Welcome to the second in this series of posts about Transhuman technologies in theory, practice and in comic books. Part One, all about human head transplants is here. This time round: nanotechnology.
A brief history of nanotechnology
Perhaps more than any other nanotechnology is the most diverse and may prove the most central to achieving some of Transhumanism’s most far out aims.
The term “nano-technology” was first used by Norio Taniguchi in 1974, though it was not widely known until it was popularised by Eric Drexler’s book Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology (1986). The theoretical groundwork however, was laid in 1959 by physicist Richard Feynman in his talk There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom, in which he described the possibility of the direct manipulation of atoms. Inspired by these ideas, Drexler would introduce the concept of nanoscale ‘assemblers’, which would be able to build copies of themselves and other items through the manipulating material at an atomic level.
Though atomic-level self-replicating robots appears the stuff of the wildest speculative fiction the 1980s witnessed two major break-troughs.
1981’s invention of the scanning tunneling microscope allowed unprecedented visualization of individual atoms and bonds, and in 1989 it was successfully used to manipulate individual atoms. Second, the discovery of Fullerenes in 1985 pointed towards new potential application for nanaoscale devices and electronics. Though the buckyball, (named for Buckminster Fuller) was not originally descroibed as nanotechnology, research into the fullerene family of carbon structures has fallen under the umbrella of nanotechnological research, playing a major part in related work with carbon nanotubes.
Governments began fund research into nanotechnology, beginning in the U.S. with the National Nanotechnology Initiative, which was announced under President Clinton in a 2000 White House press release entitled “Leading to the Next Industrial Revolution”. As Schummer puts it, “the visionary powerbox has largely been reduced to economic promises”. nanotechnological research moved towards more practical and commercial applications. In 2001, Toyota started using nanocomposites to make a bumper 60% lighter and twice as resistant to denting and scratching; Khakis that use nanoparticles as stain-repellant; suncreams containing nanoparticulate zinc oxide; nanaoclays and nanocomposites used to make me beer bottles lighter and thinner; and carbon nanotubes are currently being used in wind-turbines, surfboards, bicycle components and even as scaffolding for growing bone (see here for more current applications). The use of nanaotechnology has also been of great interest in the world of medicine with ongoing research into the use of anoparticles to deliver drugs, heat or light directly to cells, nanosponges that absorb toxins to remove them from the bloodstream, and there is much talk of one day using nano-bots to repair damaged cells (more medical applications here).
Despite these advances we still seem some way away from the more dramatic implications of this technology. For now there are no nanobots,no assemblers, no molecular-scale machines diligently scraping the cholesterol from your arteries or networking between the nervous system and computer so that you can experience virtual reality as a truly physical one. No instantaneous bodily mutation based purely on whim. No ‘grey goo‘. For now anyway.
Nanotechnology in Comic Books
Given that the discourse around nanotechnology has been premised on the Amazing Transformations To Come rather than the more prosaic Eventually After We Figure Out All This Really Technical Shit, it is little wonder that most works utilising nanotechnology use it in a way that emphasizes the former rather than the latter. Just as in the 1950s and ’60s radiation was to blame for all manner of mutants and giant insects, so too the portrayal of nanotechnology in popular culture (what Johansson calls ‘nanoculture‘) has produced many works where Nano is “competing and sometimes replacing radiation as the prime explainer and transformer in many popular contexts”. For example, in Ang Lee’s 2003 Hulk, Bruce Banner’s transformation is due to both the traditional gamma radiation AND nanomaccines, though this is not elaborated upon in any way. Nano simply becomes a shorthand for ‘crazy science stuff’.
According to the Encyclopedia of Nanosicence and Society, explicit language relating to nanotechnology only began to appear in comic books in the 1990s, although the ability to manipulate matter at a molecular level has been a recurring power throughout the history of superhero comics (e.g. the tellingly named Molecule Man). As a general rule the use of nanotechnology in comics follows the same schema outlined by Johanssen, as a catch-all modern technological explanation for a character’s super-powers. The most recent iteration of DC Comics’ Mr Terrific, for example, has nanotechnology woven into his costume and mask.
One of the earliest appearances of nanotech in comics was the Technovore from Iron Man 294 (July 1993). Because Technovore’s body is made entirely of nanobots it was able to disassemble itself into a stream of nanites, allowing it to squeeze into and travel through through extremely small spaces. Each nanite carries a copy of the entire viral personality, implying that the Technovore can reconstruct itself from a single unit. Moreover, the Technovore can assimilate technology into itself, as well as adapt its form to become immune to different types of weapons. In short, the Technovore is the most Dystopian possibilities offered by Drexler’s Engines of Creation writ large, its desire to assimilate everything around it a clear precursor to Drexler’s infamous ‘grey goo’ scenario, whereby self-replicating machines run out of control, building more of themselves by consuming all the matter around them until the entire Earth is destroyed.
Nanotechnology made another notable appearance in Iron Man during Warren Ellis’s Extremis story-line (which served as the basis for the third Iron Man movie). In this story the Extremis virus can be injected, giving users powers akin to Iron Man but with the technology contained within the body (as in the panel at the top of this post). Iron Man himself uses a modified version of the nanite virus to improve the neural interface between him and his armour, a conceit also found in recent iterations of DC’s Cyborg, whereby Victor Stone’s brain and nervous are linked by nanites to his robotic prosthetic grafts. This idea is not entirely absurd. The US Air Force is currently backing a project “involving nanoparticles that can amplify optical-detection sensitivity by 10 to the 14th fold.”
More outlandish is another Ellis creation, The Engineer from The Authority. Angela Spica is, as he team captain describes it, “the woman who distilled an incalculable number of intelligent devices into nine pints of liquid machinery…and exchanged your blood for it“. The nanoload works like blood for The Engineer while also covering her entire body, allowing it to morph into new shapes and weaponry. In one issue she is able to defeat a group of bad guys by “extruding the machinery out into a web of knives small enough to slip between atoms“, effectively slicing them into smithereens. Which is amazing and also deeply unsettling if you think about it. Elsewhere, the Engineer is able to use the nanites to survive on the surface of the moon, and to interface with the Authority’s sentient, dimension hopping vessel The Carrier.
Outwith the comic book page, the link between superheroes and nanotechnology has a fairly ignoble history. In 2002, the U.S. Army awarded $50 million to a proposal submitted by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to create the MIT Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies (ISN). The proposal’s cover image, which featured a futuristic soldier in mechanical armour, presented, in visual shorthand, the scientific possibilities outlined in more technical detail within the proposal. The image was later removed from ISN websites when two comic book creators alleged that it was simply a reworked version of the cover image of their Radix issue one.
For Milburn this is because both the discourse of nanotechnology and militaristic visions of the super soldier, “rely on cultural familiarity with comic book myths…to suggest that nanotechnology, in replicating or materializing these myths at the site of the soldier’s body, can create “real” superheroes”.The comic book image serves to create a gap between a written account of science yet-to-occur and the image of what a futuristic soldier might look like. What happens within this gap is the slow, complicated business of the science itself. It is worth noting that even prior to the introduction of nanotech to superhero comics, heroes such as The Atom, or regular jaunts to realms such as the Microverse, also played with issues of scale and molecular engineering. Are the actual mechanics technically any clearer in the bottom image from Yale Scientific than they are in the panels from the Atom or Supergirl?
As Johanssen noted above, nanotechnology largely performs the same role any techno-scientific ‘explanation’ plays in comics- the ability to achieve the impossible; science as magic. And in some respects the scientific literature around nanotechnology, at least at the more speculative end of the spectrum, is engaged in that same kind of bombast as the superhero genre. What Milburn calls ‘nanowriting’- “that genre of scientific text in which the already inevitable nanotech revolution can be glimpsed” is characterised by an ‘operatic excess’, whereby writers:
frame their scientific arguments with vivid tales of potential applications,which are firmly the stuff of the golden age of science fiction. Matter compilers, molecular surgeons, spaceships, space colonies,cryonics, smart utility fogs, extraterrestrial technological civilizations,
and utopias abound in these papers, borrowing unabashedly from the
repertoire of the twentieth-century science-fictional imagination
Of course, that does not mean the Transhuman dreams of nanotechnology may not someday be realised (though the process may be more laborious than some might like), but if the superhero comic book is playing into the nanotechnological imagination it is worth asking, “in what way?” For, on the one hand, the words of Edwin Thomas from MIT’s Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies describing, “the psychological impact upon a foe when encountering squads of seemingly invincible warriors protected by armour and endowed with superhuman capabilities” seem, to me at least, fairly terrifying and at odds with the real ethos of the superhero. Nice to know then that at least one Nano scientist has advocated a nanotech-ethics based on Spider-Man’s dictum, “with great power comes great responsibility”. After all, it’s not the technology that separates hero from villain, but how they choose to use it.