W. Patrick McCray. The Visioneers: How a Group of Elite Scientists Pursued Space Colonies, Nanotechnology and a Limitless Future. Princeton University Press, 2012.
This book is in effect a joint biography of two colourful characters from the world of American physics, Gerard K O’Neill and Eric Drexler, and their respective dreams of space colonies and mechanical nanotechnology. These visions were in many respects children of their time, that of O’Neill the post Apollo world in which the endless progressed of human space travel as portrayed in the film 2001 seemed assured; Drexler’s of the optimistic opening years of the computer revolution.
I have to say that I was never a fan of O’Neill’s space colonies, and in a review of a book promoting them that was published in the Spring 1979 MUFOB, I suggested that if they were ever built they would eventually end up as derelict extraterrestrial tower blocks, covered with the graffiti of their last inhabitants. They struck me as appalling claustrophobic places and the sort of thing, like much modern architecture, which looks great on paper but which would be pretty close to hell to live in. I was quite wrong however in suggesting that O’Neill would get his way. They are perhaps now the epitome of yesterday’s futures. My dismissal brought an anguished response from the Irish former ufologist John Hind who condemned my lack of vision. I suppose from the perspective of 1970s Belfast anywhere and anything else looked like Utopia.
Reading this book has not really changed my mind about O’Neill’s vision, because I still don’t think that human beings could easily adapt to an enclosed artificial environment, and it never was a solution to any major problem. Eric Drexler’s vision of nanotechnology and the universal replicate strikes rather more of a chord with me, in that it had (has?) the potential to totally transform the way the world is organised, and it is perhaps for that reason that Drexler was subjected to venomous personal attacks in the way that O’Neill never was. Fears of nanobots turning the whole world into goo seem to be used to scare people away from something which might just liberate humans from the burden of labour, not a vision the corporate world wants to encourage.
McCary’s detailed history will be of great interest to students of the history of science, and of late twentieth century American cultural history, but it also contains the wider message of a warning about grandiose dreams of technological fixes. Both of these visions emerged as responses to the Club of Rome and its dire (and unfulfilled) warnings of overpopulation and famine, and contained visions of universal progress. Flawed though these visions were, they were at least visions, something now almost entirely lacking. -- Peter Rogerson