Previous studies aimed at understanding public responses to emerging technologies have given limited attention to the social and cultural processes through which public concerns emerge. When probed, these have tended to be explained either in cognitive social psychological terms, typically in the form of cognitive shortcuts or heuristics or the influence of affective variables, or in social interactionist terms, as a product of the micro dynamics of the social interaction. We argue for an alternative approach that examines how public attitudes are formed in relation to the interplay of wider cultural narratives about science and technology. Using data from recent qualitative research with publics on nanotechnology and other emerging technologies, we develop a typology of five cultural narratives that underpin and structure public talk. The narratives we identify within focus group talk are familiar stories that are deeply embedded in contemporary culture, and which provide cultural resources for navigating the issues posed by emerging technology. Substantively, they inform a ‘tragic’ mood on the prospects of emerging technology, reflecting the loss of belief in science, when coupled to neo-liberal logics, as guaranteeing social progress. The implications for policy-making are discussed.