Any sufficiently advanced technology—

Rereading Xombi reminded me of Arthur C. Clarke’s oft-quoted dictum that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
Xombi is a DC Comic featuring David Kim, a man who is transformed into an immortal, unkillable Xombi when he injects medical nanotech to save his life (magic also plays a role in his immortality). The nannites now use any material around Kim to rebuild his body when he’s damaged; as he discovers when he first recovers from death, they find human bodies (like a close friend) very easy material to exploit.
The series (recently revived——I’m hoping it survives the DC reboot) is very good (I may have more to say about it later), but what I’m focusing on now is the use of nanotech, the latest technology to be indistinguishable from magic.
Clarke was referring (or so I always assumed) to really, really advanced technology, millenia ahead of ours, but in fiction, a great many technologies over the decades have been Indistinguishable From Magic (my thanks to Bill Warren’s superb Keep Watching The Skies, which makes this point in the introduction).
In twenties horror movies (and some earlier material in the Victorian age) hormones and gland research could perform miracles. In the thirties, electrical energy, which could revive a dead corpse (Frankenstein for example). And in the fifties, of course, radiation. Warren argues persuasively that the convenience of radiation as a miracle explanation for anything had more to do with its status as some mysterious super-force than actual fears of the bomb (as witness From Hell It Came, the classically awful film in which radiation contributes to animating Tabonga, the killer tree!).
In the sixties, likewise, Spider-Man and Daredevil (and by implication, all mutants) got their powers by radiation; if David Kim had been killed back in the Silver Age, I’m sure radiation + magic would have done the trick nanotech does now.
Computers had some of the same Indistinguishable From Magic quality back in the sixties: If it was any sort of intellectual task, you could simply assert that your character’s computer was super-powerful to justify the answer. For example, Marvel’s Mad Thinker, who could predict events with computers down to the millisecond (but invariably got tripped up by unpredictable human behavior).
There’s also A. Merritt, whose fantasy novels frequently invoked SF explanations of the Indistinguishable variety: Destructive vibrations, genetic racial memories, dimensional portals, etc. Or Steve Englehart’s Long Man, which explains its magic (and takes much too long to do so) as the result of quantum physics.
The book Outside The Gates of Science points out that the same thing happens with parapsychology: When a new scientific concept comes along (quantum mechanics, string theory, chaos theory, whatever), parapsychologists tend to embrace it as the explanation for psi powers. And as it doesn’t actually solve the questions, they eventually move on to the next one.
There are more “sufficiently advanced” technologies that I can think of (subliminal advertising, for instance, which was the basis of one John Brunner novel——Squares of the City?). And it makes me wonder, of course, what amazing super-cool technological miracle will be next?

4 Comments

Filed under Comics, Reading, Writing

4 responses to “Any sufficiently advanced technology—

  1. Easily one of my favorite quotes of all time!

  2. frasersherman

    Mine too.

  3. Pingback: The different kinds of mistakes. « Fraser Sherman's Blog

  4. Pingback: CL Moore and my love of pulp | Fraser Sherman's Blog

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