The first time I remember hearing about nanotechnology or nanites was in 1989 in an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation called “Evolution.” At the time, I was in graduate school at the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology working on a way to use an automated telescope to search for dwarf novae. In the episode, nanites were presented as tiny, self-replicating robots used to repair damaged human cells. It was an interesting idea, but one that seemed very science fictional even to me who was working in the field of robotics. My office at the time was on the fourth floor of a building called Workman Center, which I show below. This was actually the tallest building in Socorro, New Mexico at the time. I had this office by virtue of needing access to microwave transmitters and receivers on the tower that communicated with our automated telescope.
Over the next few years, I encountered nanites in other science fictional venues. One was the fine novel Aristoi by Walter Jon Williams where aristocrats use nanites to build their dreams. Another was Mystery Science Theater 3000 where they’re deliberately presented as a deus ex machina. In all cases, nanites seemed like a concept representing Arthur C. Clarke’s third law: “Any sufficiently advanced science is indistinguishable from magic.”
I first began to understand the real scientific basis behind nanotechnology in the early 2000s when I learned that nanites would likely not be literal robots, but as self-replicating chemicals that could carry instructions like DNA. The idea was exciting and I could definitely see how such chemicals could have the medical applications imagined in Star Trek in the 1980s. I could also see how such chemicals might be tailored to attack certain metals and armor. This gave me the idea that they might start being used in weapons research. As it turns out, New Mexico Tech is the home of an explosives research laboratory which has been featured several times in the Mythbusters TV series.
Back when I worked in Workman Tower on that robotic telescope, my graduate advisor was a scientist working at Los Alamos National Laboratory. He got his start there in the 1950s, working on the H-bomb project under Edward Teller. Another professor had been a graduate student of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the man who ran the Manhattan Project. Of course, I was familiar with Oppenheimer’s famous paraphrase of the Bhagavad-Gita where he said, “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.”
Taking all these ideas and putting them together led me to create the physicist Jane Heckman from Vampires of the Scarlet Order. Oppenheimer’s quote brought to mind the history of New Mexico and the little town of Socorro where I lived. Socorro was one of the first places Spanish settlers established a mission when they came into the land that would be the modern United States. I couldn’t help but wonder what if one of those conquistadors who came with the missionaries still lived in the area. If he was a vampire, he would be the embodiment of the phrase, “I am become death.” Jane meeting the vampire Rudolfo became a way for a modern physicist to confront the idea of the death she created by making weapons. By the time I wrote all this, the Workman Center I had an office in had been torn down and rebuilt. Here’s what the new version looks like:
This is the building as I describe it in the novel Vampires of the Scarlet Order. Throughout the novel, I continue to explore the idea of science so advanced it begins to look like magic. Jane working with nanites for simple destructive reasons becomes a way to make it seem more likely that someone might use nanites to reprogram cells in human beings. While I can see some wondrous potential in that idea, I can also see the potential for things to go horrifyingly wrong.
You can learn more about Vampires of the Scarlet Order at: http://davidleesummers.com/VSO.html
I do think the 1980s you had a point, though. Nanites are often used by writers as a general can-do-anything entity. More and more, I see them used as monsters, too. That attack people or objects and kill/disassemble them to create more Nanites.
Overall I’ve done my best to keep my nanites — even the ones in my vampire novels — plausible. I’m not sure everyone who has used them has. Then again, the farther you go in the future, the harder it is to put real limits on “plausibility.”