Nanotechnology in fiction

(Nanowerk Spotlight) The ability to communicate new advances in science and technology has never been more important, and in that regard innovations with nanotechnology are growing more rapidly than ever with benefits to both society and the economy.
However, for many consumers and the general public, the very idea of nanotechnology is both a wonder and an enigma. Nowadays, we shop with thoughts towards our impact on the environment, where our products come from, what’s in them, cost, utility, and so on. But how do we keep our society engaged with new nanotechnology at a time when everyone is more discerning? Well, one approach is to use storytelling – and who doesn’t like a good novel? Books remain hugely popular, and in the European Union alone, annual book sales are around €36-38 billion, with some 585,000 new titles each year.
The use of ‘science in fiction’ has been around a long time with novels such as The Time Machine by H. G. Wells published in 1895, and I, Robot by Isaac Asimov published in 1950. Nanotechnology has also found its place in creative writing, and not just in the genre of science fiction, but in technology-led thrillers (‘techno-thrillers’), crime, and historical novels.
Indeed, the 2004 film version of I, Robot directed by Alex Proyas features tiny molecular machines called nanites that were designed for wiping the positronic brain of the robot, Sonny.
So, books, and films based on popular books, are firmly placing nanotechnology in our culture. Michael Crichton is well-known for his technology-led thrillers such as Jurassic Park, where nanoscale manipulation of DNA enabled the bioengineering of living dinosaurs. His book, Prey, published in 2002 is overtly about an intelligent swarm of self-replicating nanobots that prey initially on the local wildlife, but soon becomes a threat to humanity thanks to the ill-considered thinking of the fictitious company, Xymos, that invented the swarm technology.
The medical crime thriller, Nano by Robin Cook, published in 2013, uses the premise of corporate greed with a world-changing new nanomedicine to develop the suspense in his novel.
My own novels, The Reich Device, first published in 2015, and The Wolfsberg Deception released in August 2020, are historical spy thrillers set in the 1930s and 1940s. These novels explore the notion of a new nanotech weapon and the role of the intelligence services in industrial espionage. In the alternative history, some brilliant German scientists have invented a new propulsion system based on C60 fullerenes, but their work is hijacked by the state for a secret weapons programme, and naturally, both the Russians and the British want a slice of the action.
Of course, creative writing deliberately uses the traits of the characters, the hero, the villain, a sense of time, exotic locations, as well as the twists and turns of the plot, to create suspense and interest. The story itself should be an entertaining read. However, behind every piece of storytelling is plausibility – the notion that nanotechnology could find an application in that particular arena. It is also one of hope – despite all the problems in the world, nanotechnology has the potential to help.
For example, Robin Cook’s Nano in 2013 set the idea that nanotechnology could offer some fantastic advances in medicine – and in the real world in 2020 there are nanomedicines that are offering better treatments for cancer and other diseases.
In my novel, The Reich Device, a new propulsion technology is discovered in the 1930s. At that time, real scientists were racing to understand atomic physics, and some of those scientists (including Einstein) also worked on very small particles. Now, propulsion systems using nanotechnology such as the Nanoparticle Field Extraction Thruster (nanoFET) are proposed for space stations, and offer the promise of new capabilities for space flight.
My own scientific research is exploring nanotechnology for new medical implants, new sensors, water purification in developing countries, as well as applications in agriculture and fisheries. All these things are potential benefits to society.
Finally, you might be wondering what drives a scientist to write novels about nanotechnology. For me, I don’t consider them as separate professions. I am both an author and a scientist. I am also not the first. Isaac Asimov was a biochemistry professor in Boston, Michael Crichton trained as a medical doctor, and Robin Cook used his knowledge as a physician in his medical thrillers.
Nonetheless, creative writing is a very different skill to writing a textbook or scientific paper. It takes years to learn the craft, and for me, that journey has been worth it because a good novel will make an emotional connection with the reader. In that headspace there is opportunity to reflect on the messages in the storytelling – the spirit of endeavour, safe responsible innovation, and the good intentions of nanotechnology to aid humanity and improve the world we live in.
A Nanowerk exclusive by Richard D. Handy

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