Science in Fiction: Wil McCarthy and Programmable Matter


Welcome back to Science in Fiction! Today I’m going to introduce you to Wil McCarthy, an engineer and scifi writer. If his books are anything to go by, he’s also a lot of fun.

McCarthy has done a lot to advance and popularize the idea of programmable matter, which refers to any substance whose properties can be changed according to programming, whether those changes arise from user control or autonomous response to stimulus. “Programmable matter” originally described a physical network of programmable computing elements, but subsequent technological advances mean that it’s now used to describe the ability to change actual physical properties, not just simulated ones.

I’ll try not to say anything substantial about the plot of McCarthy’s Queendom of Sol quartet, which has some really lovely worldbuilding and fascinating characters. Basically, the success and prosperity of this solar-system-wide monarchy is largely due to the use of programmable matter in a specific form: quantum dots.

Quantum dots, for the applications in these books, are essentially fake atoms—electrons that are constrained so tightly in all three dimensions that their wavelike properties take precedence over their particle-like ones. (Maybe I should do a post on wave-particle duality?) This causes the electrons to move as if there were a nucleus of protons and neutrons, when in fact there isn’t.

In McCarthy’s novels, this is used for…well, almost everything. A sparse silicon lattice provides the framework for these pseudo-atoms and allows them to be controlled by a user, who can change the material properties of the substance by altering the number of electrons in the dots. This produces what is close to a post-scarcity society, with any material or element imaginable at anyone’s fingertips. The materials aren’t as durable as the real thing, but that hardly matters when you can replace them so easily!

The other technological linchpin of McCarthy’s system is the use of miniature black holes, which (for reasons that I won’t try to explain here) allow instantaneous communication across the solar system. Together with quantum dot technology, they result in “quantum teleportation” or faster-than-light transmission of the total physical makeup of an object or person, which is usually dematerialized on one end and recreated on the other. This is potentially fraught for those of us who like to worry about whether we’re really the same person if all the atoms in our bodies change out every few years, but for everyone else it’s a highly convenient way to travel.

Oh, and it makes everyone functionally immortal—McCarthy’s word of choice is “immorbid”—since they can always step into their “fax” machine and print themselves younger (or uninjured, or with purple skin).

McCarthy Body Changes.png

Do I notice anything different? Is this a trick question? Did you do something with your hair?

This, combined with the communications network and general abundance of quantum-dot material resources, gives McCarthy a nice hard science underpinning for an almost utopian setting. Everyone lives forever, looking exactly the way they want to, surrounded by interesting creations and able to travel and communicate on a whim.

You might imagine that such a system would produce complacency, which would make it all the more catastrophic if things ever went wrong. Not that that actually happens in the books—no, no, a set of four novels about a perfect society where nothing goes wrong sounds very entertaining, doesn’t it?

McCarthy does (I think) a really nice job of considering the inevitable problems that would arise with a post-scarcity society of immortals. What happens to the youth when their elders never get out of the way to let them have any real power (with more generations of “youth” accruing all the time)? How do people react to any trouble with the communication and “fax” systems that allow the lifestyle to which they’ve become accustomed?

In terms of the way McCarthy uses science, what I love is that he creates a setting that feels almost like a fairy tale—with a good queen, a happy realm, magical peace and prosperity—and backs it up with science to explain the magic. In this process, he doesn’t destroy the somewhat whimsical, quirky fairy-tale sense, partly due to the occasional use of appendices to explain the science rather than forcing the reader to get through it to move on with the story. The elements of fantasy work really well to emphasize that in some ways, the technology involved is at the level of being indistinguishable from magic.

In my opinion, Wil McCarthy strikes a great balance between science and worldbuilding, has one of the best character-development-to-hard-science ratios I’ve come across, and is just a lot of fun to read. Give him a try and let me know what you think! (You can also read his 2003 nonfiction book on quantum dots, Hacking Matter, here.)

Science vs. Characters.png

Fight me.


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