Up to Eric's Home Page To Index Tue Feb 13 20:00:53 EST 1990

Raymond's Reviews #18

%T Engines of Creation
%A K. Eric Drexler
%I Anchor Press/Doubleday
%D 1986
%O trade paperback, US$10.95
%P 289
%G 0-385-19973-2

This book isn't science fiction, and it's four years old.

So why am I reviewing it here? Because every science fiction fan should read it, in order to understand why the real future is certain to be far stranger and more wonderful than most SF has ever dared predict.

K. Eric Drexler is the inventor of and chief booster for the concept of "nanotechnology" -- molecular-scale engineering using billions of intelligent sub-micron sized fabrication robots. Using nanotechnology it would be possible to build an "anything box" which (given the proper elemental raw materials and a design) could fabricate any desired tool or substance -- including copies of itself.

Other probabilities include: superstrong materials, self-repairing fusion reactors, and cell-repair nanomachines able to cure cancer and prevent or even reverse the effects of aging.

The stunning message of this book is that nanotechnology is almost within our grasp; that it implies a world beyond scarcity economics in which even the "poorest" individuals will command more wealth than present-day nation-states; and that almost all pre-nanotechnology futurism and SF are now as quaint and obsolete as the art-deco "city of the future" illos in old pulpzines.

Drexler builds his case step by careful step. He points out that biological life itself is based on nano-machinery at the cell level, and so constitutes a five-billion-year feasibility demonstration. He then lays out some plausible series of steps by which we might learn in the near future to construct our own synthetic "life" forms, generalizing eventually to programmable nano- fabricators.

Drexler then discusses the truly mind-blowing possibilities of molecular engineering. Some of his scenarios approach poetry (there is a charming description of how to build a rocket engine out of sapphire and diamond, and why you'd want to) but all are firmly grounded in physico-chemical fact.

But this is not simply a book about engineering predictions. Drexler goes on to discuss the personal, social and philosophical issues raised by the prospect of nanotechnology -- including the immense dangers posed by possible abuses and how we can plan to meet them. There are enough implications here for several hundred hard-SF novels.

If the book has a fault, it may be that Drexler's predictions for AI are overly rosy -- but then, I may know too much about the field to judge; experts and near-experts are nearly always too conservative at this kind of prediction (and it is notable in this respect that Marvin Minsky's foreword raises no such objections). Happily, the only other respect in which the book has dated is a positive one; the chapters on the political impact of superpower "arms races" in nanotechnology were written before the disintegration of the Communist Bloc.

This book earns an official Raymond's Review Rave with fractal-leaf cluster. It packs more sense-of-wonder than a shelf-full of good SF, and -- best of all -- it's going to come true!

Up to Eric's Home Page To Index Tue Feb 13 20:00:53 EST 1990

Eric S. Raymond <esr@snark.thyrsus.com>