Science Fiction Author's Guide To Nanoweapons

Talking about the impact of any scientific advance is always hard, since nobody can see the future. Of course, if you're a science fiction author, making up the future is your job. Nanoweapons, particularly in hard science fiction or science fiction with a dark, military bent, are plot gold.

Before you can talk about the -weapon- part of nanoweapons, you need to talk about the nano- part. All of the talk about nanoweapons is predicated on the invention of "nanites", complex machines the size of a molecule. These machines are controlled (somehow) by a central device or programmed (or alternately able to make their own decisions, but sentient nanomachines are a w/u unto themselves) to do, well, anything. Depending on the setting, nanites can be used to cure disease, build things, rebuild the human body, improve the human body, gobble up pollution or radiation or whatever, or do any other kind of far-future nifty stuff. Any writer not too terribly concerned with internal coherance (space opera or comedy, for example) can use nanites as a deus ex machina or as a handy justification for anything.

For the record, nanotechnology is also used to describe using X-pseudoscientific-justification (replicators from Star Trek, for example) for being able to build things from the molecular level up. Since X could be any number of things, I'm only dealing with the ramifications of tiny machines the size of molecules, which is the most common X by far.

Okay. Now we've got tiny machines the size of molecules. Let's kill someone!

The simplest military application of nanites is just tearing people/weapons/targets apart at the molecular level. Flesh- (or steel-, or concrete-) eating "goo," appearing often enough in science fiction to be known as "Grey Goo." Grey goo devours anything or everything, and would definately be a horrible weapon indeed. Additionally, this could only devour a certain substance (which is possible peaceful application, devouring trash, radioactive waste, dog crap, etc.) In any case, it would be a nasty weapon indeed.

  • Authors with a psychological or philosophical bent could easily consider whether a weapon that kills cleanly is worse that one that causes horrible destruction along with killing everyone.
  • Grey goo could be combined with builder nanites discussed below; consider the sheer horror of dumping a load of goo onto an area, devouring the buildings and the people and turning them into high rises, or fuel, or weapons, or a nice aged cheese.
  • Accidental grey goo could come of misused or reprogrammed builder nanites; this could be anything from a once-in-a-lifetime to a common problem in any world with builder nanites.

Alternately, the nanites could be more autonomous, taking on the characteristics of a disease; this is usually known as a nanoplague. This has all the potential of traditional biological warfare, of course. If the society has the technology, the nanites might even discriminate (although this only works in the case of attacking a certain genotype or species, in the case of interspecies conflicts with aliens or transhumans or whatever). The only real way to counter this is with immunity nanites, although the virulence of nanoplagues could find itself in a race with improvements to the immune system.

  • The plague caused by the nanites have to be that terrible; it just might not be possible (how about a nanoplague that causes a perpetual cold, until you die of old age?), or there might be some other effect desired. Causing birth defects? Crippling soldiers to force a nation to surrender? The possibilities are endless.
  • Nanoplagues as written don't work if nanites need a transmitter in the proximity. The latter would allow for interesting assassination ploys: "Hide this transmitter on the enemy general, so the Grey Death can do its thing." Of course, if a central trasmitter is needed, just not one in the proximity, you've got a story seed for knocking it out.
  • Things get progressively less realistic, but potentially more fun, when the nanites can discriminate based on phenotype, physical characteristic, or other factors. Nanites to kill minority racial groups? Nanites to kill genemods? Nanites to kill hybrids? The list goes on and on.
  • If nanites are a secret technology, nanoplagues could be cooked up to match existing diseases. Now you've got a futuristic medical drama, especially if the nanoplague targets a group mysteriously.
  • The most common ideas of nanoplagues just turn the victims into more nanites. Combine nanoplagues with the builder nanites from below, and you've got...a device to rehabilitate battlefields? The ultimate weapon for a revolutionary group? A horrible disease that turns victims to bombs? A good way to compost the garbage? All of the above?
  • All of the biological weapon and meddling with nature stories work just as well here. What if a nanoplague mutates? What if it gets out and goes wild? What if other nanites turn into a plague?
  • A nanoplague doesn't need to target people (humans or otherwise). What about crops? Or housepets? Or the helpful bacteria in the large intestine? People tend to rely on other organisms to survive, and a non-harmful but human-carried disease that kills hydroponic farms could annihilate a space station.
  • What about a helpful "plague," seeded in a friendly population? How would people react to suddenly and unexpectedly being twice as strong, or telepathic, or whatever? (Cybergeneration, for all its flaws, had an interesting take on this.)

Nanoweapons could instead by items made by/of nanites, rather than the nanites themselves.

A common nanotech "miracle" is nanoconstruction; using nanites as miniature factories to build, well, anything. That anything could easily be weapons, giving you another form of nanoweapons. Nanites could also build incredibly complex devices with the right program, offering you a stock justification for having beam weapons, energy shields, time travel devices, a better mousetrap, whatever. (Authors who want to get really crazy can use this to justify anything, but there's no reason more conventional science couldn't build spy cameras that look like animals, or whatever.)

  • Builders combined with grey goo have a lot of potential, discussed above.
  • The potential of reprogramming nanites has a lot of potential. What if terrorists can reprogram chair-building nanites into, well, anything? This has the potential for SF stories "ripped from the headlines," so to speak.
  • Really fast, small-scale builders could make foot infantry incredibly versatile. Need an anti-tank weapon? Let's cook one up; it'll just be a second. Extremely fast builders could change a missile or bomb midflight!
  • Builder nanites in the human stomach could mean the end of needing to forage; all you'd need is something mode of organic compounds. ("Why does this taste like crap?" "That's because it is.")
  • Items built entirely of nanites are potentially more useful to a writer, as they can be used to justify anything at all. Want guns that aim on their own? You've got them. Want the bodily incarnation of your evil AI? There you go. Any limitations on this will need to be constructed of whole cloth, because the possibilities are literally infinate. Unfortunately, this tends to lose internal coherance; when anything is possible, there's little incentive or ability to take risks. (Making the characters omnipotent tends to cripple drama.) This is a good option for those who don't want to fiddle with the science, though.

This is obviously not an exhaustive guide, but ideas or concepts I've missed can be /msg'ed to amib.

Thanks to the creators of Transmetropolitan for getting my brain stuck on SF again, and borgo for giving me the original seed with his original w/u.