Nano, John Robert Marlow

Tor, 2004 (2005 reprint), 381 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-765-34071-2

This isn’t a very good novel, but I’m sorry to have missed it when it was first released in 2004.

Regular readers of these reviews have certainly noticed that I’m very lenient when it comes to high-tech thrillers. I’m biased, of course: However bad techno-thrillers verging on SF can be, they’re still speaking my language and engaging me on an level that I can’t find in other genres. The high-tech thriller is all about the technology, and preferably a whole lot of it. It’s a distilled, almost single-minded version of the genre, where two-page digressions about the characteristic of a gadget aren’t just acceptable; they become the reason why the novel exist.

It doesn’t take a long time to figure out that John Robert Marlow’s Nano is more a piece of nanotechnology evangelism than a conventional work of fiction. Marlow’s biographical profile is a hit-parade of science journalism credentials with a heavy emphasis on nanotech. The foreword is by Chris Phoenix (“Director of Research, Center for Responsible Nanotechnology”) and the main text of the novel is followed by twenty-five pages of technical details. With that packaging, it’s not surprising if the plot of the novel itself ends up being nothing more than a showcase for nano-possibilities.

The plot certainly isn’t much to brag about: After the public assassination of a billionaire who was on the verge of announcing the results of a major nanotechnology research effort, a (male) scientist and (female) journalist go on the run, chased by mysterious operatives but equipped with the latest nano-gadgets. Various chases and shootouts all lead to an ultimate confrontation between our plucky heroes and hostile elements of the government. If it reads like a movie, it’s not an accident.

The prose isn’t elegant, the exposition is certainly not gentle and the characters aren’t much more than excuses for as-you-should-know-Bob dialogue. Taken at face value for its ideology, Nano is a clumsy mixture of adolescent libertarianism (“As you should know Bob, we can’t trust the government.”) and juvenile techno-boosterism. (“As you should know, Bob, technology is cool.”) While I’m quite fond of techno-utopianism myself, the political naiveté of the novel becomes an issue, especially when the protagonists gleefully kill dozens, then hundreds, then thousands of people on their way to a conclusion where they set themselves up as not-quite-benevolent demigods. Having indulged in my lifetime quota of nerd exceptionalism, my comments regarding the novel’s underlying contempt for the masses would have been harsher if I actually took it seriously.

Fortunately, it’s hard to consider Nano as a respectable piece of fiction when the action stops so often on the flimsiest of pretexts. Every few pages, there’s room in the chase for a “dialogue” on space colonization, the ineffectiveness of tear gas, or a flashback about a particularly vexing industrial-espionage episode. This is a novel of ideas in ways that would embarrass most professional Science Fiction writers: Marlowe has no shame in going off on tangents, and that does give a certain charm to the whole novel. Reading Nano is a lot like being stuck with a bright sixteen-year-old boy overdosing on Atlas Shrugged: his rants are lively, but there’s a number of rough edges to tolerate until he learns better.

It’s not as if the novel’s completely unimpeachable on a technical level either: Marlow’s credentials as a journalist aren’t much of a defense against Nano‘s most embarrassing scientific mistakes. While the novel’s packaging swears up and down that everything in the story is true and possible, that’s not quite exact: This is a story where the characters can shoot special bullets that will assemble trees in the middle of the road fast enough to crash following cars… a kind of assembling speed closer to fantasy than SF. It’s always the little details that kill, and so Nano has little time to spare regarding issues of information management between assemblers, heat dissipation or where the raw materials come and go during assembly and disassembly. (In one scene, disassemblers get to work and produce a gulf large enough for the sea to rush in, but there’s never any specification as to where the disassembled stuff actually goes. It’s not called a gray goo scenario for nothing!) Again and again, Nano ignores edge cases or cleanup issues: This gets particularly bad toward the conclusion of the novel, during which a nano-infestation is dealt with an a searing fashion that doesn’t sustain real-world scrutiny: The problem with runaway disassemblers is that you still have a problem even if a few of them survive the solution. Understandably, the nanotech-is-cool fun of the novel doesn’t dwell at length on that issue.

But as I’ve hinted throughout of the novel, the nature of the book makes it hard to dislike. Compared with alarmist nano-tripe like Michael Crichton’s Prey, Marlow’s Nano is optimistic, fun, brainy and light. It’s throwing ideas at the readers as fast as it can, so why be angry if a chunk of them just don’t make sense? As long as it’s taken with a pallet of salt, it’s a rare example of pro-technology progressive propaganda that acts as a counterpoint to more alarmist novels. I may dismiss it on dramatic, ethical and scientific grounds, but whatever is left is still close enough to my own interests that I can’t help but still give it a mild recommendation.

Surprisingly, this 2004 novel completely failed to register on my radar until recently. I can almost understand why; despite its strong scientific content, it’s frankly not good enough from a literary standpoint to survive and be discussed in today’s top-tier SF market. In hindsight, I regret not only that I missed the novel at the time, but that it hasn’t been followed by a second Marlow novel yet. Until that happens, Nano remains an intriguing book whose particular strengths do much to compensate for some significant flaws. It’s pretty much the definition of a book for a narrow audience –if you like it, you will like it a lot… and will forgive it many things.

2 thoughts on “Nano, John Robert Marlow

  1. ResidentPoet

    I agree with this review. I’m enjoying the book quite a bit, and wondering why it never did get made into a movie. I’m curious to know if this book played any part in the development of the much larger nanites of Stargate fame. In any case, even with the treatment of nanites in Stargate having stolen the thunder of this book’s potential as a movie, I think it would still make an awesome movie.

    1. Christian Sauvé Post author

      I never really watched Stargate, but there’s enough prior art regarding self-replicating nanotechnology in written science-fiction that I’m not losing sleep over who influenced whom.

      Amusingly enough, while checking what John Robert Marlow’s been up to lately (when’s the second novel?), I found that he’s currently promoting his newest book, Make Your Story a Movie, and that he recently “closed his first Hollywood script deal”. The Nano movie may not be too far away after all…


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *