io9 Talks to Kathleen Ann Goonan About Nanopunk and Jazz

Science fiction author Kathleen Ann Goonan was writing about nanotech before most people even know it existed. Her Nanotech Quartet, including her celebrated first novel Queen City Jazz, is about a future United States where nanotech has gone wild and turned cities into living entities — and reprogrammed people to reenact scenarios from US history and literature. One of Goonan's favorite US art forms is jazz, and she often structures her novels like jazz songs. Along with Linda Nagata, author of The Bohr Maker, Goonan pioneered the literary nanopunk movement, a surreal subgenre of cyberpunk that's as much about art and psychology as it is about tech. You can find traces of nanopunk in everything from Jeff Noon's Vurt to Neal Stephenson's The Diamond Age. Recently we had a chance to talk to Goonan about the difference between what she calls "strong" and "weak" nanotech futures.

What initially inspired your interest in writing about nanotech futures?

That's pretty easy, on the face of it, but it gets complicated.

In 1990, I read [Eric] Drexler's The Engines of Creation, arguably one of the most radical views of what a true and fully functioning nanotech might do. I suppose you could call it the strong view of nanotech.

At the same time, I was working on a novella that had large flowers on top of buildings, which came from something that came into my mind while I was meditating or running—similar states.

These two visions meshed.

There were a lot of other vectors that went into the writing of Queen City Jazz, of course. The study of honeybees—their vision, their means of communication (dance, and pheromones); the sisterhood of bees and the utopian attempt of Mother Ann's Shaker vision to create a society in which sex and sexual differences did not overwhelm the social structure; the history of Cincinnati; Scott Joplin's music and other American arts such as comics and jazz. However, the empowering element in it was nanotechnology, as well as something I called bionan.

Queen City Jazz was the first nanotech novel to be published, but it was not terrifically publisher-backed, as was Neal Stephenson's The Diamond Age, which came out a few months later, so this is not generally known.

I think that, for me, nanotech has been a metaphor for the power of thought, and for the power of language. This may sound odd, but it seems that the more we understand matter and the more we are able to manipulate it and to make decisions about how and why to do so, the better we understand ourselves. In the category of "ourselves," I include everything that lives, according to our possibly limited definition.

Why do you think there was an explosion of so-called nanopunk writing in the 1990s, but not so much in the 2000s? It seems odd to me that an era when nanotech is actually making headway as a science (ie, the last five years) hasn't been accompanied by a rich SF tradition.

Maybe it's because what is called nanotech seems to be put to mundane uses. There are a lot of fabulous things coming down the pike in the realm of molecular engineering, but right now, what the public knows about nanotech is that it is used as an advertising buzzword—what I call "weak" nanotech. In science fiction, it is routinely used as "the sufficiently advanced technology that seems like magic." It is not really seen as a powerful possible agent of the very foundations of what makes us human. When it is too difficult to explain how something works, it is just "nanotech."

Do you want your Nanotech Quartet to be read by nanotech developers as a warning?

Absolutely not! As a warning, perhaps, that we should not create Flower-Cities—as if anyone would? I am an inventor, an artist, a writer telling stories. As a writer, I work very hard to make my novels and stories real. I want the reader to be completely immersed. If scientists read my books and find them plausible—and they have—so much the better, in terms of the science in the science fictional work. But science fiction is not predictive. In an odd way, I am always writing about the present. It could hardly be otherwise, because the present is where I live. I use the language of the present, with all its freight of the present. Judging from history, the beam our headlights cast does not illuminate anything very far into the future.

And finally, a slightly orthogonal question: who would be your pick for the most futuristic jazz composer of the last 30 years?

Because I was immersed in WWII for so many years as I wrote In War Times, I must say that I'm rather partial, musically, to that period. Ornette Coleman, Keith Jarrett, Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Wayne Shorter, and John Coltrane all spring to mind as those who set out in new directions and who remain timeless in their explorations, even though they don't really fall into the thirty-year limit.