Engineering the Future


Book Pages: 296 Illustrations: 32 illustrations Published: October 2008

Author: Colin Milburn

Cultural Studies, Literature and Literary Studies > Literary Theory, Science and Technology Studies

The dawning era of nanotechnology promises to transform life as we know it. Visionary scientists are engineering materials and devices at the molecular scale that will forever alter the way we think about our technologies, our societies, our bodies, and even reality itself. Colin Milburn argues that the rise of nanotechnology involves a way of seeing that he calls “nanovision.” Trekking across the technoscapes and the dreamscapes of nanotechnology, he elaborates a theory of nanovision, demonstrating that nanotechnology has depended throughout its history on a symbiotic relationship with science fiction. Nanotechnology’s scientific theories, laboratory instruments, and research programs are inextricable from speculative visions, hyperbolic rhetoric, and fictional narratives.

Milburn illuminates the practices of nanotechnology by examining an enormous range of cultural artifacts, including scientific research articles, engineering textbooks, laboratory images, popular science writings, novels, comic books, and blockbuster films. In so doing, he reveals connections between the technologies of visualization that have helped inaugurate nano research, such as the scanning tunneling microscope, and the prescient writings of Robert A. Heinlein, James Blish, and Theodore Sturgeon. He delves into fictive and scientific representations of “gray goo,” the nightmare scenario in which autonomous nanobots rise up in rebellion and wreak havoc on the world. He shows that nanoscience and “splatterpunk” novels share a violent aesthetic of disintegration: the biological body is breached and torn asunder only to be refabricated as an assemblage of self-organizing machines. Whether in high-tech laboratories or science fiction stories, nanovision deconstructs the human subject and galvanizes the invention of a posthuman future.


“[S]omething of a tour de force, simultaneously providing a cultural history of nanotechnology as well as using nanotechnology as an analytical lens to bear upon the very language we use to frame our portrayals of science, both in fiction and nonfiction. Nanovision should be extremely valuable to any scholars researching the relationship between sf and scientific discourse, while also proving useful to those researchers whose work touches upon media representations of science and technology, including media representations in both the research field and popular culture. Nanovision would also be a worthwhile addition to any library with a focus upon science and technology studies.” — Alicia Verlager, Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts

Nanovision contains a host of fascinating ideas and images that Colin Milburn draws from public discussion of nanotechnology, many of which he weaves together in startlingly creative ways.” — Daniel Patrick Thurs, Isis

Nanovision offers a novel perspective about how an emerging technoscience will potentially make new kinds of futures. The book will be a stimulating read for those in visual culture, sociology, and science and technology studies interested in considering the social and cultural effects of nanotechnology.” — Jennifer Tomomitsua, Science as Culture

“[I]t cannot be denied that nanotechnology, for better or for worse, is accompanied by the ideas that Milburn calls nanovision and the words that he calls nanowriting, and that they are not going to go away anytime soon. This book is the best account there is of those ideas and words.” — Chris Toumey, Nature Nanotechnology

“[Milburn’s] book fills gaps that most nanoscientists have in their knowledge about the history of a field that has evolved so fast as to effectively obscure its founders. . . . [I]f you like a romp through themes that mix current nanoscience and literature in interesting ways, Milburn’s book is a valuable read. Perhaps reality is stranger than fiction.” — Stefano Tonzani, Nature

“The subject is quite compelling, and Milburn shows that the connection between science fiction and nanotech is incontrovertible. . . .” — Christine Wenc, Endeavour

“[The] concluding chapters display Milburn’s agility as an analyst of contemporary technoculture, treating a wide range of texts—including films, advertisements, science-fiction novels, video games and scientific articles—with the tools of gender/sexuality studies, psychoanalysis, biopolitical theory, deconstruction, science studies and media theory. Nanovision is exhaustively researched and carefully argued.” — Nathan Brown, Radical Philosophy

“Milburn's survey of popular culture work inspired by nanotechnology offers a cultural analysis of, and an insight into, the divide between science and the humanities. This divide features as linking narrative arc in Nanovision, mirroring similar divisions and concerns in the wider world over past, present, and future technologies. Milburn has made a reasonable attempt to bridge this divide via his conceptualisation of 'nanovision'.”
— Peter Schembri, M/C Reviews

“A paradox: we see the future utterly transformed by nanotechnology and related technosciences; because the future is transformed, we cannot see it at all. Spiraling out from this central insight, Nanovision explores the cultural and social implications of nanotechnology through a wide range of material-semiotic-discursive effects. Witty, incisive, and insightful, Nanovision is essential reading for anyone interested in where we are now and where we might be headed.” — N. Katherine Hayles, Duke University

“There has been so much hype and controversy surrounding nanotech that it has been hard to figure out what it really is or might become. This wonderful book spectacularly clarifies matters, providing the new field with its history and with a paradigm that allows us to judge its present situation and whatever future may emerge. That Colin Milburn is also often wickedly funny is much appreciated, and a very appropriate response to nanotech’s constant evocations of paradise or apocalypse.” — Kim Stanley Robinson, author of the Mars Trilogy


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Colin Milburn is Assistant Professor of English and a member of the Science and Technology Studies Program at the University of California, Davis.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Acknowledgments vii

Introduction: The Singularity of Nanovision 1

1. Nanotechnology in the Age of Posthuman Engineering: Science as Science Fiction 19

2. Small Worlds: Beyond the Limits of Fabrication 59

3. The Horrors of Goo: Molecular Abjection and the Domestication of Nanotechnology 111

4. Nano/Splatter: Disintegrating the Postbiological Body 161

Notes 189

Bibliography 231

Index 267
Sales/Territorial Rights: World

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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-4265-6 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-4243-4
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