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Although stories from way back in the fifties such as Philip K. Dick's "Autofac" and "Second Variety" can be considered to be the aesthetic ancestors of at least one kind of nanotech story (depicting, as they do, self-replicating robot machinery run amok, reproducing unstoppably, and spreading beyond all human control, laying waste to the landscape—basically a variant of what is now known as the "gray goo scenario" in nanotech circles: where out-of-control nano-mechanisms eat everything in their relentless drive to reproduce more of themselves, turning everything into, well, gray goo), "nanotechnology" as such wasn't talked about much in the genre until after the appearance of K. Eric Drexler's extremely influential non-fiction book Engines of Creation in 1986.

A speculative look at the eventual possibilities of an emerging future technology—dubbed molecular nanotechnology by Drexler—that might eventually be able to create self-replicating controllable machines, smaller than viruses, that could be used to build or alter almost any structure by directly manipulating atoms or molecules on the nanometer scale, Engines of Creation had an enormous impact on the imagination of many of the science fiction writers of the day, perhaps influencing the consensus picture of what the future was going to be like more than any other non-fiction book ever has (with the possible exception of Alvin Toffler's The Third Wave, or perhaps of Gordon Rattray Taylor's The Biological Time-Bomb, which inspired a subgenre of stories about clones and other marvels of biological technology—and also a flood of stories about the dangers of overpopulation and the destruction of the environment—in the late sixties and seventies).

In the real world, nanotechnology has not yet arrived, although we continue to inch steadily closer with each new breakthrough in microminiature engineering to the day when nanotechnology will be a functional reality—according to some scientists, anyway. According to other scientists, nanotechnology—of the sort featured in science fiction stories, at least—will never be a practical reality. Only time will tell which of these groups is right. (Perhaps reality will follow a middle course, as it often does, with nanotechnology becoming viable, but proving less all-embracing and omnipotent than some writers have suggested that it will be, perhaps for reasons that have not yet been foreseen. I suspect that if it is possible, it's going to turn out to be much more difficult to do than currently expected, and less magically facile of operation—and that its most far-reaching implications for society may be ones that nobody has even thought of yet.)

In science fiction, though, nanotechnology is already here, an accepted part of the consensus vision among SF writers as to what the future is going to be like—to the point where, if your future society doesn't feature the use of nanotech, you have to explain why it doesn't in order to give your future world any credibility at all.

After Drexler, "nanotechnology" became the buzzword of the day, as "virtual reality" and "cyberspace" had been slightly before it, and suddenly every writer with any claim to being au courant with the Cutting Edge of science was writing nanotech stories. There were a lot of nanotech stories written in the late eighties and all throughout the nineties to date, and, since many of the writers who climbed gladly aboard the nanotech bandwagon had little or no knowledge of science or how technology actually works, nanotech stories quickly became a cliche, overused, just as had happened with overpopulation/Environmental Doom stories by the mid '70s. In some hands, nanotech became merely a Magic Wand, a plot device that enabled you to accomplish anything in a story; no matter how difficult or impossible, the Magic Solution to any problem: Just release your cloud of nanomechanisms at any difficult plot point, and you could turn a mountain into a heap of gold (or into a vast mound of chocolate puddings, for that matter . . . or into anything else you could think of), you could instantly reverse aging, bring people back from the dead, change your sex more easily than you can change your socks, turn one character into another, build mile-high skyscrapers in the wink of an eye, effortlessly defeat the villian's Space Fleet in the time it takes you to snap your fingers, and otherwise vault over any corners you may have painted yourself into in the course of telling your story. Needless to say—when anything is possible, nothing has much impact—this quickly became dull.

Nevertheless, nanotechnology has not gone away, simply because it was examined in a simplistic fashion by a few writers, any more than the dangers of Environmental Destruction and the potential collapse of the ecosystem have vanished as realworld threats because enough Pollution Stories were written in the '70s that readers became bored with them.

In fact, many of the potential marvels and nightmare threats—and there are some horrifying scenarios that can arise from the use of nanotechnology, including governmental control of thoughts and emotion, as well as the possible total destruction of life on Earth if nanomechanisms should slip out of human control, or be deliberately employed as a Doomsday Weapon—are only now being examined with any sort of real complexity or sophistication, any radical sweep of imagination or intellectual vigor . . . examined by the very writers in the anthology you hold in your hands, among others . . . writers who will take you along to future worlds stranger than you can imagine, but, fortunately for our reading pleasure, no stranger than they can imagine!

So turn the page and let these expert dreamers take you to the World of Tomorrow. If you haven't been there lately, you won't recognize the place . . .

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