Matter transmitters, teleports, and more

Mark Pottenger


After reading The Collapsium by Wil McCarthy, I tried to think of matter transmitter/teleport/recorder variations I’ve read in the past and came up with a few.

In The Collapsium (2000), the fax destroys the original object and stores the matter in a mass buffer. It can record for later recreation or transmit. Instantiation at any fax is dependent on having the necessary elements available. What is transmitted is information, not matter. Duplicates are possible. The stored or transmitted information can be edited, allowing repair of injuries and much more drastic alterations. The question of souls is raised but left as unanswered. It bothered me that the fax machines are described as having a plate or working surface rather than a field or working volume. There is a more detailed description two sequels later (p. 249 of Lost in Transmission (2004)) which clarifies that a fax plate is not simply matter but matter very carefully arranged to produce fields. Unfortunately, the explanation that picometer precision is required in manufacture to produce nanometer working precision leaves me wondering what happened to Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle in this world. It also still leaves me bothered by issues of macroscopic motion during scanning, though one could add a workaround by saying that error-correcting software in the fax fixes problems created by motion.

Here, in roughly chronological order of publication, are a few SF stories about fast ways to get around.

Venus Equilateral by George O. Smith is a 1967 paperback (1947 hardback) collecting a set of stories from the early 1940s, some of which explore the development of this kind of technology with destructive scanning, matter banks, recording and editing (signal processing). The story “Special Delivery” covers the initial invention and “Pandora’s Millions” explores the massive social disruption that quickly follows. The scanner is a field, not matter, and the signal travels considerably faster than light. He makes a point that moving objects don’t scan easily, and animals are likely to come out damaged.

The Null-A books by A. E. Van Vogt also have a mechanism for changing location that is not transmission. In The World of Null-A (1945): “If two energies can be attuned on a twenty-decimal approximation of similarity, the greater will bridge the gap of space between them just as if there were no gap, although the juncture is accomplished at finite speeds.” In other words, force one location (surface to a depth of a few molecules) to very closely resemble another and extra content (energy, matter, people) shifts from one to the other. Van Vogt uses “similarize” as a verb for the process. The description of the mechanics drifts a bit in the second book (The Players of Null-A, 1948), then takes a huge jump from similarity to nothingness in the third book (Null-A Three, 1985), published 40 years after the first.

Tunnel in the Sky (1955) by Robert A. Heinlein has hyperspace gates between places. The gates require high math and high energy and make it possible to walk from one planet to another.

The World Swappers by John Brunner (1959 paperback) had something called a transfax with full capabilities (record, transmit and edit). No technical details are given other than one reference to hyperphotonic math related to a space drive, so I’m still not sure if it is supposed to be a destructive scan system or a form of teleport. It operates on a whole volume at once and one machine can send or receive without a machine at the other end (at higher energy cost than working with two machines), which argues against a scan system. The record, edit and duplicate capabilities are more consistent with a scan system, but one can imagine getting such capabilities from a non-scan system that is able to record its own signals. Souls are not discussed at all.

Murray Leinster got around the matter transmitter problem linguistically in The Wailing Asteroid (1960) by emphasizing a teleportation technology that doesn’t “transmit” anything but “transposes”.

There is the Star Trek universe (1960s) transporter technology, which I'm pretty sure is also a destructive scan.

Way Station (1963) by Clifford Simak has a different variation. The Earth station in a galactic travel network was established shortly after the U. S. Civil War and the human station keeper doesn’t understand the technology, but it is described briefly. The system sends an “impulse pattern” of both the body and the “vital force”. It creates a living duplicate at the destination with all the memories of the original and leaves a dead body behind at the starting point. The signal can cross the galaxy in almost no time, but many stations are needed because it is subject to interference from interstellar matter.

Murray Leinster’s The Duplicators (1964) explores one possible set of social/economic implications of matter duplicators, though this version isn’t used for transportation. His version requires raw materials with the atoms needed to duplicate the original object and does no transmutation.

E. E. Doc Smith’s Skylark DuQuesne (1965) has instantaneous travel via translation through the 4th dimension.

The dragon riders of Pern series by Anne McCaffrey (mid-1960s to present) uses natural teleportation, except instead of people with the talent she has dragons that people can ride. The dragons are the product of genetic engineering of a small native species (fire lizards) that could already teleport.

Walt & Leigh Richmond (Shock Wave 1967, The Lost Millennium/Siva! 1967 & 1977) also speak of transposer technology. Shock Wave explores the technology much more than Siva! Flying saucers are not material--they are fully maneuverable transposer viewpoints.

The Time Mercenaries (1968) by Philip E. High has matter transmitters with no record or edit features. From the wording in the book, they may be transmitting matter itself rather than a signal describing matter. They are error-free at planetary distances, but only about 20% of material comes through unmangled at interstellar distances. They are either instantaneous or very fast at interstellar distances.

Wolfling (1969) by Gordon R. Dickson has a culture that uses a disassemble/reassemble technology as their main way of moving around, even from room to room. It is also the basis of their space drive, though Dickson doesn’t mention how a ship can disassemble and reassemble itself. (Not that it couldn’t be solved with a two-part engine--part A sends part B to the next location, then part B brings the rest of the ship back around it at that location. For the result to be faster than light travel, the disassemble/reassemble must be either instantaneous or carried by a faster than light signal.)

The short story “Flash Crowd” (1973) by Larry Niven explores some of the social implications of “displacement booths”, teleportation devices which operate like macroscopic versions of quantum tunneling. They are limited to light-speed, with whatever signal exists between stations described as “a kind of super-neutrino”.

Anne McCaffrey’s Talent series (To Ride Pegasus, Pegasus in Flight, Pegasus in Space, The Rowen, Damia, Damia's Children, Lyon's Pride, The Tower and the Hive) (first collection 1973) has teleportation by psi talents augmented by generators. Although the way the stories are written with throwing and catching pods it really mixes telekinesis and teleportation.

A World Out of Time (1976) by Larry Niven has teleport booths with no technical explanation of the mechanism. A specialized version of the booths that teleports molecular garbage out of a person’s cells is a source of longevity. (The aging = garbage accumulation premise ignores genes, transcription errors, telomere loss, etc.)

Gate of Ivrel (1976) by C. J. Cherryh, and its sequels, have gates that let users travel through time and space. The time feature is dangerous and has ruined at least two races before humans find the gates.

Healer (1976), Wheels Within Wheels (1978) and other LaNague Federation stories by F. Paul Wilson have a warp gate. It lets a ship jump interstellar distances, but does require a pressurized vehicle. In Federation history, the gates develop from requiring a start far from a star to a start in planetary orbit to a start underwater. Even the last version still requires the exit gate to be in orbit.

The Number of the Beast (1980) by Robert A. Heinlein has a flying car with the ultimate travel invention installed, making it a “continua craft”. The invention / time machine / time-space machine / continuum device manipulates 6-dimensional space-time (3 space & 3 time dimensions) by rotation (trading one dimension/axis for another) and translation (moving along any axis). It performs instantaneously and consumes no power. It can reach 6 to the 6th to the 6th universes (hence the book title) by a single rotation or translation, with the number going up into the uncountable with combinations of rotation and translation. Most of the universes that the characters visit during the book are described in their favorite fiction (Barsoom, Oz, Lensman universe, Mote, Howard Families, etc.), proving for story purposes that fiction and reality are interchangeable.

Starrigger (1983), Red Limit Freeway (1984) and Paradox Alley (1987) by John DeChancie feature interstellar roads. The key points feature kilometers-high cylinders (Kerr-Tipler objects, nicknamed tollbooths) that create Einstein-Rosen Bridge Apertures (portals). If you enter the aperture properly you come out on the next stretch of road on another planet. If you miss there is nothing left but particles and energy. The cylinders are made of virtual matter and produce strong but carefully controlled gravitational effects.

Strings (1989) by Dave Duncan uses cosmic strings. The transmensor manipulates dimensions within ten-dimensional superspace and works with strings of either infinite or zero length. The end result lets people walk to new worlds, but string contacts are of limited duration, unknown location with respect to our space-time, and unrecoverable / unrepeatable once a given string is lost.

The White Regiment (1990) by John Dalmas and later books in that series (first book The Regiment, 1987) have something called a teleport that sets up a doorway between two locations, handling distances from local to interstellar (several years’ hyperspace travel by ship) in zero time. It is one-way from device to destination, with no receiving equipment required. It has a quirk that any human with mental hang-ups going through it comes out in very bad shape (mentally disturbed--fatally so if not immediately treated). It is described as not disturbing inanimate objects, plants or lower animals, but fatally disturbing mammals except people with the right very clean psychology. The last book in the series (The Three-Cornered War, 1999) mentions the “topological enigma” as one physical limitation of the devices: they won’t work into or out of closed rooms.

The mat-trans in David Weber’s Mutineers’ Moon trilogy (Mutineers’ Moon 1992, The Armageddon Inheritance 1993, Heirs of Empire 1996) seems to be actual transmission of matter (people included) through hyperspace, to the extent that I can decipher the few brief mentions.

Any story with a destructive-scan transmit/teleport technology or duplicator capability runs into the question of souls. If your technology destroys the original and creates a duplicate that looks like that original and has all the memory and behavior of the original, is it? Is there a soul that somehow finds the new version? Is there no soul? It the act of scanning murder? Is the entity created at the destination really a continuation of the original or is it a doppelganger or fetch? If you can create multiple copies of a person, does a soul split, only inhabit one copy, or spread itself to all copies without splitting? All of these issues are implicit in any such technology unless you assume a totally materialistic/physicalistic viewpoint and say souls don’t exist or are epiphenomena of a physical body and brain.

No matter what positions you take on the soul questions, destructive-scan matter transmitters will also run into legal issues. Can a copy of anyone have legal rights? If the system kills the original, does the copy the system creates own anything, even the clothes worn at the time? Can the copy inherit anything willed to the original? Must the original be declared dead and any will executed? The first use by people of a destructive-scan matter transmitter will create work for legions of lawyers and judges for years.

There is also a bandwidth issue. The Collapsium says the fax requires high bandwidth but isn’t specific as to how high. I had a vague memory of reading that someone calculated the amount of information needed to describe the location and state of every atom in a human body and that the bandwidth requirements are astronomically beyond high. A quick online search found one set of estimates: 6 times 10 to the 30th bits to identify and locate all atoms in a 60 kg body to the picometer resolution needed for chemical bonds, femtosecond scan time to avoid messing up chemical reactions, resulting in a needed bandwidth of 6 times 10 to the 45th bits per second. To give a comparison, a bandwidth speed test of my first DSL connection rated it at 1.2 Megabits per second, or 1.2 times 10 to the 6th bits per second. If that estimate is close, a matter transmitter would need a bandwidth more than 5,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 times greater than my first DSL connection.

Almost any story that uses the term teleport / teleportation (self or other) or transpose / transposition is assuming change of location of an object (usually instantaneous), not destruction and recreation. Lots of stories use teleportation, either as a human psionic talent or through mechanical means.

Most of the ideas discussed permit travel from one planetary surface to another. Many of the ideas, or variations on them, can also be used to describe space drives that let a starship get around. Starship drives also include many more variations in physics and cosmology beyond this group.

All the ideas discussed above are within the framework of science fiction. If you also look at fantasy, fast travel opens up tremendously. Many different assumptions about how magic can work include spells or magical devices that produce teleportation. Many authors also use permanent or transient magical gates between worlds, like those in Andre Norton’s Witch World books.

Remember (Arthur C.) Clarke's Third Law: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” My distinction above between fantasy and science fiction is to some extent artificial. Even though I described all the stories above as science fiction because they present apparently scientific explanations, they are all describing science and/or technology well beyond what we currently know (though most of them use scientific themes and buzzwords popular at or before the time each was written). If the authors had chosen to describe the same functionality but used the language of magic and spells to describe the mechanisms, the stories would be classified as fantasies. With this subject matter, the difference between science fiction and fantasy is purely linguistic.

Copyright © 2004 Mark Pottenger

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