Nanotech, terraforming, geoengineering – facts and fictions entangled.

I have, I reckon, a pretty good grip on the distinction between science fiction and reality. I read a lot of non-fiction along with my fiction. Without diverting into epistemology, I see a difference. Also, reading and writing about science for a few decades encourages you to develop a good working bullshit detector.

I am even inclined to react to the common 21st century observation that we now live in a science-fictional reality with the raised eyebrow of a simple soul pedant. If it’s reality, it ain’t fictional.

But working on the current project for NESTA on SF and innovation has brought home more strongly that fact and fiction are deeply interwoven in some areas of science and technology.

The prime exhibit here, I think, is nanotechnology. It is a hard case to analyse clearly because the term is so vague. It is partly an extension of materials science, with finer control over the composition of the product, down to the molecular or even atomic level. It is also a label for a much broader collection of ideas, involving nanometre scale devices – equipped with some power source and computing and communication capacity – which would be able to do many wonderful things. The ostensibly non-fiction accounts of the latter prospectus often draw on science fiction tropes, a habit that extends on occasion to government reports.

These science-fictional roots of the more exotic possibilities of nanotechnology have attracted much attention. Conclusions about their significance differ widely. Some say that nanotechnology concepts are inherently science fictional, and this is a bad thing. Others maintain that it is true but does not matter. Science fiction either helps or hinders funding, confuses or informs policy-makers, inspires support, or raises unrealistic expectations and evokes public fears. Maybe all of these things have been true at some point, I don’t know. But it seems inescapably true that discussion of nanotechnology and its potential has always been a science fiction discourse, even when the point being made is that some claims are “science fiction” and therefore illegitimate. I like Chris Toumey’s formulation here: “Nanotechnology needs a language that describes the future because, no matter how good the science is now, most of the technology is still over the horizon.” That language is inherently science-fictional.

Now I’m wondering whether there is a category of technologies which are inherently science fiction in a similar way. They would need to be things which were realisable in principle (or someone claims are realisable – which is where many of the nano-disputes arise) but not yet achievable in practice. I’d rule out faster than light travel or time travel, as our current scientific understanding doesn’t offer any basis for thinking they will happen. That may change, but for now they are more simply fictional.

A clearer example of what I mean is terraforming. There are reasonable scenarios for how it might be done. We perhaps know enough geophysics and atmospheric chemistry to map routes to altering suitable planets to make them more hospitable than we find them. The topic remains inherently fictional as we do not have any planets to try out these ideas on.

Set dressing the atmosphere processor for Aliens. We may assume the real thing will be larger.

Or do we? Terraforming as an intellectual problem blends seamlessly with geoengineering, which is still imaginary but could become a usefully real prospect before the century is out. We might need to do some terraforming on Earth.

In which case, it is interesting to ask how SF accounts of refashioning other planets might influence ideas about geoengineering. The same authors have certainly touched on both topics. James Lovelock, originator of Gaia theory, turned to fiction – with co-author Michael Allaby – to describe the terraforming of Mars. Later on, he proposed schemes for geoengineering on Earth to combat the effects of climate change. Kim Stanley Robinson, whose Mars trilogy has probably the most detailed account of terraforming, went on to elaborate some geoengineering scenarios in his subsequent near-future Earth trilogy about climate change. Gregory Benford has written both fiction and non-fiction about terraforming, citing Heinlein as an inspiration there, and was an early proponent of geoengineering as a possible response to climate change, in 1997.

Then there are films, which as usual will have been seen by more people. Does that make them more influential? No idea. Terraforming is going on in Aliens (“we call them shake and bake planets”), and we see a vast industrial plant which is the colonists’ “atmosphere processor”, though don’t get any discussion of what it is actually doing. The wondrously silly scene at the end of Total Recall when Mars has its atmosphere reoxygenated in about half a minute also comes to mind, but only as a cheerful trashing of the laws of physics.

It would be interesting, though, to catalogue these and similar depictions and consider what effect they may have had on broader discussion of the merits of geoengineering. Which other examples should go on the list? Matt Williams has an interesting post on this, starting with Olaf Stapledon and working through Arthur Clarke (who turns Phobos into a Sun!) Heinlein, Asimov and Robinson. Any more?

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6 Comments on “Nanotech, terraforming, geoengineering – facts and fictions entangled.”

  1. (@) Says:

    Intrigued by your idea that inherently SFnal concepts have to be achievable in principle but not practice. Do we not by inspection live among them? Isn’t one of the interesting things about say space travel that when it became real it didn’t stop being SFnal too?

    • jonturney Says:

      hmm, maybe inherently isn’t the right word. Need something which speaks to the moving boundary. In fact, now I think of it, the inherently science-fictional are maybe the ones which are *not* realisable, ever. The others are fictional projections which can become real, but can only be described in fictional mode at a particular time. Which would be best described as…?


  2. Another example of sci-fi influencing public attitudes (and perhaps science research) is robotics. I saw a talk by Alan Winfield (a robotics Prof at UWE) where he was saying that people are often disappointed by his robots, because they are expecting at least C3PO. Robots in fiction are far more advanced than the robots we can actually build.

    A problem that arises from this (in his view) is that policy-makers, and all the people making decisions about weaponized drones, have an unrealistic idea of how clever robots are. They don’t realise how inaccurate they are, or the potential dangers, and blithely OK their use in combat.

    One thing I find interesting about robots in fiction is the way they are used to explore our definitions of human – do intelligent robots have rights? Can they love? Will they rebel and kill us all? Fiction allows us to explore the ethical questions AI and robotics throw up, way ahead of us needing to deal with them in practice.

    But as fictional robots are so divorced from robot reality (and we can see some of the same themes in Frankenstein, Golem legends, etc), perhaps this isn’t really to do with robots at all. Maybe robots are just a modern-day place-holder for a non-human person, and/or humans ‘usurping god’ and creating life.

    I’ve rather gone off-topic re geoengineering…

    • jonturney Says:

      not off topic! – the thing I’ve written has a section on robots, too (with quotes from Winfield). This little bit about geo-engineering is here because it is one of the pieces of unfinished business in a small study which leaves much out that could be developed further… [All research grants gratefully received 🙂 ]


  3. Ooo, I thought of another example of terraforming in sci-fi – Dune. I’m sure I’ve read that Herbert consciously wrote about ecological themes, and wanted to prompt people to think about the far long-term consequences of things.


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