prey book review; the science fiction nano world
Prey is a page-turning science fiction thriller written by Michael Crichton about the nano world. Recent advances in nanotechnology served as fuel for Crichton. He showed what could go wrong if these advances are made without precaution. In his novel, a swarm of nanobots escapes a fabrication facility in the Nevada desert. The nanoswarm is capable of evolving, reproducing, and killing. However, much of the science in Prey is fictitious and impossible. Imagine for a moment that you are up late at night watching an infomercial. As promising as the information sounds at the time, you ultimately know that it is a scam and somebody is trying to rob you blind. The same idea is portrayed in Prey: Crichton captures your attention throughout the novel making you believe that everything is true and could happen, but in the end, much of the science is unrealistic. This review focuses primarily on the representation of science in the novel.
The production of molecules which form to create nanobots is not plausible for a private company. In the novel, a fabrication facility in the Nevada desert owned by the company Xymos produces these nanobots from molecular assemblers. With respect to the production of these nanobots, Jack, the main character and narrator of the story, states himself: “I had worked all my life in technology, and I had developed a feel for what was possible. This kind of giant leap forward just didn’t happen. It never did .” And he is exactly right. It would be impossible for a company to develop such a cutting-edge technology in secret. It would take years and years of combined research from universities and government. Even then, molecular assembly technology would remain a closed technological revolution within government control much like the nuclear revolution of the 1950’s and 1960’s. This closed technological revolution would prevent terrorists from using this technology to their advantage.
The evolutionary ideas presented in the novel are superficial. For example, the swarms of nanobots supposedly evolve and become stronger at a very fast rate (much faster than human evolution). This is not possible. Evolution is only possible with living organisms: organisms that contain a nucleus and other biological units. These nanobots are not alive. They are simply powered by radiation from the sun. Therefore, they have no way to evolve and become stronger. Their behavior is strictly governed by a computer code. Unless the nanobots can type new code themselves, they will not evolve.
The nanobots in the novel reproduce to make a large number of swarms. Again, a careful scientific eye would notice that this reproduction is not possible. The nanobots are programmed according to the predator/prey code developed by Jack. This code is based on the actions of animals in real life. For instance, a pack of hyenas stalking a herd of wildebeest would exemplify the idea behind the code. How the hyenas reproduce is not in the code. Since the nanobots are programmed with this code, how are they supposed to know how to reproduce? The answer is they don’t know how to reproduce. Additionally, where are the nanobots supposed to find the materials to create new nanobots? Not in the Nevada desert.
When the nanobots come into contact with a human being, they do one of two things: take over the human or kill the human. For example, Jack’s wife Julia had her body taken over. Rosie, one of the Xymos programmers, was brutally murdered. It does not make sense to have this inconsistency. According to Jack’s program, these nanobots should only be working together to accomplish one specific goal. In the novel, the swarm has different goals depending on the person. Crichton justifies this as evolution. It is unrealistic science. Also, the novel never clearly explains how the swarm kills a human. The symptoms experienced by the human include dizziness, blurred vision, and trouble breathing. These symptoms point toward the idea of suffocation. But the nanobots are strongly affected by wind. So to not suffocate all one would need to do is exhale harshly to expel the nanobots from the windpipe.
Not all of the science in Prey is unrealistic. Crichton brings up an excellent point when he loosely relates genetic engineering and nanotechnology. This is most evident when Jack is taking the tour of the fabrication facility and learning how bacteria and chemicals relate to the production of the nanobots. James H. Moor’s scientific article Why we need better ethics for emerging technologies speaks of the future convergence of nanotechnology, genetic technology, and neurotechnology. He states that these three technologies are interrelated and can benefit one another .
The idea of ingesting nanoparticles with biosensors (nanobiosensors) is another successful connection that Crichton makes with science. In the novel, Julia shows Jack a video of a patient ingesting these nanobiosensors. Once inside the body, these nanocameras are externally controlled to go anywhere in the human body. The nanocameras then export pictures of the patient’s internals. According to Moor’s article, “Some researchers expect that in the future some medical testing will be done through ingested nanobiosensors that can detect items such as blood type, bacteria, viruses, antibodies, DNA, drugs, or pesticides .”
Michael Crichton’s Prey is an interesting but fictitious story that brings awareness to the issue of emerging advances in nanotechnology. When looked at with a critical scientific eye, the novel contains many instances in which the science is unrealistic. However, the point that Crichton wishes to make is that we as the public must be aware that nanotechnology has the possibility to produce undesirable outcomes if proper measures are not taken.
 Crichton, Michael. Prey. New York: Avon Books, 2002.
 Moor, James H. "Why we need better ethics for emerging technologies." Ethics and Information Technology, 2005: 111, 116.