Visionary Nanofutures II: Engines of Imagination

The single most significant work of nanoliterature is Eric Drexler's Engines of Creation. Engines laid out the basic principles of molecular assembly, provided an extensive overview of its applications, and prefigured many current nanoethical debates; the majority subsequent nanoliterature is a commentary on Engines of Creations. In the words of Richard Smalley, Nobel laureate and Drexler's arch-rival in the nanotech community. “I was fascinated by your book "Engines of Creation" when I first read it in 1991. Reading it was the trigger event that started my own journey in nanotechnology.” More a manifesto than a technical essay, Engines is distinguished by its relentless visionary drive. Drexler writes with the fervor of an evangelist, outlining a glowing future of limitless resources, human immortality, and ever expanding consciousness in a framework of technological Darwinism, where only the most adaptable artifacts survive. In his foreword to Engines, Marvin Minsky makes two basic claims about the work: First, that it is based on the soundest technical extrapolation, and second, that it can be grouped (to its benefit) within the genre of science-fiction. Science-fiction is more successful than purely technical works in explaining future worlds because “[It is] equally concerned with the pressures and choices […] imagined emerging from their societies.” Minsky correctly identifies the science-fictional quality of Engines of Creation as the source of its enduring influence, but his grasp of the why is insufficient. Minsky implies that conventional predictions of the course of science diverge from reality because they lack a social dimension; a more accurate explanation is that science-fiction succeeds because it engages all our narrative faculties. Human beings are hardwired to understand the universe as a coherent sequence of causal relationships, or in other words as a story with a setting, characters, and events. Where the scholar uses tested theoretical paradigms and rigorous logic to make her case, the science-fiction writer instead appeals to an intuitive sense of narrative unity. Science-fiction can be distinguished from naturalist or fantastic literature by the subjunctive tension of “events that have not happened.” Science-fiction is the literature of the possible, writing it is the process of envisioning a credible alternative reality. This is why Engines of Creations endures when most futurology decays faster than a pulp magazine; as long as one of Drexler's many technical foundations remains credible, the strength of his vision binds all of his conclusions together.

Part I------Part III

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