Science Fiction Studies

#113 = Volume 38, Part 1 = March 2011

Joshua Raulerson

A Poke in the Eye with a Sharp Spike: Nanoculture and the Future of SF

Colin Milburn. Nanovision: Engineering the Future. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2008. ix + 280 pp. $23.95 pbk.

We may be living in dark times, but the future—that is, the future of nanotechnology, which for Colin Milburn’s purposes in Nanovision is to say the future—is bright. So astonishingly, blindingly bright, in fact, as to utterly confound our ability to properly perceive it, much less grasp what it might hold for us. For nanotech, more than any other single technological undertaking, is drawing humanity inexorably toward a moment—dubbed the Singularity by Vernor Vinge, the Spike by Damien Broderick—when all the conceptual models that lend structure and meaning to present-day reality will have to be either discarded or radically upgraded.

With Nanovision, Milburn joins a growing chorus of voices in technoculture studies who take seriously the proposition that, in some sense or another, the Singularity is coming. Until it does, judging from the cross section of tech-sector rhetoric curated here, nanotech has assumed the mantle of Last Best Hope for the faltering project of technoscientific Progress and the twentieth-century economies of production and consumption it once drove. Politicians and pitchmen tout nano-this and nano-that as the next big tech boom, while techno-libertarian prophets of posthumanity take the opportunity to double down on their most cherished presumption: that perpetually expanding markets and exponentially proliferating tech are inevitable and mutually ratifying truths.1 Elsewhere, ostensibly above the fray, researchers and engineers working toward the realization of actual nanotechnologies disdain the wild-eyed pulp sensibility that has contaminated the discourse on nano, though even these soberminded paragons of hard science are prone to making some truly extraordinary assertions of their own about what it will make possible.2 Whoever is doing the talking, it seems, the prefix “nano-“ is synonymous with breathtaking, inconceivably momentous change: it is a signifier of Singularity.

Nanovision opens with the observation that all this commercial gloss and utopian bluster—the sort of talk that David M. Berube derides as “nano-hype”—have so overloaded the collective perceptual pathways and cognitive apparatus of contemporary technoculture as to induce, in Milburn’s conceit, a sort of hysterical blindness. It is as though the historical transformation that awaits us is emitting a glare of such overpowering radiance that we cannot possibly make out what it is or what it might mean—only that it is coming. In fact, to the degree that nano-discourse posits some version of Singularity as inevitable, without being able to offer any coherent description of what a post-Singular reality might actually look like, “the imagination of nanotechnology creates its own blindness” (12)—in order to overcome it. More than just a dazzling flash of futurity reflected off the shiny surface of Vinge’s “mirrored” Singularity, the discourse of nanotech actually stages its own “conceptual singularity” by virtue of its sublime novelty and hyperpotentiality: “a blinding, an incisive wound, made by the cutting edge of nanotechnological research as an internal and inherent feature of thinking the possibilities of nanotech” (9). This version of Singularity is not so much an awakening to transcendent posthumanity as a traumatic injury, a poke in the eye with a sharp Spike.

Not to worry: Milburn is here to prescribe corrective lenses—“a conceptual pair of nanotech goggles or spectacles” (13)—that will afford us a clearer glimpse of the post-Singular reality we approach. Or rather, to tweak the metaphor, in theorizing nano-discourse as a phenomenology of visual perception, Milburn is not merely fine-tuning the optics of Singularity for his readers but also performing something more closely akin to laser surgery: focusing and concentrating the intense conceptual potency of nano-rhetoric to sear away obsolescent sensory mechanisms, rebuilding them in the process into something new and radically different. It is an operation that cannot be performed without cutting, for the perceptual faculties of nanovision are engendered in the blinding stroke of an abrupt encounter with the future.

Nanotechnology entails a way of seeing, a perspectival orientation to the world, that operates through a productive dynamic of blindness and insight. It produces a blind spot, a wall, a veil, a black hole, or a barrier and therein discovers a scission—between present and future, between human and posthuman, between science and science fiction. But at the same time, even in breaching its own blindness, it sees through it toward the beyond. It breaches the wall, breaks the barrier, lifts the veil, and voyages into the black hole. It is a way of seeing that lyses the membrane between the technological present and the nanotechnological future. (13)

Indeed, nano-epistemology insists that invasive surgical intervention on this order is entirely necessary, for only a fully posthuman subject can properly apprehend the meaning of Singularity. Merely human perception is invariably obstructed by Vinge’s “opaque wall across the future”—the event horizon that, for Vinge, stymies futurological foresight and spells doom for sf in its classic extrapolative mode. We turn to nanotechnology to reconfigure the human in such a way that this cognitive barrier can be penetrated and overcome. Here we may add to Nanovision’s catalog of optical metaphors the scanning-tunneling microscope first developed by IBM, an iconic nanotech device that performs heavy rhetorical duty on Milburn’s behalf. Executing imaging and matter-manipulating functionalities at the same time, the STM not only opens vistas onto objects and events so small as to be otherwise quite imperceptible to human observers, but it also literally opens up these spaces, dynamically altering their composition as it goes—not as a byproduct of its imaging technique but as a primary function. In the most literal sense possible, it makes the world it sees. In the same way, posthuman subjects fitted with nanovisual prosthetics simultaneously project and effect the future they envision/make visible, scanning-tunneling through the opaque wall of Singularity and out the other side.

At the same time, nanotech’s reconfiguration of material reality—at its most nightmarish and extreme, in the science-fictional “gray goo” apocalypse (perhaps most famously rendered in Greg Bear’s Blood Music [1985])—permits Milburn to frame the nano-Singularity as a site where the human may be figuratively as well as literally deconstructed. This radical transfiguration of the human being, both as an embodied form and as a subjective construct, is the thread of continuity that runs through Nanovision, beginning with the introduction’s staging of nanoculture against the backdrop of Singularitarian myth and metaphor, and continuing into the opening chapter on “Nanotechnology in the Age of Posthuman Engineering.” Chapter Two takes up the aesthetics and ethics of representation at nanoscale, examining the proposition “that nanoscience may be radically reducing the lived dimensions of our own human world” (60), disrupting the molecular integrity of the humanist self and thereby initiating us into increasingly intimate encounters with the Other. The third and fourth chapters expand upon the threatening and sometimes quite frightening aspect of these new modes of experience, unpacking the complex cultural psychology at work in a range of nano-inflected contemporary texts, from sf and horror narratives to television advertising, that turn on themes of control, contamination, and disintegration.

As this cluster of themes may suggest, Milburn’s project belongs to a strain of science-and-technology studies associated with N. Katherine Hayles’s groundbreaking How We Became Posthuman (1999) and a string of scholarly publications Hayles has subsequently authored, coauthored, or edited—notably the 2004 NanoCulture reader in which a fragment of Nanovision originally appeared. In line with Hayles’s characteristic emphasis on the contested status of bodies and physical objects in digital culture, Milburn is interested precisely in the materiality of nano: over and against the disembodied virtuality detailed in Hayles’s study, nano-reality presents an informatic model in which—marking a sharp departure from the Platonic meatlessness of late-twentieth-century cyberspace—“matter profoundly matters” (51; emphasis in original). Indeed, at one level Nanovision may be read as a response to Hayles’s call for “interventions [that] might be made” in the discourse of posthumanism “to keep disembodiment from being rewritten, once again, into prevailing concepts of subjectivity” (Hayles, Posthuman 5). If the notion of posthuman selfhood, in the wake of cyberpunk and the late-Nineties mania for virtuality, was becoming unmoored from the reality of flesh and substance, then the developments documented in Nanovision militate strongly in the opposite direction. It is, however, no easy or comfortable embrace of embodiment that the “embodied virtuality” (Hayles, Posthuman 1) of nano-discourse effects. In its dystopian mode, to which Milburn turns in his third and fourth chapters, nano is all about abjection, violence, and body horror. It operates at the ragged and continuously exfoliating boundary of the proto-Singular symbolic order, where the future is being made—and where human bodies may be unmade, often to horrific effect—by nanomachines.

While these concluding chapters make precise and purposeful use of nano-themed sf and horror texts (including Wil McCarthy’s Bloom [1998], Michael Crichton’s Prey [2002], Bear’s Blood Music, and the sprawling Terminator film franchise [1984-99]), the fiction readings arrive late and mesh awkwardly with the more ambitious and persuasive theoretical contentions that animate the book’s first half. Sf itself is more or less an afterthought to the rather technical second chapter, on nanotech spatial aesthetics of scale and distance. Notably excepting an extended reading of James Blish’s “Surface Tension” (1952), which Milburn deploys to point up how the sf imagination prefigures and largely structures these ostensibly nonfictional rhetorics, the chapter has little use for narrative per se. Even more conspicuously, sf texts are all but absent from the book’s flagship chapter (subtitled “Science as Science Fiction”), notwithstanding the occasional paragraph-long burst of citations—nano-scale synopses sandwiched in for context and ticked off without any sustained attempt at interpretive penetration. While Milburn clearly knows his stuff, here some readers may experience a twinge of frustration at the dearth of actual science fiction in his argument, relative to its invocation as a theoretical commonplace. As in the later work of Jean Baudrillard, which profoundly informs Milburn’s thinking and approach, “science fiction” is effectively a structural figuration, a discursive mode rather than a literary genre.

Yet despite its relative indifference to sf narrative as such, Nanovision’s first chapter has the most to offer those interested in the disposition of sf vis-à-vis the nano-future. The chapter, first published in Hayles’s NanoCulture, stages a lucid and insightful reading of technoscientific “nano-writing” as a hybrid discourse constituted in the complex rhetorical interplay between categories of “real science” and “science fiction” (24), wherein the fruits of the former are variously understood as inspiration for, counterfeited by, delegitimized by association with, or more fantastic than anything imagined in, the latter. Recalling Baudrillard’s claim in Simulacra and Simulation that science and sf are third-order simulacra and therefore no longer distinguishable, Milburn deftly deconstructs nano-writing’s attempts to shoehorn the two categories into a falsely referential relation—science as the “real” and sf as its “parasitical simulation”— when in fact “the relationship of science to science fiction is not one of dichotomy but one of imbrication and symbiosis.” A careful reading reveals that, rather than existing in a neat mimetic binary, “science fiction infuses science and vice versa, and vectors of influence point both ways” (26-27). In an exhaustive rhetorical analysis of academic and popular science writing on the topic, Milburn figures nano as a nominally technoscientific enterprise that, despite nanotechnologists’ vehement protestations to the contrary (and indeed to some degree as a function thereof), is operationally science-fictional in the way it speculatively projects astonishing developments into an imaginary future and then works toward their concrete realization. To whatever extent nano-discourse may be seen to either reflect or repress its participants’ awareness of these operations, nanotechnology entails a new postmodern way of doing science that simultaneously feeds on, and feeds back into, its own self-generated hyperreality, by way of its absorption of-and-within sf.

If there is some inconsistency in the status and significance accorded to sf narrative and literature generally throughout Nanovision, it is one that again bears comparison to How We Became Posthuman, for as much as Milburn’s conceptual and thematic concerns evoke Hayles, so do his style and methodology. Nanovision proceeds in a series of densely layered, rapid-fire citations from scientific authorities, critics, and assorted commentators, interwoven with sweeping but precisely formulated theoretical claims, and punctuated with snippets of pop-culture color and texture. Like Hayles, Milburn hops nimbly between nonfiction and fiction texts, ably exploiting each to his various rhetorical ends but generally conflating all categories in a single grab-bag of symptoms and specimens, never systematically privileging the literary as a distinct and independent project of inquiry. For both writers, these eclectic commitments prove conducive to a heady ferment of ideas and a credible bird’s-eye view of the cultural moment, not to mention an engaging and frequently exhilarating read. The style is so relentlessly witty, in fact, that in places it threatens to overwhelm the elegance and subtlety of the underlying argument: an inattentive reader might easily fault Milburn for a glib over-reliance on verbal coincidence and facile analogy, for example, in the sections held together by an organizing motif that amounts to a fifty-page meditation on the “It’s A Small World” ride at Disneyland. But Milburn’s lush proliferation of figurative devices and wordplay is both ornamental and instrumental; as in its construction and deconstruction of nanoculture itself, Nanovision’s finest points emerge in the flux and interplay between literal and metaphorical modes of signification.

If the short shrift Milburn gives to sf literature sometimes disappoints, it is not from a sense that his own formidable writing talents would be better invested in pages of textual close reading, but rather from the nagging implication that sf is relevant chiefly, if not exclusively, insofar as it is implicated in the furthering of secular technoscientific agendas. It is difficult to say whether Milburn means to validate this presumption or merely opts not to contest it, but in either case one thing is made abundantly clear in his reading of nanotech crusaders such as Eric Drexler and Richard Smalley: that for nanowriting’s purposes the extant body of “science fiction,” when not the object of outright hostility, is at best a storehouse of conceptual props and imaginary technologies to be plundered for rhetorical purposes. Drexler’s Engines of Creation (1986), writes Milburn, “is a veritable checklist of science fiction clichés” (28) trotted out to illustrate and dramatize the author’s claims about the possibilities of nanotech research, articulating their conceptual viability and thereby helping to effect their eventual technical realization, without acknowledging the intrinsic science-fictionality of those very projects. On the contrary, in fact, the genre of nanowriting is overdetermined to an almost absurd degree by its frantic efforts to “rescue nanotechnology from the ghetto of science fiction” (35).

As a rebuttal to Drexlerian snobbery, Milburn’s central point—that contemporary technoscience is an enterprise conceptually indebted to, if not operationally identical with, sf—is well taken, and will gratify sf-friendly readers and critics. Yet its implicit corollary and subtext is that visionary figures such as Drexler have effectively, if inartfully and ungraciously, usurped the once vital cultural role of fiction writers. Having appropriated wholesale the extrapolative logic of sf narratology (conceptual novum engenders material transformation) as an R&D model, technoscientific nano-rhetors are indeed carrying out the work of sf—“engineering the future”—but in a much more immediate and literal sense; not merely toiling away in the abstract workshops of culture, they are concretely building the tech that is transforming epistemological and physical reality in the same stroke. At the risk of seeming facetious, we might ask: if an FAQ from Drexler’s Foresight Institute is legible, structurally and in every other important way, as an sf text, what is the point of a Neal Stephenson novel? Nanovision may or may not have among its objectives the valorization of a genre still struggling to shake off the stigma of its pulp origins, but if Milburn does object to the patronizing and reductive treatment of sf by more empirically “serious” scientific thinkers, it is a short leap from the defense he has framed to the conclusion that science’s gain must be fiction’s loss. Henceforth, any reading inclined toward a sentimental affirmation of the uniqueness and value of sf texts as cultural artifacts or aesthetic objects may be consigned to the bonfire of the humanities while sf, in some exotic new post-incarnation, survives only as a methodology for “posthuman engineering.”

So science fiction in some way scripts, and can help us better understand, nanotech and nanoculture. What can nanotech teach us about fiction? about the kinds of questions to which narrative writing has historically addressed itself? In this arrangement, can sf ultimately be anything but an esoteric branch of theoretical science? These may be unfair questions to ask of Nanovision, at least insofar as they pertain narrowly to the sf genre, which is at best only secondary to the book’s main line of inquiry. Certainly the contested status of “slipstream” fiction—can it be identified and meaningfully described in formal terms, or merely intuited from some ineffable cognitive or affective field it allegedly generates?—makes the already pedantic exercise of literary genre-mongering more dubious than ever.3 Arguably, both contemporary sf and nano-discourse as figured in Milburn’s book might just as easily be subsumed under an overarching, slipstream-like ethos, as counter- or alter-realist projects mounted against the increasingly rickety certainties of a bygone era: emanations from, or responses to, the same etheric “postmodern sensibility” that Bruce Sterling claims slipstream texts uniquely reproduce and amplify. Given this context, efforts to section off and fortify sf, or any other rigid genre construct, against other texts and utterances within the larger epistemological shift that nanotech portends, seem dated and beside the point. Yet humanist literary privilege writ large may still be worth maintaining in some form, if only as an attempt to keep Singularity discourse honest by insisting on the possibility of an external frame of reference for critical reflection.

Readers who have spent any amount of time with Ray Kurzweil and Hans Moravec know that a defining characteristic of extropian discourse is a circular formulation of Singularity as both postulate and predicate of technological progress, understood as an irresistible historical force: logically inevitable insofar as history must continue to move forward, yet at the same time cognitively irreconcilable in that it entails an abrupt end to the linear forward motion of history as we understand it.4 Milburn renders this tautology exquisitely when he writes that “the imagination of nanotechnology itself constructs [Singularity] as its own internal limit, discovering that its potential is so imperative that a nanotechnology future is rendered already inevitable, but also that its potential is so vast that a nanotechnology future is rendered equally uncertain and indeterminate” (12); and “a speculative gesture outward toward the future, as if an expansion, finds its limit—the point of its failure—at the dawn of the nanotechnology millennium.... But where the imagination fails, the future takes place; the imagination can now only play catch-up” (60). Irrespective of success or failure, in any case, the meaning and status of “imagination”—literary or otherwise—are still very much in play, and while Milburn pronounces the question “which comes first, the science or the fiction?” (45) unanswerable and immaterial. At some level the idea of fictionality is unassimilable to that of futurity. Even if the notion of Singularity is a simulacrum that precedes and must necessarily eclipse any anterior attempt to describe it, the Singularity itself is a point at which we cannot arrive without first asking, “what if?”

This self-validating/self-obfuscating historiographic model, which erects the wall of Singularity as a barrier to be broken down, finds a ready literary analog in Arthur C. Clarke’s “second law.” This dictum, which states that “the only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible,” appears as epigraph to Nanovision’s second chapter, and encapsulates the ethos of nano-“science (fiction)” as Milburn conceives it. Yet Clarke, arguably more than most sf writers, for good reason considered himself a scientist and engineer as much as a fabulist, and here his precept serves more to sanction and romanticize the quasi-mystical circularity of the extropian hypothesis than to problematize it. A more provocative and instructive parallel might be drawn between the construction of Singularity “as its own internal limit” (12) posited for the express purpose of being transcended in triumphal fashion, and Marx’s account of the intrinsically and inevitably expansive thrust of the capitalist world market, for which “every limit appears as a barrier to be overcome” (Marx 408). Nanovision begins by establishing nanotech as a powerful marketing trope, a technology presently better suited to the hawking of consumer goods than to their manufacture, and goes on to suggest that the hyperreal eversion and fusion of science and science fiction through nanotech “has been responsible for nanotech’s recent financial success,” owing less to its “real accomplishments than [to] its dream of the future” (49). Given these premises, it seems the only demonstrably “real” function reserved for science-fictional imagination is the creation of new markets for mp3 players, cosmetics, and something called “nano energy underclothes” (11). Encountering a limit—an untenable dichotomy between conventional categories of science and science fiction—nanoculture pushes forward by mashing them together as a new mode of consumer engineering (or rather, in the Disney-speak Milburn favors, Imagineering).

Compelling and persuasive as it is, Nanovision’s hybrid figuration of “science (fiction)” (27) is properly neither: unless and until the promised Singularity actually arrives, its virtues consist mainly in the generation of potential patents and the training of consumers to anticipate a future that will be sold to them in attractively shrink-wrapped packaging. What passes for sf, in this account, is necessarily without critical distance, incapable of self-awareness or meaningful judgment about the events in which it is implicated. It may no longer be possible for the imagination of science fiction—as distinct from that of nanotechnology— to stand outside the imploding feedback loop between proto-Singular technoscience and its cultural representation, and to say anything meaningful or useful about either. Perhaps it never was possible. But whether this premise is ultimately accepted by readers, Nanovision itself, as much as the discourse it details, testifies that the attempt is worth making.

                1. As Milburn notes, nanotech is increasingly viewed by public policymakers and venture capitalists as a potential engine for economic development:

Ambitious legislation and funds for large-scale nanotechnology initiatives have recently been put in place by the governments of the United States, the European Union, Japan, the United Kingdom, China, Singapore, and many other countries. Large technology corporations and smaller start-up companies have announced nanotech R&D efforts, anticipating consumer products with “nano inside” sometime in the very near future.... The scientific agencies of the U.S. government [NSF, National Science and Technology Council, et al.] foresee the development of nanotechnology leading to “the next industrial revolution,” a massive “technological convergence” at the nanoscale that will restructure both the international economy and the human body itself.... Everywhere we are told that nanotechnology is “the next big idea” and we are advised of “the big changes coming from the inconceivably small.” (8-9)

The final two quotations derive from Ratner and Ratner and from Atkinson, respectively.

For such extropian transhumanist figures as Max More, Hans Moravec, and Ray Kurzweil (whom Milburn cites without delving into their political-economic assumptions), the inevitability of Singularity is predicated on a belief that market-driven technological progress must necessarily continue at the present, seemingly exponential rate. The transhumanist political platform as articulated by More’s Extropy Institute is to assure that such progress remains unimpeded by external meddling from intrusive government and neo-Luddite, retro-humanist naysayers. More’s mission statement is available on the group’s website at: <>.
                2. Nanovision rehearses a litany of disparaging remarks from various grey-haired eminences on behalf of the technoscientific establishment, typically comparing the excesses of nano-discourse unfavorably to those of soft and/or sensationalistic sf. Scientific American editor Gary Stix, Milburn writes, “has often compared [K. Eric] Drexler’s writings to the scientific romances of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, suggesting that ‘real nanotechnology is not to be found in these science fiction stories’” and complaining “that nanowriting, a ‘subgenre of science fiction,’ damages the legitimacy of nanoscience in the public eye and that ‘distinguishing between what’s real and what’s not’ is essential for nanotech’s prosperity” (23). Milburn quotes George M. Whitesides, “the Mallinckrodt Professor of Chemistry at Harvard University and a recognized authority in nanotechnology, [who] has accused the entire field of being ‘an area prone to overblown promises, with speculation and nanomachines that are more likely found in Star Trek than in a laboratory’,” and Stanford biophysicist Steven M. Block, who objects that the perpetrators of nano-hype “have been too influenced by the laughable expectations of science fiction and have gotten ahead of themselves; he proposes that ‘for real science to succeed, nanotechnologists ought to distance themselves from the giggle factor’” (23). Responding to these criticisms, nanotech’s most vocal proponents in turn employ “various rhetorical strategies intended to distance their science from the negative associations of science fiction” (24), while simultaneously referencing sf to drive home just how miraculous its applications will actually be. Milburn quotes the nanotechnologist Richard Smalley: “Real nanotechnology is more amazing than any pipe dream.... Set pulp fiction aside. The genuine nanocosm has sci-fi beat six ways to Sunday” (34).
                3. James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel’s Feeling Very Strange: The Slipstream Anthology (2006) offers a compellingly ambivalent take on the notional existence of a slipstream “genre,” however defined. Ambivalent—in that its editors begin with an introduction that openly doubts whether such a body of literature can be coherently defined, let alone theorized, then proceed to anthologize fifteen tales that each flout one or more of the key characteristics that have been variously proposed to delineate the genre, and intersperse them with remarks from contemporary writers, further complicating and undercutting an already questionable taxonomical project. Compelling—in that the text, as an aggregate, somehow creates a powerful impression of coherence, persuading despite itself that the term “slipstream” carries urgent, if elusive, meaning. Like the idea of Singularity, it seems to signify an immanent reality that can be neither denied nor adequately described in stable and transparent terms.
                4. For representative statements, see Moravec, who envisions robots replacing humanity and colonizing the universe, and Kurzweil, who imagines humans transformed by nanotech into virtually immortal, post-biological beings. Both fantasies incarnate a notion of progress—of the inevitable advance of technoscientific transformation—and a historical Singularity, a dead end for the human project as currently understood.

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