Transmutation

Tagged: Theme

According to tradition (though many prefer a more mystical interpretation), the great goal of those proto-Scientists the alchemists was the transmutation of elements – specifically of base metals, usually lead, into gold. Examples of gold-making facilitated by sf Inventions rather than the devices of fantasy include J B Harris-Burland's The Gold Worshipers (1906); Arthur Conan Doyle's The Doings of Raffles Haw (1891), whose titular inventor can transmute through the entire gamut of elements; "World Wreckers" (November 1908 Cavalier) by Frank Lillie Pollock, the wrecked world being that of Economics; Victor MacClure's Ultimatum: A Romance of the Air (1924; vt The Ark of the Covenant: A Romance of the Air and of Science 1924); E Charles Vivian's Star Dust (1925); W H Slater's The Golden Load (1926), in which gold-making brings global Disaster; and Leslie Charteris's Saint story "The Gold Flood" (15 October 1932 Thriller; vt "The Gold Standard" in Once More the Saint, coll 1933). There was generally a disapproving moral whiff associated with such easy acquisition of wealth and disrespect for the gold standard (see Money) – one chapter of The Doings of Raffles Haw is titled "The Golden Blight" – and this is often coupled with a sense that transmuters should cease their activities or come to a bad end, like the Mad Scientist of the Charteris story, who is electrocuted by his own apparatus. In Avram Davidson's Science Fantasy treatment "The Ceaseless Stone" (September 1975 New Venture), the series protagonist Doctor Eszterhazy commands the destruction of a (successful) alchemist's vessels in order to preserve the status quo. Reverse transmutation features in George Allan England's The Golden Blight (18 May-22 June 1912 Cavalier; 1916), with a Ray that converts gold to ashes – though only temporarily.

Disapproval also attaches to gold-making equipment in Gold (1934) – which with some show of plausibility deploys Nuclear Energy for the transformation – and Captain Nemo and the Underwater City (1969). In Hudson Hawk (1991) directed by Michael Lehmann, the components of a transmutation device created by Leonardo da Vinci serve solely as McGuffins; the Invention is never successfully assembled.

The theme is harnessed for Satire in Alfred Toombs's Good as Gold (1955), whose reverse-Midas effect converts gold to a superlatively fertilizing variety of manure, and in Frank O'Rourke's Instant Gold (1964) – in which, having thoroughly debunked and shattered the sanctity of the gold standard, the perpetrators begin anew with instant diamonds. A Weapon which reduces gold to valueless dust features in Gerald Verner's Yu-Malu, The Dragon Princess (1967) as by Thane Leslie. Poul Anderson considers transmutation from a Science-Fantasy viewpoint in Three Hearts and Three Lions (September-October 1953 F&SF; exp 1961), where the traditional curse associated with a troll turned to stone by the dawn is explained by a nuclear transformation yielding dangerously radioactive isotopes. Gold manufactured by an unexplained Alien process in Gene Wolfe's An Evil Guest (2008) offers a similar radiation hazard.

With the general understanding that nuclear transmutation of other elements to gold is possible but absurdly laborious and expensive for any usable quantity, gold-makers have become rare in sf. Isaac Asimov's Foundation (May 1942-October 1944 Astounding; fixup 1951; cut vt The 1,000 Year Plan 1955 dos) features an uneconomic transmuter whose usefulness is confined to "beads for the natives" – bribing members of naive post-scientific cultures. Earthlings are the grasping primitives in William Tenn's "The Liberation of Earth" (May 1953 Future), where Alien "liberators" scatter largesse in the form of "lendi", a substance which auto-transmutes into whatever it is placed in contact with. More than one author has realized that in terms of the Economics of energy and Power Sources, not to mention supremely efficient and destructive Weapons, a particularly attractive transmutation goal would be Antimatter (which see for more).

Transmutation of elements – typically from any element to any other – is also included in the standard Comics repertoire of Superpowers. [DRL]

see also: Matter Duplication; Nathaniel P McCoy; Talbot Mundy.

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