Nanodisaster, The

History of the nanotech disaster that befell Earth and the Solar System in the Late Interplanetary Age

The Nanoswarms
Image from Anders Sandberg
Padang Harbour arcology, 2516. The nanoswarms became especially fierce in the tropics thanks to the larger amount of available biomass and solar energy, although during the Gray Spring the amount of ash and grey dust in the atmosphere slowed them. Being located in the South Chinese Sea, Pedang avoided most of the silicovores, but the struggle between the Madura replicator and the Sharp Orchid 3.2 bluebot consumed all transition metals and organic matter in the vicinity.


Few events in the early interplanetary history of mindkind have imprinted on the galactic noosphere as much as the Nanodisaster, a tragic chain of events that took over five billion lives, and the period that follows, often referred to as the Second Dark Age. And as with all such mythopoetic representations, exaggeration and half-truth has too often replaced fact. Although it is correct to speak of a nanodisaster, this was never comparable to later phage blooms such as the Gemand crisis and the Swallowflight Disaster, despite the representations in the popular media to this effect (were it indeed the case, Terragen life would never have survived). Again, to speak of a Dark Age, analogous to Post-Classical Iron Age Old Earth or Post-Version War Sacajawea is in error. Dark Age refers to a civilisation reverting to low-tech, but the First Nanodisaster was the reverse - the highest tech of the time was that which survived.

For all that, the danger that the Nanoswarm Disaster posed to terragen life was genuine, and in a sense comparable to the Nuclear and Ecological crises of some five or six centuries previous. The nanodisaster represented the last time practically all of humanity was in the same solar system and did not have adequate nanodefenses. Although similar, even far more destructive, disasters have occurred since, they tend to be limited to one system, as nanoswarms usually cannot spread over interstellar distances under their own power other than by being carried by solar winds. There have been many infections that Caretaker Gods cleaned up, using technology that later was to be used against the Amalgamation. From the First Federation era onwards, nanoimmune systems have become better and more widespread, making it harder to construct a truly dangerous nanoswarm.

The following account, the so-called "Standard Model", of the nanite breakout is based on historical and cliological evidence and extensive simulation. Extensive records have survived from this time, and even if a number of minor details remain obscure, it is relatively easy to reconstruct the big picture with a very high degree of confidence.


As early as the late 1st century research had been going on into developing robust all-environment advanced drexlerian-style assemblers, employing both biotech and hylotech (mechanosynthesis and other techniques). Technical obstacles faced were huge, and it was not until the 3rd century that positive results were to be had. Even so, everyone was aware of the dangers, even with these relatively simple prototypes, and at first the market was deliberately limited, partly for security concerns and partly so the big corporations like Neotech and Universal Fabrication could retain a near-monopoly and the attendant profits.

By the late 2nd century nanotech began to spread in society beyond high security labs and rickety academic studies. People began investing wildly, and markets rose and fell - but planners paled at the prospects. They realised the military potential, and quickly began to pour money into blue goo. At the same time, money was also poured into khaki goo research, but significantly less - defence was the top priority; everybody knew they had too much to lose in a war.


Throughout the 3rd and early 4th century nano was spreading downwards: from megacorps to minor corps to small corps and organisations finally to individuals. Everywhere, governments and corps tried to limit this, not just because they feared to lose their power or revenue, but also because they clearly understood the dangers if replicators or nanohacking got loose. Already by the late 200s there were a number of outbreaks of simple backyard assemblers, including the famous Golgi Mosaic outbreak in the Gulf of Carpenteria. Fortunately these were contained with little environmental impact and no loss of life, but these events heightened the possible dangers that could result were an efficient malicious assembler to get out.

The middle to late 4th century saw a number of inevitable security breaches, which only accelerated the process of dissemination of information, by cracking military and corporate security systems, and posted the schematics of four working nano-assemblers on the public domain. It is important also to realise that not all of the dissemination of nanotech assembler instructions was the result of hackers and pirates. Spreading limited assemblers and Matter Compilers was of far too great economic benefit for the nanocorps, and as early as the turn of the 24th century this was already altering the economy in a chaotic fashion.

By the early 5th century, detailed instructions for creation and use of advanced assembler technology were available to any teenage hacker, visionary idealist, social revolutionary, and mad terrorist anywhere in the Solar System with Net/Matrix access.

A copy of one of these original e-texts still survives. Called simply "How to Synthesize and Program the a-90 family of Omni-Build Assemblers" it is a model of clarity, and was obviously run through several expert systems before distribution.

It took some years before good working assemblers themselves were widely distributed and then most of the action was on Earth, even though the assemblers for the most part seem to have been mechanosynthesized in some of the smaller independent belt states.

This period saw the emergence of a number of nano-hackers clans, with extravagant names like Lordz of Anarki and The Grey Goo Clan. Some historians have argued that these hacker Clans were working in co-operation with, and under the instruction of, the 1st Generation Singularity AIs of the time, but as these AIs already controlled the megacorps and the politics of most of the major powers, it is curious they would bring down the society they had so carefully nurtured and maintained for so long in such an explosion of chaos.

Social Upheaval and Chaos

The decades that followed the widespread dissemination of assembler technology constituted a period of extreme social upheaval. As the software instructions for the nanodevices was posted on the planetary and interplanetary iNet (it was a relatively simple matter to convert legal public domain and illegal blueprints of most consumer items into assembler-readable code) every manufacturing plant in the Solar System was rendered obsolete. It took somewhat longer for this material to filter through to the techno illiterate, and governments, police, and business tried hard to stem the tide. Anyone even remotely associated with nanohacking was rounded up under draconian new legislation.

For all the authorities did, it was a losing battle. Within two decades, those upper professional classes still engaged in the synthomanufacturing industries no longer had jobs to go to, and joined the armies of the unemployed and unemployable gammas. Many lost their life savings overnight. Why buy a hovercar when you can grow one from a freely available seed you plant in your backyard?

At the same time full nanoassembly in every home did not make money worthless - what became valuable instead were nanoassembly recipes. Obviously when they were pirated the value was strongly depreciated, but clever corps got around that problem by constantly selling updated versions with dramatic built in obsolescence and meterware, where the local assembler links up to a remote program where you are billed for the number of uses. The economic trouble came when inevitably so much had been pirated that one could live a comfortable life without anything, but the megacorps countered with memetic programming, and occasionally the widely illegal "memebots" (crude precursors of later behavioural modification nanites).

The alphas and betas were split - some adapted and remained on top in the burgeoning nanodesign industry, while others found themselves unemployed. Many turned outwards, seeing the chance of exploiting their talents elsewhere, and it was among their number that the Backyarders came.

But it was the vast hordes of gammas still on Earth, and still the majority of the human population, that were the hardest hit. Since the industrial revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries (third and second centuries b.t.), capitalist industry had resulted in urbanized populations, concentrated land ownership, and enormous inequalities in wealth and power. The sudden nanotechnic revolution froze these conditions in place, leaving the huge urban populations stranded, without work and without a dynamic economy offering hope of upward mobility.

The first of these pranks, which date back to the mid 400s, involved replicators that would create a rare item in plague proportions. The so-called Poached Egg Replicator outbreak of 434 converted the waste outflow of the organic recycling vats at the Pacifica Arcology, California Free State, into crude and quite inedible simulations of poultry egg. The outbreak was easily contained, and the culprit, a middle aged unemployed biochemist named Edgar Thomas, was apprehended but released after behavioral modification. Two years later a similar infestation at the fermentation tanks of the Upsala Agriplex, Central African Union, managed to infest the Zambezi river catchment area before being countered with specially geneered bacteria.

During this period blue goo was still primitive, and worse, was not distributed everywhere. Each corporation, clade or government kept their own proprietary nanodesigns to themselves, trying to convince others that their design was so superior that they should use it, and at the same time afraid to give their opponents a chance to disassemble it and learn from it. If the nanodefense doesn't cover everything, there will be places where nanoswarms can build up until they simply win by numerical advantage, and this was later to be exactly what happened in the solar system.

As the crisis spread, especially on Earth, where the largest disenfranchised populations (the so-called proles or gammas) were to be found, police and security forces were increasingly hard-pressed trying to cope with teen gangs with nanofactured guns and endless supplies of ammunition and deranging intoxicants, psychopathic cult leaders cooking up sarin cannisters and botulin capsules in their suburban kitchens, and isolated terrorists in impoverished refugee camps who finally were given a means to even the score.

The Nanotech Window

The next few decades saw a succession of increasing sophisticated replicators, originally only on Earth, but increasingly also on Mars, the Orbitals, the Moon, the Belt, and even the outer worlds. Most were harmless, and went through a number of releases and improvements (the Soya Meal Replicator of 2429 was able to convert simple hydrocarbons into edible and quite nourishing protein). In 2435 authorities in Florence, European Union, were shocked to discover the asphalt streets being converted into piles of Da Vinci, Monet, Picasso, and other great masters, most distinguishable from the originals only by atomic diagnosis. Much more serious were several disasters with virulent home made goo, either pranks that got out of hand or deliberate terrorist activity. While these were often able to be contained in time on a large planetary surface like Earth, the situation was more precarious in space, where confined corridors and central recycling units made it easy to spread nanoplagues if adequate blue goo defences were not installed. The "Ground Zero" nanite required Kleopatra to be quarantined (the infestation spread into the bedrock, and the asteroid was only made safe in the 8th century), while the "Uruk Assassin" infected SkyPolis Orbital and killed eighty thousand people. Numerous terrorist groups claimed responsibility for these and other attacks; with factions like the Kuiper Patriotic Front, the Movement for an Independent Hygiea, the Megacorporate Memetics Resistance Army, the November 17 Organization, and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Antarctica, among the most vocal, but each was later shown to have nothing to do with it.

The Juno Confederation was among the independent belt states charged by Earth and the Orbital Alliance with instigating terrorism and distribution of illegal technologies at this time, but this was never proved. The Alliance nevertheless sent a small strike fleet to take out the supposed terrorist bases (later shown to be innocent mining homesteaders)

This was also the period of the nanotech window, and a number of groups began constructing ships (using plans made available over the Net) that would take them to the outer solar system, even the stars, in search of a better life. These "Backyarders" were to have a huge and quite destabilising effect on interplanetary and even near interstellar colonisation and society. The majority of Backyarders were baseline, although there were a few DIY cyborgs, rianths, and tweaks among them. As things turned sour in the system, resources were poured into these projects by various groups, especially the radicals who realised that they would have to escape or face domination at home.


The period from 490 to 510 saw a further escalation of regulation, control and memetic engineering. The authorities showed themselves to be as patently out of control as the most disenfranchised gamma, and at times a lot more vicious in their reactions. Consider the show trial of the Minsk 7. The Atlanta Incident. The interrogation-torture-death in custody of the charismatic Cyberian cyborg activist Paedro Andros Gan. As governments cracked down with draconian regulation, and eventually get the nanodisaster and nanotech under control. In response to this regulation, and the introduction of partial cliology, technocrats and bohemians migrate outwards - the Minskis, the Drexheads, the Grey Goo Clan, and others are among transhumanists, technocrats, and libertarians who migrate to the outer planets, Kuiper and Oort region and even out system.

The destabilisation caused by the influx of Backyarders and nanohackers into the outer solar system further accelerated the collapse of the Genetekker's short lived Gengineer Republic, already fragmenting into disparate clans and clades, and the previously Genetekker-dominated Jovian League is taken over by libertarians fleeing the restrictions of the inner worlds.

Meanwhile, the hinterlandization of the technophiles only added to the crisis and possibility of disaster, as the only way to protect yourself against grey goo efficiently is not to allow it to build up strength outside your territory. The major powers began to curb the smaller peripheral ones. Nanosabotage, hacking and civil disobedience increased. The crackdown escalated, things got ever more radical and dangerous.

During this period released blue goo not just hunted grey goo, but also unknown blue goo. Trying to coordinate them would requiring sharing very sensitive information that would enable an enemy to create attack nano immune to the blue goo, and in the climate of distrust, infiltration, chaos and fear this was very slow going. Setting up an overlapping defense simply was hard going, despite even the AIs best efforts, but by the 510s a compromise standard system had been devised, the Blue Goo Universal Standard v. 1 (BGUS I ).

The Outbreak

The most serious outbreak (usually just termed "the nanodisaster") stemmed from robust, highly efficient and devastating swarms when they came seemed to originate simultaneously from a dozen points throughout the solar system. Despite the immediate and the later waves of accusations and counter-accusations, it is clear that neither the Gengineer Republic (which had fared better than most institutions during this time, due to the cohesiveness of their shared biomorphic aesthetic) nor the Orbital Alliance, nor the Mars Republic, nor Ceres or even the Juno Confederation, had anything to do with it. The general agreement is that a number of interrelated terrorists cells were acting semi-independently.

As the nanoswarms spread even the strongest defences were hard pressed to survive - the nanoswarms were replicating and spreading out of control, hacking defences and assimilating matter at a huge rate. Blue goo replicators hunted them, resulting in waves of nanites and counternanites.

The inner system was hit the hardest, being energy rich and filled with easily accessible raw materials. It is certain that all life on Earth would have perished were it not for the activities of the new AI network known as GAIA, that coordinated the available blue goo resources to maximum effect, concentrating on protecting centers of population, cultural heritage areas, and all remaining biodiversity reserves. Even so all areas not under the blue goo defense were destroyed, the air filled with gray dust and the seas with carbon eaters.

The outer parts of the system were hit more slowly, but the habitats were also often more vulnerable.

This period of maximum crisis did not last more than three months on Earth and in CisLunar space, and rather longer in the outer regions. By late 541 the authorities, with AI help, had regained regional control over the situation. But travel beyond the blue goo shield was to remain hazardous for several centuries. It is reliably estimated that 38% of the human population in the Sol System had perished during this period.

The Big Brother Era

The social and nanite crises and chaos of the late 5th and 6th century led to the collapse of both the Orbital Alliance and the Genetekker's Gengineer Republic. In the end in deep space only isolated communities existed. Some radio or laser links were operational, but many did not want to communicate with the others - they were responsible for the disaster, weren't they? Mutual distrust and the struggle to survive isolated them. But four centuries later, a new civilisation would emerge from these isolated communities.

A few fortunate and well-equipped outposts in the outer solar system, the Kuiper Belt, and the Oort Cloud managed to avoid the nanite swarms, and used the assemblers to make their own ships - mostly inefficient fusion and Bussard ram drives, in which they migrated to the stars, an event that much later came to be known variously and inconsistently as the Great Hejira, the Exodus, the Flight, etc. But the rest of the Solar System was plunged into a dark age that lasted centuries, life surviving in isolated colonies, biospheres, ships, orbitals and microworlds protected by AI-generated counter-nanite swarms of blue goo and khaki goo.

Meanwhile the inner worlds entered a period of social stagnation, like a milder and more benevolent version of old Industrial Age dictatorships. Cliological surveillance was established, under the guise of preventing more outbreaks, and there were few left who would argue with that motive. This period became known for that reason as the Big Brother era. Ironically we know more about this rather insipid period of early Terragen history than we do about many more important and exciting times that preceded and succeeded it.

Many rebelled against this excessive surveillance, and Cypherpunks and libertarians established data havens, privacy zones, and permanent free zones where there was no nanosurveillance, - e.g. Titan, Barnard Belt, and elsewhere. It is persuasively argued that this is the time when the Cyberian Network emerged in the manner it is exists today, a datahaven, interstellar electronic free zone, and vircher paradise. Some of the orbitals that had survived the swarms remained independent, and become Free Zones and centers of commerce, culture and science, while others were even more rigid and totalitarian than the any government on Earth.

For several centuries there remained a period following the swarms when people rebuild and there is still enough assemblers floating around (before the Federation bans took force) for some people and groups to take advantage of it. This situation prevailed in the outer system right up until well into the time of the First Federation

This period also saw the most extraordinary event in the early history of interstellar civilization. In 2590 the Earth-Moon-Lagrange region was declared free of hostile nanoswarms. The following year the nanodefence archailect computer network known as GAIA achieved hypersentience, took control of the entire planetary computer and surveillance net and all associated infrastructure, and initiated the infamous "Great Expulsion". The cislunar habitats, and later, Mars, were inundated with refugees from Earth. A number of anthropist and luddist groups have always claimed that more died during the Great Expulsion than were killed by the swarms, but this is known not to be the case, and most of the refugees were eventually assimilated or migrated outwards.

The First Federation

One of the First Federation's most important achievements was the establishment of a system of mutual nanodefense, where protocols of immunity were established so that different immunities could overlap and ensure that the swarms could not breed anywhere in the solar system. The Founders of the Federation were well aware that the nanodisaster was not just a nanotechnological disaster, but also a breakdown of economy, communication, trust and culture, and they were adamant that such a catastrophe could and would never happen again. Theirs was a diplomatic victory, largely achieved because by now the old conflicts were forgotten and irrelevant and the slowly expanding patches of civilisation were able to build trust over time.

The Status of Nanoswarms Today

Most nanologists and gooecologists currently agree that the Nanodisaster was simply the breaking out of nanolife from Terragen and human control. And if the deliberate seeding of nearby star systems with Neumanns during the middle and later Interplanetary Age was the first phase in the development of this galactic ecology, the escape of nanites into the "wild", which, like the neumanns, continued to evolve along Darwinian lines, many becoming completely benign, was the second. To this stardate Gooecologists are fond of making analogies with Terragen organic biospheres, in which energy and nutrient exchange is mostly prokaryote, with microorganisms feeding on each other, and only a small percentage getting higher in the food chain. In the same way the bulk of galactic "technosphere" is and always will be nanitic. And naturally even as early as the middle first federation period it was often impossible to distinguish what was biotic and what nanitic, so much had the two lines converged through technological development.

Currently, most nanoswarms are at most local problems, at least throughout the Civilised Galaxy. Something breaks out, does local damage (a room or part of a habitat) before the large scale systems bring it under control. Occasional big mishaps (like the Swallowflight disaster) can happen, but mostly due to incompetence (in that case the previous government had been criminally lax in maintaining the immunity).

All nanoswarms can be dealt with given sufficiently good AI and nanotech. Government control may limit the risk of citizens making them, but you still need immune defense against random mishaps or terrorism. Nanoimmune systems keep most systems quite safe. That does not mean they are a trivial problem: even the best designed system has flaws and an attacker can find and exploit them, but by being adaptable and staying ahead damage can be limited. In a civilised system a noticeable percentage of the GNP is spent on the nanoimmune systems, comparable to around one kilogram of a baseline human body being energy-expensive immune system related cells.

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Development Notes
Text by Anders Sandberg and M. Alan Kazlev

Initially published on 24 June 2000.