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  • The Visioneers: How a Group of Elite Scientists Pursued Space Colonies, Nanotechnologies, and a Limitless Future by W. Patrick McCray
  • William Thomas (bio)
The Visioneers: How a Group of Elite Scientists Pursued Space Colonies, Nanotechnologies, and a Limitless Future. By W. Patrick McCray. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2013. Pp. xii+351. $29.95.

Patrick McCray defines “visioneers” as individuals committed to imagining transformative new technologies and describing them within reasonably rigorous scientific and engineering frameworks. He argues that although such people often have worked at the far fringe of practicality, they [End Page 289] have played an important catalytic role in the recent history of technology. Yet, as the particular history he relates makes clear, visioneering often has struggled to distinguish its technical veneer from the speculative core that it shares with science fiction. The distinction seems unstable even over the course of this book, and other historians may not rush to employ McCray’s categorization.

But they should find his history highly useful whether or not they accept his terms and categories. He centers his attention on two speculative enterprises: the creation of space colonies and the construction of nano-scale machinery. These endeavors were championed, respectively, by physicist Gerard O’Neill and his student and follower K. Eric Drexler. What is remarkable about this history is the depth of the connection between the two enterprises, and, indeed, between them and a large, diverse population of enthusiasts for a technologically revolutionized future.

Emphasizing the technical bona fides of his visioneers, McCray largely eschews the history of science fiction, preferring to trace their efforts to such works as crystallographer and Marxist intellectual J. D. Bernal’s 1929 book The World, the Flesh, and the Devil, a paean to science’s potential to liberate humanity from material, planetary, and corporeal restrictions. Predecessors also include establishment figures such as physicist Freeman Dyson, a leader on the Project Orion team studying the prospect of spaceships powered by nuclear bombs.

The perpetual problem for such visioneers was finding backers who could bring their ideas closer to fruition. McCray notes that Dyson liked to use the term “paper NASA” to connote the profusion of exploratory studies that were conducted, tantalizingly, under the aegis of the organization responsible for Project Apollo, but that were still desperately distant from any serious institutional commitment. Absent government initiative, visioneers looked to build the future from the grassroots up. Their ideas found homes—and drew devoted admirers—in places such as alternative lifestyle proponent Stewart Brand’s CoEvolution Quarterly and the L5 Society (named after the site of a prospective space colony) founded by Keith and Carolyn Henson.

McCray does a fine job capturing the idiosyncrasies of the various ideological outlooks of visioneers and their supporters. He notes their connections to the counterculture but emphasizes their deep distaste for the calls for civilizational retrenchment associated with the Club of Rome’s 1972 book Limits to Growth. While sympathetic to environmental problems, his visioneers’ only real concern with environmentalism and resource conservation was their belief in the capacity of technology to obviate the need for such measures. In the 1980s this outlook led some to embrace the Strategic Defense Initiative, while others gravitated toward the culture of technological entrepreneurialism and libertarianism associated with Silicon Valley and the emerging biotechnology industry. In this [End Page 290] period visioneering’s brand of futurism also reached broad, new audiences through Omni magazine.

While visioneers often felt the credibility of their enterprises was threatened by association with such disreputable supporters as LSD guru Timothy Leary and, later, the cryonics movement, the case of nanotechnology offers an interesting twist. McCray argues that Drexler and the Foresight Institute (which Drexler co-founded) successfully leveraged the credibility of then-recent advances in the understanding of biomolecular processes to help generate not only enthusiasm but generous funding for nano-scale research. When this research began to focus on instruments such as the scanning tunneling microscope and materials such as carbon nanotubes, Drexler’s computer simulations of molecule-sized machines, and his speculation about the danger of them turning their environment into a “gray goo,” came to be regarded as endangering immediately productive research.

The Visioneers does...


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