Monday Musings – Nanotechnology

Happy Monday, all you Science Fiction fans! We all read for different reasons, but I think we Sci Fi fans share at least one unique motivation: we love science! Hopefully a Science Fiction novel will also have intriguing characters, an exciting story, and compelling dialogue, but we should be able to get those things from any novel in any genre. Right? After all, Mystery novels have intricate plots, Dramas have interesting characters, and Romance novels have “engaging” dialogue, but only Science Fiction adds fascinating science to the mix. That’s why I read Science Fiction, and that’s why I write it. So, welcome to Monday Musings! This is the first of (hopefully) many weekly columns wherein I will talk just a little bit about the technology I’ve used in my work. Jump past the break to hear about Nanotechnology, the science that enables the disaster which leads to the desolate Earth depicted in Steel Souls. And don’t forget to sign up for the newsletter! You’ll stay up-to-date about everything going on with the novel and website, as well as receive exclusive content and offers – like 25% off when Steel Souls, Book 1 releases!

The world of Steel Souls is a depressing place. Every blade of grass, every animal, every human body has been destroyed. How could that possibly happen? Humans have come up with some pretty horrific stuff in our time, but even in an atomic blast, something survives. The novel is not about the Catastrophe – that’s ancient history by the time our story begins, so I blithely dismiss it as a “nanotechnological virus.” But what is nanotechnology? Could it actually accomplish destruction on the scale that I imagine? Not right now, but that’s the fun of Science Fiction!

Nanotechnology, as defined by Wikipedia, is ” the manipulation of matter on an atomic and molecular scale” or “the manipulation of matter with at least one dimension sized from 1 to 100 nanometers.” Those are really broad definitions, and cover a huge variety of different technologies. The most famous at the moment are those dealing with materials technology. Manipulation of matter at the nanometer scale has been used to do things like create Buckyballs (or Buckminsterfullerene) which have a whole host of fascinating properties, a thermostat for living cells, flexible computer chips which are blazing fast, printable solar cells, “smart” paint and windows, even immune system stimulants. And that’s just what I found on one news site!

Fortunately, the potential for the world-wide consumption of all organic material on Earth is not immediately realized by materials research like that (except maybe the stuff about stimulating immune systems or toxic nanoparticles in our food). That kind of disaster is much more likely to come from a specialized branch of nanotechnology, commonly referred to as “nanorobotics” which strives to produce “nanomachines.” These amazing devices, sometimes referred to as “nanites,” are machines capable of performing complex tasks at the molecular or atomic level. On the positive side, such technology would allow us unprecedented control over our environments. Imagine a robot the size of a bacterium which swims by itself to the site of a blood clot, automatically takes care of it, then dissolves into harmless particles that can be safely flushed from the body. Even more fantastical, what if a swarm of nanites small enough to slip between the space between our cells spread throughout our body – testing each and every cell for signs of cancer – and literally replaced the damaged DNA in those cancerous cells with healthy DNA. You’ll notice that I don’t have links for any of these things. That’s because nanorobotics is a technology still very much in its infancy. However, the potential is there, and it’s exciting.

Unfortunately, there is a dark side to nanorobotics. What happens if your swarm of tiny robots stops communicating properly with itself and goes after something it’s not supposed to? Michael Crichton, the famous Science Fiction author, deals with some of the problems in his 2002 novel Prey. In that novel, a cloud of nanites programmed to hunt things escapes confinement and runs amok. That was scary enough. What if a nanite cloud was programmed to break down a specific kind of material, like … let’s say crude oil? What if, instead of trying to scrub water birds when an oil spill occurs, we could just sprinkle some powder around, and it would break the oil – and only the oil – down into the harmless component molecules? Wonderful, right? But what if the programming went just a little screwy, and the industrious nanites instead went after everything that resembled oil? Oil, as we know, is actually an organic substance. So, what if this nanite cloud, which is small enough to go anywhere – even to the depths of the ocean or the core of the Earth – became confused and started eating everything it defined as “organic”? If that cloud was also self-replicating, how long would it take to consume everything on the planet? Not long, in my estimation, and that’s where the Catastrophe which sets the stage for Steel Souls comes from.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this first episode of Monday Musings. Let me know what you think in the comments below. Also, don’t get left behind! Sign up for “Midweek Muse” – the weekly newsletter that keeps you up to date about everything, and gives exclusive offers, like 25% off when the first book of Steel Souls releases on September 10th!

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