Paragon House, 1999, 250 pages, C$37.00 hc, ISBN 1-55778-779-4
As someone with, thanks to Science Fiction, a deep interest in technology and its impact on society, I’m part of the natural audience for an essay like Lin Sten’s Souls, Slavery and Survival in the Molenotech Age. This little-known book, found at a remainder sale, promised much: “Compared to the past gradual evolution of our natural and technological environments,” says the dust jacket blurb, “the rate of evolution in the next decade will be revolutionary. In the new environment, the mans of survival will be so different and the need for adaption so extreme, that few humans may survive.” Hot stuff! Could this be a book-length version of Bill Joy’s qualms in his landmark article “Why the future doesn’t need us?” A critique of nanotechnology by someone unconvinced by The Foresight Institute?
As it happens, Sten’s book is almost exactly that. Unfortunately, that’s not enough to make it worthwhile.
His main thesis is interesting and worth discussing. He fears that with the progress in nanotechnology (here gratuitously called “molecular nanotechnology”, or “molenotechnology” for short) and associated sciences, humanity is headed toward a dead-end of sorts; when people will be able to manufacture tactical nuclear bombs in their home-based Universal Assemblers, human nature will naturally lead to widespread death and destruction. Increasingly omnipotent power in increasingly unaccountable hands is not a recipe for social harmony, despite what most gun advocates will tell you.
It’s an interesting thesis (I myself have referred to something like it as “the rabid wolf problem” in other venues) and so I’m doubly disappointed that Sten wasn’t able to it justice in this book. Sometimes, it’s his fault; sometimes, it’s mine.
Mine first; I have read copiously on nanotech and associated issues. Decades of Science Fiction consumption, occasional scribblings on “Terror in Hard-SF” and outlines for stories yet to be written have, shall we say, made a nanodanger buff out of me. In this context, Sten’s speculations often read as introductions or basic thinking on a complex subject. I can’t reasonably fault him for not pushing the envelope when I know so much about the field, but I can be disappointed that I haven’t been able to find much new material in this book.
But that’s just me; your mileage may vary on this particular subject. On the other hand, this book has other flaws that may run deeper.
The writing and (lack of) organization is one: Despite a relatively uncomplicated vocabulary and a short length, Souls, Slavery and Survival in the Molenotech Age is not very pleasant to read. I suppose that a better editor may have been able to clarify some of the mess and straighten out some dull passages. But as it currently stands, this book is a singularly tepid take on a fascinating subject. That hurts, especially when the goal of the book is to send us in a tizzy of concern. Instead, readers are more likely to shrug.
Then there the “Cabal” issue. As the book advances, more and more time is spent discussing shadowy interest groups, “cabals” of common interest that will some to enslave humanity through ever-more powerful molenotechnology. While I can recognize the inherent danger and historical precedents for such things, Sten’s use of the “cabal” concept is far closer to conspiracy theory than to careful social explanation. It throws a blanket of wacky unreality on a book that desperately wants to be taken seriously. It’s a small detail, but you know how things work: when you’re ambivalent about something, even trifles can have an impact one way or another.
Ultimately, though, I didn’t get the impression of learning much from Souls, Slavery and Survival in the Molenotech Age. There are a few ideas here and there, but few of them haven’t already been mentioned elsewhere in contemporary Science Fiction or in Wired Magazine. No small wonder, then, if the book remains obscure even today.