go into what is made up and what was based on historical “facts.” As a non-historian I appreciate knowing. I’m hoping that the same will happen for what I’m discussing here.
And here we go…
Most people (based on what I’ve seen) got their idea about nanotechnology from Star Trek. My introduction to it was somewhat different. ST:TNG had not yet hit television when I ran across Feynman’s There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom (a 1959 lecture on “miniaturization” that is considered the basis for the concept) via Engines of Creation, the first book I ever checked out of a college library.
[The big bugaboo about this lecture on “miniaturization” was in its interpretation, i.e. what Feynman meant vs what people “understood.” He was not talking about miniaturization in the sense of making smaller and smaller versions of something, i.e. as in using the photolithography used to make semiconductors.1 The image above demonstrates this misunderstanding in action. That robot up there looks like a macro (real world) scale robot, something that has been scaled down.]
Feynman envisioned creating from the bottom-up, i.e. manipulating atoms into making nano-scale machines (molecular machines). Ones that would look quite different than what is rendered in most art showing us nanites.
The objection to the concepts in Engines of Creation was in how theoretical it all was. Someone (I honestly don’t remember who) made the point that putting together a molecular machine (a nanite) would be like trying to assemble a watch (the old-fashioned kind with lots of tiny pars) while wearing mittens soaked in glue. Which is actually a pretty apt analogy.
For a timeline of nanotechnology look here and know that we are not talking about nanoscale effects such as the doping of glass to create the red in stained-glass windows. That might be a nanoscale effect but it’s wishful thinking to call it molecular nanotechnology. Honestly, I don’t understand the need to have the “ancients” know anything. Using it and understanding it and being able to create it are all different things.
The stuff I’m talking about is the nanotech boom of the 1990s where everything got tagged with “nano” just like everything gets tagged with “quantum” or “AI” today. Manipulating atoms/molecules is what we’re talking about here (2009-2010).
Correction, the stuff I’m talking about is based off of the concept of manipulating atoms/molecules at a level akin to magic. One version of said magic is the concept of utility fog.
For my Ravages of Honor series (affiliate link) I suborned not just the concept of this utility fog but molecular machines of all kinds, including the kinds that can go into cells and repair them. I took it beyond that, actually, making them symbionts of the donai, something that is passed on from parent to child. I made it part of who the donai are, i.e. if you don’t have donai nanites to repair your body, you default to being human and in their world, being less. And then I made it worse (not on purpose, it was one of those “I need conflict and tension in my world” things).
Control is key, including control of our creations. One could argue that even we (all living organisms including humans) have controls ingrained into our DNA. In this case, I’m talking about telomeres. (Again, I apologize in advance to any geneticists, biologists, etc. who are cringing or will cringe at anything I’m about to write and remind you, I’m writing fiction and that’s why I file for copyright, not patents. My purpose here is to show how I use science in my science fiction.)
Telomeres are why we age. They make sure our cells will die. They make sure that we can’t just keep living forever.
So of course the Ryhmans who created the donai built in a control mechanism—a way to ensure that the donai would eventually age and die. The nanites are there as a complement (hence the very loose use of symbionts) to the genetic engineering responsible for their strength and speed and agility and all the cool stuff you’d want in a super-soldier. But nanites that can replicate indefinitely are bad. Really, really, bad. The danger of gray goo certainly didn’t originate with me.
Gray goo is what you get when nanotech consumes everything in order to replicate itself. Hence the in-universe justification for applying controls on the donai’s nanites. It’s not quite the same as doing it for gray-goo-prevention purposes since the fear here wasn’t of gray-goo, but a fear of losing control over such soldiers.
I will stop here on the subject of using nanites to complement the genetic engineering in order not to delve into spoiler territory.
The use of nanites in RoH (affiliate link) extends beyond the donai themselves, of course. Nanotech in different forms can be very versatile. Utility fog can be used to transform matter, i.e. have furniture that reshapes itself, or safety devices that protect by forming themselves into barriers.
The trick of course is in NOT creating something so magical that anything can happen. And in order to do that, you have to put in limitations. Limitations such as those of thermodynamics—nanites generate heat that give them (or their activity) away. Limitations like coding gone awry because nanites exchange code and exchanging code leads to errors in replication (like cancer or like in overcoming fertility controls, something that leads to the old-fashioned in vivo (rather than in vitro) type of genetic engineering; you may know it as cross-polination or hybridization; or the breeding of dogs, cats, horses, etc. for certain qualities).
And more speculative still has to do with sub-atomic effects (i.e. quantum effects). What if they are actually quantum nanotech which is why the donai can and do pair-bond (their nanites can communicate with the nanites of certain others). And now we’re getting into girl cootie (science fiction that deals with sex and romance) territory so it turns out there’s a reason for all that sex in RoH after all. Yikes! You mean I thought it all through? No, not me. Only I could bring sex and the politics of breeding into a post on nanotechnology, right? Consider yourselves warned.
Please don’t put any spoilers in any comments. I will delete anything I consider spoilerish.
[Crossposted to Substack]