Nanotechnology in fiction

The use of nanotechnology in fiction has attracted scholarly attention.[1][2][3][4] The first use of the distinguishing concepts of nanotechnology was "There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom", a talk given by physicist Richard Feynman in 1959. K. Eric Drexler's 1986 book Engines of Creation introduced the general public to the concept of nanotechnology. Since then, nanotechnology has been used frequently in a diverse range of fiction, often as a justification for unusual or far-fetched occurrences featured in speculative fiction.[5]

Notable examples


In 1881 the Russian writer Nikolai Leskov wrote The Tale of Cross-eyed Lefty from Tula and the Steel Flea, which included the concept of text that can be seen only through a microscope at 5,000,000 times magnification.[6]

In 1931, Boris Zhitkov wrote a short story called Microhands (Микроруки), where the narrator builds for himself a pair of microscopic remote manipulators, and uses them for fine tasks like eye surgery. When he attempts to build even smaller manipulators to be manipulated by the first pair, the story goes into detail about the problem of regular materials behaving differently on a microscopic scale.

In his 1956 short story The Next Tenants, Arthur C. Clarke describes tiny machines that operate at the micrometre scale – although not strictly nanoscale (billionth of a meter), they are the first fictional example of the concepts now associated with nanotechnology.

Stanislaw Lem's 1964 novel The Invincible involves the discovery of an artificial ecosystem of minuscule robots, although like in Clarke's story they are larger than what is strictly meant by the term 'nanotechnology'.

Robert Silverberg's 1969 short story How It Was when the Past Went Away describes nanotechnology being used in the construction of stereo loudspeakers, with a thousand speakers per inch.[5]

The 1984 novel Peace on Earth by Stanislaw Lem tells about small bacteria-sized nanorobots looking as normal dust (developed by artificial intelligence placed by humans on the Moon in the era of cold warfare) that has later came to Earth and are replicating, destroying all weapons, modern technology and software, leaving living organisms (as there were no living organisms on the Moon) intact.

The 1985 novel Blood Music by Greg Bear (originally a 1983 short story) features genetically engineered white blood cells that eventually learn to manipulate matter on an atomic scale.

The 1991 novelization of Terminator 2: Judgment Day, authored by Randall Frakes, expands the origin story of the T-1000 Terminator through the inclusion of a prologue set in the future. It is explained that the T-1000 is a 'Nanomorph', that was created by Skynet, through the use of programmable Nanotechnology. This was only implied in the film itself.

Neal Stephenson's 1995 novel The Diamond Age is set in a world where nanotechnology is commonplace. Nanoscale warfare, fabrication at the molecular scale, and self-assembling islands all exist.

The Trinity Blood series features an alien nanomachine found on Mars which is present in the body of the protagonist, Abel Nighroad. These nanomachines are known as Krusnik nanomachines, and feed on the cells of vampires.

Nanobots (called Nanoes) are central to Stel Pavlou's novel Decipher (2001).

Michael Crichton's novel Prey (2002) is a cautionary tale about the possible risks of developing nanotechnology.[7] In Prey, a swarm of molecule-sized nanorobots develop intelligence and become a large scale threat.

Robert Ludlum's 2005 novel The Lazarus Vendetta also focuses around nanotechnology, focusing mainly on its ability to cure cancer.

A nanomorph, term first coined by Science Fiction writer David Pulver in 1986's GURPS Robots, is a fictional robot entirely made of nanomachines. Its brain is distributed throughout its whole body, which also acts as an all-around sensor, hence making it impossible to surprise as long as the target is on line of sight. A nanomorph is arguably the robotic ultimate in versatility, maybe even in power. Further uses of the concept could include using parts of its body as a tracking device, splitting the body for doing several tasks, or merging two nanomorphs in a greater one, or else gliding/flying in an ornithopter-like way (by molding itself like a giant, articulated kite). A common but facultative (without this feature, it would still qualify as a nanomorph) improvement is the ability to cover itself with specific colors and textures in a realistic looking manner (the ultimate being to look like a human, à la doppelgänger).

Film and television

One of the first mentions on a television show was an announcement to students over the school loudspeakers in the 1987 Max Headroom episode, "Academy" that, "Nanotechnology pod test results are posted in the Submicron Lab for your viewing."

The anime series Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex employs a plotline heavily involved in the use of "micromachines" as a form of treatment against complex diseases after a subject undergoing cyberisation.

In the Star Trek universe, from Star Trek: The Next Generation onward, the Borg use nanomachines, referred to as nanoprobes, to assimilate individuals into their collective.

On the television show Red Dwarf, nanobots played a notable role in series VII to IX. Nanobots are nanotechnology created to be a self-repair system for androids like Kryten as they can also change anything into anything else. Kryten's nanobots grow bored of their duties and take over the ship Red Dwarf, leaving the crew to try and recapture it aboard the smaller Starbug. In the end the ship they are chasing is actually a smaller Red Dwarf built by the nanobots (which evaded their scanners in the end by coming aboard Starbug), with the rest being changed into a planet. Once the crew discover this and find the nanobots, they force them to rebuild Red Dwarf (as well as Dave Lister's then-missing arm). In the end the nanobots build an enhanced Red Dwarf based on the original design plans. They also resurrect the original full crew killed in the first episode.

The episode The New Breed of the show Outer Limits featured nanobots.

Nanobots were also featured during the Sci-Fi Channel era of Mystery Science Theater 3000, where they were known as "nanites". They were depicted on the show as microscopic, bug-like, freestanding robots with distinct personalities.

Nanotechnology appeared several times in the TV series Stargate SG-1 and Stargate Atlantis, in the form of the replicators and the Asurans, respectively. A "nanovirus" is also seen in Stargate Atlantis.

In Cowboy Bebop: The Movie (2001), a criminal blows up a tanker trunk containing a nanobot virus that instantly kills thousands.

In the 2003 film Agent Cody Banks, a scientist creates nanobots programmed to clean up oil spills.

In the 2004 film I, Robot, nanites are used to wipe out artificial intelligence in the event of a malfunction and are depicted as a liquid containing tiny silver objects.

In the 2005 Doctor Who television episode "The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances" a metal cylinder falling from space and lands in the time of World War II-era London, breaks releasing nanobots which transform every human it comes into contact with into a gas mask-wearing zombie, like its first contact, a child.

In the 2008 film The Day the Earth Stood Still, the alien robot "GORT" disintegrates into a swarm of self-replicating nanobots shaped like bugs that cover Earth and destroy all humans and artificial structures by seemingly devouring them within seconds.

The revamped Knight Rider television series and TV movie incorporate nanotechnology into the Knight Industries Three Thousand (KITT), allowing it to change color and shape, as well as providing abilities such as self-regeneration.

In the 2009 film G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, the main plot is to save the world from a warhead containing deadly nanobots called the "Nanomites", which if detonated over a city could destroy it in hours.

The popular NBC science fiction show, Revolution, is based on a worldwide blackout due to the manipulation of nanotechnology.

In 2010 Generator Rex was shown on Cartoon Network. It was based on a laboratory experiment going wrong and infecting the world with bad "Nanites" which turned people into monsters.

Nanotechnology is featured heavily within the Terminator film series. The 1991 film Terminator 2: Judgment Day and 2015 film Terminator: Genisys feature the T-1000 terminator. The T-1000 is composed of Mimetic Polyaloy, a liquid metal that utilizes nanites for shapeshifting abilities; Giving the T-1000 the ability to mimic anyone it samples through physical contact. It can also form its arms into blades and stabbing weapons and instantly recover from any damage. In the 2003 film Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines a new terminator, the T-X, also utilities Mimetic Polyaloy for shapeshifting abilities; like the T-1000 it can mimic anyone it touches. The T-X is also equipped with nanotechnological transjectors, and can infect and control other Terminators using nanites.

In Terminator Genisys, human resistance leader John Connor is infected with machine phase matter by a T-5000 terminator, transforming John into a T-3000. Constructed entirely of nanocytes, the T-3000, like the T-1000 and T-X terminators, has shapeshifting and replication abilities. This unit's deadly nanocyte structure gives the T-3000 the unique ability to instantly scatter into particles and then quickly reform to avoid harmful impact as well as instantly recovering from damage.

In the 2014 film Transcendence, the uploaded consciousness of Will Caster (Johnny Depp) uses nanotechnology to turn himself, and the local townsfolk, into a self-healing defense force with superhuman strength.

In Venture Brothers Season 6 Episode 3 "Faking Miracles" a laboratory accident leads nanobots to enter Dean Venture's body. Billy Quizboy and Peter White take remote control of the nanobots, inadvertently torturing Dean to showcase the power of the nanobots to Dr. Venture. Eventually they are used, unbeknownst to Dean, to improve his intelligence so that he can pass an entrance examination for college. In the post-credit scene Dean painfully urinates them out like a set of kidney stones.

Computer games

In Total Annihilation nanobots are used to build structures.

In some games of the Mortal Kombat series, the character Smoke is a cloud of nanobots.

In System Shock 2 (1999), "nanites" are used as currency as well as a type of weapon ammo.

In Deus Ex (2000), nanotechnology is an important part of both the plot and game mechanics. A very dangerous technology in the wrong hands, it provides a number of abilities to the protagonist.

The MMORPG Anarchy Online (launched 2001) is set on a planet with well-developed nanotechnology, which generally is used as magic in fantasy-themed games.

The protagonist of Metal Gear Solid 2 (2001) had artificial blood infused with nanomachine that served functions such as healing. Metal Gear Solid 4 (2008) featured a great deal of nanotechnology, such as the Sons of the Patriots, an artificial intelligence/nanomachine network that regulated and enhanced the actions of every lawful combatant in the world. In Metal Gear Rising Revengeance the main antagonist senator armstrong also augments himself with nanotechnology.

In Red Faction (2001), nanotechnology is used on Mars to control miners, and Red Faction Guerilla (2009) features nanotechnology, in particular a device called the Nano Forge, as a major plot point.

The computer game Hostile Waters features a narrative involving nanotech assemblers.

In the Ratchet & Clank series, the health system involves nanotechnology. The nanotech can be upgraded by purchase in the first game, or by defeating enemies in other games of the series.

Nanotechnology is also found in Crysis (2007), Crysis 2 (2011), and Crysis 3 (2013). The protagonists of these games are equipped with a "Nano Suit", which enables them to become stronger, invisible, heavily armored, etc.

In Marvel: Ultimate Alliance 2 (2009), Reed Richards creates nanites that are meant to control the minds of supervillains. However, the nanites evolve into a group mind called the Fold which serves as the primary antagonist for the game.

In SpaceChem the player has to build molecular assembler/disassemblers using nanomachines called "Waldos" controlled by a visual programming language.

Comics and other media

In the manga series Battle Angel Alita: Last Order, nanotechnology is referenced numerously and its use is heavily restricted, owing to the loss of Mercury as a potential planetary colony due to a grey goo catastrophe. Its danger and control has become one of the main driving narratives in the story.

In Dx13: Nano A Mano[8] - a manga series by Kirupagaren Kanni - the protagonist uses nanobots to create a giant mecha, which is remotely controlled by custom-built equipment such as electronic glove, microphones, cameras, etc.

Nanomites appear in the G.I. Joe Reinstated series published by Devil's Due.

In the anime and manga series Black Cat, Eve has the ability to manipulate nanomachines.


  1. Colin Milburn, Nanovision: Engineering the Future, Duke University Press, 2008 ISBN 0-8223-4265-0
  2. "Tiny Tech, Transcendent Tech – Nanotechnology, Science Fiction, and the Limits of Modern Science Talk" by Daniel Patrick Thurs in Science Communication, Vol. 29, No. 1, 65–95 (2007)
  3. Bridging the Gaps: Science Fiction in Nanotechnology by José López in International Journal for Philosophy of Chemistry, Vol. 10, No.2 (2004), pp. 129–152.
  4. "The Literature of Promises" by Chris Toumey in Nature Nanotechnology, Vol. 3, No. 4 (2008), pp. 180–181.
  5. 1 2 Bly, Robert W., 2005, The Science In Science Fiction: 83 SF Predictions that Became Scientific Reality, BenBella Books, Inc., ISBN 1-932100-48-2.
  6. English translation of The Tale of Cross-eyed Lefty from Tula and the Steel Flea, Сhapter the fourteenth: "If you had a better microscope that could magnify five million times," he said, "you would see that each gunsmith had put his name on the shoes he made so that you know which Russian craftsman made which shoe." Google Books. Russian original of Levsha
  7. Schwarz, James A., Contescu, Cristian I., Putyera, Karol, 2004, Dekker Encyclopedia of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology, CRC Press, ISBN 0-8247-5050-0.
  8. "Dx13: Nano a Mano". by Kirupagaren Kanni. Retrieved 2013-11-10.
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