Matter Transmission

Tagged: Theme

The matter transmitter is one of sf's many facilitating devices for Transportation: a hypothetical machine which is not rationally plausible in terms of known science (at least at any macroscopic scale) but which is very convenient for certain narrative purposes (see Imaginary Science). By virtue of an obvious play on words, matter transmitters were sometimes called "transmats" – as in Lan Wright's "Transmat" (November 1960 Science Fiction Adventures UK) – but the contraction never really caught on. Essentially, a matter transmitter is a Teleportation machine (see Psi Powers) whose plausibility is usually secured by analogies with radio. The best illustration of its narrative utility is in the television series Star Trek, in which the "transporter" not only transfers people from the Enterprise to this week's stage-set with a minimum of fuss but serves as an ever-ready deus ex machina to come to the rescue when our heroes are in a tight situation; like so many other Trek devices it is parodied in Galaxy Quest (1999). As with other facilitating devices like the Time Machine and the Faster-than-Light starship, however, there is a flourishing subgenre of "what if ... ?" stories exploring the logical corollaries of the supposition that such devices might one day exist, ranging from elementary questions like "what happens to the matter occupying the space into which you are transmitting?" to questions about the way in which routine transportation of this kind would transform society. Three Trips in Time and Space (anth 1973) edited by Robert Silverberg presents three original novellas on this theme by Larry Niven, John Brunner and Jack Vance; the commission for the volume intrigued Brunner sufficiently that he went on to publish two novels further exploring the possibilities – Web of Everywhere (1974) and The Infinitive of Go (1980) – while in 1973-1974 Niven wrote four other stories elaborating the background of his "Flash Crowd", carrying forward ideas first broached in Ringworld (1970).

Early stories of matter transmission include "The Man without a Body" (March 1877 The Sun anon) by Edward Page Mitchell and "Professor Vehr's Electrical Experiment" (24 January 1885 The Argonaut) by Robert Duncan Milne, in both of which the process is interrupted with dire consequences; a later variant of the same theme, with an additional horrific twist, is George Langelaan's twice-filmed "The Fly" (June 1957 Playboy) (see The Fly; The Vulture). Matter transmitters feature as a means of interplanetary travel in Fred T Jane's tongue-in-cheek To Venus in Five Seconds (1897) and as a method of ore-shipping in Garrett P Serviss's The Moon Metal (1900), but few other authors could bring themselves to deploy the notion until the advent of the sf Pulp magazines, when it was quickly added to the standard vocabulary of symbols, featuring in such stories as "The Secret of Electrical Transmission" (September 1922 Science and Invention) by Clement Fezandié, The Radio Man (28 June-19 July 1924 Argosy All-Story Weekly; 1948) by Ralph Milne Farley, "The Moon Menace" (September 1927 Weird Tales) by Edmond Hamilton and "The Cosmic Express" (November 1930 Amazing) by Jack Williamson. Matter transmitters are rarely featured in work done outside the genre, although Norman Matson's Doctor Fogg (1929) is an interesting comedy about an unexpected arrival by such means.

Nazi researches into this field of Imaginary Science go dangerously awry in A E van Vogt's "Secret Unattainable" (July 1942 Astounding), with inadvertent Weapon applications such as opening a portal into a sun (see Rays) or into ocean depths at high pressure; the former is reprised as a hand weapon in Charles Stross's Glasshouse (2007) and the latter as an improvised flood-producer in Philip José Farmer's The Gates of Creation (1966; rev 1981). "Transmatter" experimentation in Alan E Nourse's The Universe Between (stories March, September 1951 Astounding; exp fixup 1965) causes problems for inhabitants of another continuum, who retaliate. More sophisticated versions of the Star Trek transporter can be found in various Hard-SF stories, including Poul Anderson's The Enemy Stars (1959), Harry Harrison's One Step from Earth (coll 1970) and Joe Haldeman's Mindbridge (1976). Melodramas cunningly deploying them as plot-elements include Lloyd Biggle Jr's All the Colors of Darkness (1963) and Watchers of the Dark (1966), Philip K Dick's The Unteleported Man (December 1964 Fantastic; 1966; exp 1982; vt Lies, Inc) and David Langford's The Space Eater (1982); Langford and John Grant cruelly Parody several aspects of matter transmission in Earthdoom! (1987). Besides its interesting examination of the actual impact of this new technology on rival forms of Transportation, All the Colors of Darkness distinguishes three increasingly advanced forms of matter transmission: the basic transmitter and receiver arrangement, the transmitter which like Star Trek's transporter functions without a receiver, and the transmitter which transmits itself (again without a receiver), the last being described as the only practical form of interstellar Space Flight. Joanna Russ deploys the "transmatter" as one of several technologies that have transformed Earth society in "Nobody's Home" (in New Dimensions 2, anth 1972, ed Robert Silverberg). Bob Shaw's tongue-in-cheek version of such a space drive in Who Goes Here? (1977) posits a Spaceship shaped like a long boxcar with a transmitter at one end and a receiver at the other: the vehicle instantaneously transmits itself across its own length, arbitrarily high speeds being attainable by repeating this action billions, trillions (etc.) of times per second.

Matter transmitters function as devices facilitating the Colonization of Other Worlds in many stories including Eric Frank Russell's "U-Turn" (April 1950 Astounding as by Duncan H Munro) – where the world is actually Jupiter's moon Callisto – Robert A Heinlein's Tunnel in the Sky (1955), Joseph L Green's The Loafers of Refuge (fixup 1965), Jack Rhys's The Five Doors (early version as by Michael Stall in New Writings in SF 23, anth 1973, ed Kenneth Bulmer; exp 1981), Eric Brown's Engineman (1994), and Peter F Hamilton's Pandora's Star (2004) – which plausibly develops a system of interstellar railways whose track runs through transmitter gates. Interstellar transmitter portals are frequently termed Stargates.

"Buildings" whose doorways are matter transmitters and whose "rooms" are on different worlds are featured in Bob Shaw's "Aspect" (August 1954 Nebula), Roger Zelazny's Today we Choose Faces (1973) and Dan Simmons's Hyperion (1989). The hotel similarly scattered across a single world in James H Schmitz's The Lion Game (fixup 1973) has doors opening on every tourist attraction and Transportation facility. An "escape-proof" Prison in Philip José Farmer's A Private Cosmos (1968; rev 1981) comprises rooms buried deep in rock, linked and accessed only by the matter-transmitter "gates" featured throughout the World of Tiers sequence as the only way to enter or leave its multiple Pocket Universes.

The idea of a galactic culture linked by matter transmitters is soberly and memorably displayed in Clifford D Simak's Way Station (June-August 1963 Galaxy as "Here Gather the Stars"; 1963), and reprised in many stories including Peter F Hamilton's Pandora's Star (2004) as cited above. Damon Knight's "Ticket to Anywhere" (April 1952 Galaxy) and Robert Silverberg's "We Are for the Dark" (October 1988 Asimov's) feature human discovery of ancient transmitter networks built by Forerunner races. Ian M Banks's Culture novels, for example The Player of Games (1988), deploy matter transmission for emergency rescue services whereby it is possible to fall from a great height, signal for help, and be "displaced" to safety before impact. John Barnes's Thousand Cultures sequence, opening with A Million Open Doors (1992), thoughtfully examines the socio-economic impact of linking previously isolated worlds to the interstellar transmitter ("springer") network.

Malfunctioning matter transmitters offer a range of alarming possibilities which only begin with the scenario of "The Fly" (as cited above) or the weirdly misshapen objects produced by a prototype in George O Smith's Venus Equilateral story "Special Delivery" (March 1945 Astounding). Another film in which a mistransmitted human becomes a Monster is The Projected Man (1966). Bizarre deaths are the side-effect of some 50% of human transmissions in Philip Palmer's Version 43 (2010) and Artemis (2011). A favourite unwanted result is embarrassing duplication, as in Clifford Simak's The Goblin Reservation (1968), and stories about Matter Duplication may be regarded as an extension of the theme. Indeed, scrupulous attempts to rationalize matter transmission (like George O Smith's and Brunner's) often assume that what is actually transmitted is not actual matter but information regarding the exact physical specification of the object to be reconstituted, so that much so-called matter transmission is really Matter Duplication.

A logical development from this concept is to dispense with the original object and simply generate appropriate signals corresponding to whatever is desired. George O Smith's "Pandora's Millions" (June 1945 Astounding) features the production of new elements by deliberate heterodyne interference with the transmitter signal. In Blindsight (2006) by Peter Watts, Antimatter spaceship-fuel is created by simply transmitting the physical specifications of antimatter to a suitably prepared receiver. Another sophisticated twist in Charles Stross's Glasshouse (2006) is that Nanotechnology-driven transmitters can be infected with hostile virus-like programs which perform a Memory Edit on anyone passing through them. [BS/MJE/DRL]

see also: Half-Life; Rejuvenation.

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