PLOT DEVICES FOR SCI-FI / FANTASY WRITERS
T. E. Mark’s Blog
A rich quote:
‘The number of people in the United States, who would not recognize the phrase ‘Beam me up, Scotty,’ is roughly comparable to the number of people who have never heard of ketchup.’
Lawrence M. Krauss
Assuming you have heard of ketchup and would like a quick overview of how Teleportation has been used in fiction, read on. I’ll also cover what the clever scientists have been up to, and offer some of my personal ideas on how this lush device might be used in a future work.
Teleportation in Science Fiction and Fantasy
Teleportation Science in Science Fiction and Fantasy
Teleportation in Science
Teleportation in Science Fiction and Fantasy
This is a well-used device in Sci-fi /Fantasy (Lit & Film) as the concept of going from here to someplace else, quickly, as in instantaneously, has laid claim to the imaginations of writers and readers since antiquity.
Manifestations of instantaneous travel (bi-location, apportation, teletransportation) can be found in religious literature, works by the famous poets (Virgil – Homer – Dante) and of course by modern-day writers, with the first use of the term ‘teleportation’ by Mr Charles Fort in his book ‘Lo.’ (1931)
From Vincent Price and Jeff Goldblum finding flies a nuisance, in a much truer sense, to Happy Potter and Co. apparating and disapparating all over Muggle creation, going from point A to point B in a wink has excited writers, readers and viewers alike. I mean, which kid after downing an episode or two of Star Trek, DIDN’T dream of sizzling over to a pal’s house after mum and dad yelled lights out? Even today authors continue using this device in such well-recognised titles as ‘Hyperion,’ (1989) by Dan Simmons, ‘Timeline’ (1999) by Michael Crichton, and ‘Jumper,’ (1992) by Steve Gould.
Like Time Travel, Teleportation is rich with possibilities. From the unethical exploiting opportunist, (Jumper) to the average inconvenienced commuter, this device, as much as any other, can light a smile on any face.
Teleportation Science in Science Fiction and Fantasy
In selecting my personal favourites, and a few from research, for this issue, I found something interesting. An almost complete avoidance by writers of an explanation of how teleportation works. I believe you’ll find a reasonable explanation for this omission when you get to the ‘Teleportation in Science’ section of my post.
‘The Man Without a Body,’ (1877) by Edward Page Mitchell, is possibly the first sci-fi novel to employ teleportation as a plot device. A clever story with a somewhat macabre twist. A scientist discovers he can reduce a cat down to its sub-atomic particles and send them over a telegraph wire. (Kind of like 3-d faxing) Everything works well until he decides to follow the cat and only his head makes it to the reassembly platform. (No real scientific explanation offered.)
In ‘The World of Null-A,’ (1948) the author, A.E. van Vogt, presents a mind-rattling adventure with his main character, Gilbert Gosseyn, (pronounced go-sane) discovering his memories are false and he has, in fact, multiple bodies which he can inhabit at will. (An incredible work that brushes upon mental teleportation and immortality. An attempt at a scientific elaboration may very well have been a detraction here.)
A few more Early Notables
‘The Disintegration Machine,’ (1929) by Arthur Conan Doyle. Yep, even Sherlock took on the teleportation issue in this early story. Credit Doyle for his masterful writing and a plausible (during his time) scientific explanation using telephone wires as the teleportation conduit. (Makes me wonder which of these guys is actually credited with the concept of faxing.)
‘Aladdin,’ (Middle-Eastern Folk Tale) The djinns can not only teleport themselves from China to Morocco but can even take the palace along for the ride. Nice fantasy. Certainly would make moving day less of a drag.
Pure fantasy. Being djinns, in the time of djinns, really left no room for pseudo-scientific explanations, especially with a story as old as the development of fire.
‘Magic and Mystery in Tibet,’ (1929) by Alexandra David Neel offers a rich fantasy of a Tibetan culture using what he termed ‘Lung-gom-pa.’ An attainable skill by certain ‘adepts’ who can move from place to place instantaneously.
I liked this one as it gave rise to the concept of teleportation being a mind-science. Credit the author for exploring something that we find thought-provoking even today.
Many examples. Few with notable attempts at an explanation of how their teleportation works, with others simply dazzling you with the potential thereby relieving you of even the desire for the technical details.
‘The Fly,’ (1986) film starring Jeff Goldblum. This was an imaginative, albeit gory, remake of an earlier film starring Vincent Price.
A noteworthy example of a film in which the screenwriters offered just enough computer science, and some nifty looking hardware, to add credibility to the teleportation. Goldblum’s inimitable pedantic style in describing the process to Geena Davis is also quite effective.
‘Star Trek,’ (1966-1969) TV run by Gene Roddenberry, spin-offs, and film follow-ups. Probably the most recognisable use of teleportation in Lit, TV or Film to date.
‘Beam me up, Scotty,’ hailed Captain Kirk, frantically, his shirt off, an arrogant snicker of confidence in his eyes, while fighting the psychotic Rock Monster on Rigel 7, 8 or 9. (I get them confused.)
This is teleportation at its best, and one only needs Dr McCoy’s disparaging remarks that, ‘My God, you break a man down to his molecules and spread them out all over creation hoping like hell they find their way back together again,’ to know that something really cool is going on in that transporter console once Kirk, or Picard or some other guy in a snazzy space get-up says, ‘Energise,’ without a hint of hesitation.
‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, (1979) by Douglas Adams, and its four follow-ups. I would feel seriously remiss if I didn’t include these gems for Adams’ masterful wit, incomparable imagination, and almost implausibly, hysterically, nonsensically, ludicrous sense of humour.
With his intrepid crew of misfits sloshing their way about the galaxy using virtually every plot device imaginable, including teleportation, Adams actually made his scientific explanations sound nearly as believable as they were ludicrous.
These books should own an easily accessible, prominent position on every Sci-Fi / Fantasy geek’s dashboard. Like an available bottle for a drinker, there is really no way of knowing when you may need that next spot of ‘Hitchhiker’ to get you through the next hour of your grim, dreary, meandering, meaningless commute.
Just a few more examples displaying no interest in challenging your intellect with quasi-plausible-pseudo-imaginative, yet highly inconvenient terminology-laden explanations.
‘Jumper,’ (1992) Steve Gould. Film version, (2008) starring Hayden Christensen. A boy with a genetic ability uses teleportation for plunder, and to get the girl of his dreams. Great book and smashing screen adaptation.
‘Happy Potter,’ JK Rowling. Seven books from (1997) to (2007). Having sold enough books to girdle Jupiter several times, I’ll only toss in two quick lines about my favourite fantasy series. ‘JK, you are the Goddess of Fantasy,’ and, ‘Elves did it better than the wizards and witches.’ (Go Dobby!)
‘Aladdin,’ (Middle Eastern Folk Tale) The tales are rich, imaginative and always a treat. And the cool jaunt from China to Morocco with the palace in tow was a sheer delight. In any manifestation, (Book, play, film) these are an absolute treasure.
Teleportation in Science
Teleportation is not pure fantasy. Though the science is almost incomprehensible, I’ll do my best to support my statement without causing you life-long damage.
Plausibility – Will we someday be beaming rather than driving, flying, calling, etc?
Probably. We currently live in a world where 95% of all scientists were raised on Star Trek, and are presently, in some capacity, working towards making everything used on the show a reality. (Personally, I’m waiting for the Holodeck)
There are conflicting views on this one. I’ll reach for brevity.
At the quantum level, (atoms, protons, electrons) it has already been achieved, albeit for short distances. Three metres in one experiment, and extended to 143 Km in another using optical fibre. The term used is Quantum Entanglement.
The major issues are:
- Whatever is being teleported must be completely destroyed as it is dematerialised, before it can be rematerialised at its destination.
- When we consider breaking down every bit in a human body, we’re talking about 4.5 x 1042 bits of data. That’s 45,000,000,000…000 bits. (That’s a lot of bits that would need accurate reassembly at another location. A glitch, a missing update, a virus, and… well…)
Besides that, a group of Students at the University of Leicester estimated the data from a single being would take quadrillions of years to teleport somewhere – in some cases slower than walking, depending on how far away they were beamed.
- To reach Quantum Entanglement, we must break down the strongest of the four known forces. The one that holds atoms together. Specifically, OURS. To do this, it is necessary to heat an atom to about 1000 billion degrees (about a million times hotter than the temperature at the core of the Sun). Certainly to be considered a hurdle.
Terminology – A mere sampling with abbreviated definitions for your next work. ‘Use these flagrantly.’
BIT – A very small piece of data. (They’re racing around in your laptop, your Android Phone and you right now, at just under light speed.)
QUBITS or QUANTUM BITS – A very, very small piece of data. (Forget 1’s and 0’s, we’re talking atom-sized)
DEMATERIALISATION – The breaking down of an object at the ‘sub-atomic’ level.
REMATERIALISATION – The putting back together, hopefully in the right order, of an object after dematerialisation.
HUMAN EXPLORATION TELEROBOTICS – A project that lets astronauts ‘inhabit’ robots in locations that are fatal or inaccessible. (Kind of like, ‘Mental-Teleportation.’ We may explore other planets one day without ever leaving the office.)
UNITARITY – Homo Sapiens are nothing more than a gargantuan stack of data. Put that together with the principle of Unitarity, which states that Quantum Data is never lost, we are essentially…immortal. (Work that into your next plot. Man!)
QUANTUM ENTANGLEMENT – Teleportation at the Atomic Level – This has already been achieved. Great term, though! eg (‘It’s these Klingon crystals, Captain, they just keep fouling up the Quantum Entanglement drive, if you know what I mean.) Cool, huh?
Logistics: What are some of the logistical concerns with teleportation that would fit well into a Sci-Fi / Fantasy piece?
Once a person is teleporting to a destination, and has essentially been destroyed at the point of departure, they will exist as data encoded electromagnetic radiation – travelling just shy of light speed. This can be equated to an in-transit cellular phone call.
Could the entirety of your person, in the form of quantum data, be hijacked en route to your destination? Stored, perhaps, in a computer? Destroyed by Quantum Entanglement assassins?
Law enforcement can snatch your cellular phone calls from the air. This is widely known. Could they also snatch you while you’re on your way to Venice to catch the sunset, noting that you’ve been doing it a bit too often lately for it to be just pleasure?
World Building – What would your Sci-Fi / Fantasy world look like without cars, trains, planes etc?
With the ability to be anywhere, anytime, by simply stepping onto the home teleportation pad, would people even bother living in cities? Why would they when they could be strutting along Piccadilly to a west-end play, or sitting at the water’s edge in Santorini with the flip of a switch?
People could live anywhere. And why wouldn’t they when the office commute would be mere seconds no matter where they lived on Earth? Hmmm….
Sociologic– How would teleportation affect daily life in your fictional world?
Greatly, I should think. Your characters would have to expect friends, family, law enforcement, parcel deliveries, people leaving pubs at 2 AM having dialled the wrong Destination Code, at any hour.
Would there be safeguards? Some type of prohibitive field to deflect undesired teleportation? Would there be field hackers who could break through your encrypted defences?
With the ability to travel anywhere, your REAL friends could be as vast as your Facebook or Twitter friends. How would this affect world diversity? With the availability of meeting and engaging with someone anywhere in the world, would we eventually eliminate diversity through intermarriage? Would the Earth be populated by one homogeneous race?
What about politics? Would borders become irrelevant?
What about economics? With the ability to say, live in Brazil, but open up your local coffee shop each morning in Athens, would this necessitate a ‘world currency?’
Would teleportation, in fact, unite the world?
One final speculation
With you broken down into atoms, and a highly sophisticated supercomputer taking you apart and reconstructing you at your destination, could it not reconstruct you while removing the gene for Diabetes? Or Heart Disease? Or degenerative discs? Or any other genetic flaw?
Could it reconstruct you with improved cognitive abilities? Could it enhance you physically?
Personally, I see the fictional possibilities with this line of reasoning rich and endless.
I’ve, as usual, thoroughly enjoyed writing this issue of my PLOT DEVICES FOR SCI-FI / FANTASY READERS AND WRITERS, and hope you’ve been at least modestly enriched and inspired by my exploration of Teleportation in Science Fiction, Fantasy and in real science.
If my work pleases you, consider sharing this with your networking pals, and maybe picking up one of my six recently published novels:
‘Love in the Time of Apocalypse’ (Published – June 2017)
‘Alina’ (Published – May 2017)
‘Never a Sun Rises’ (Published – April 2017)
‘Fractured Horizons: A Time Travel Odyssey’ (Published – Jan 2017)
‘…but then, why Mars really?’ (Published – Dec 2016)
‘AHNN’ (Published – Oct 2016)
T.E.Mark is a Science Writer, Author, Language Teacher and Violinist. He has written novels for young and adult readers, and continues to write science articles for national and international magazines.