Friday, August 22, 2008

Beam me up, Scotty!

Writers have long faced the obstacles of time and space in telling their stories. Fast horses and sailing vessels were the best the realistic writer had to offer, and that posed a problem--how to get a character or characters to travel long distances, which took a long time, without aging them too much or without frittering away the problem's urgency.

Writers of myths had a much easier time: winged shoes or winged horses or dolphins or even magic boats could get their characters a long way off in a relatively short time. Centuries later, we get reports of bilocation, or the possibility of being in two places at the same time. "Several Christian saints and monks are said to have exhibited bilocation. In one instance, in 1774, St. Alphonsus Liguori is said to have gone into a trance while preparing for Mass. When he came out of the trance he reported that he had visited the bedside of the dying Pope Clement XIV." (quoted from Wikipedia article on bilocation).

It wasn't until the 19th century that science began to help writers who set their stories in the everyday world. The train, the steamboat, and the car finally began to cut down travel time and also allow the characters to go long distances with a minimum of difficulty. Of course, the telegraph and the telephone cut down dramatically communication time, so that one could communicate instantly with another person hundreds or thousands of mile away, without having to wait days or weeks for a letter to arrive.

Then, at the beginning of the 20th century, aircraft arrived, and the world became much smaller, distances shrank, and a week's or a month's travel in the past now became a matter of hours or perhaps a day or so.

For some writers, however, this really didn't help. Their concern was not distances of hundreds or thousands of miles, but millions and billions of miles, of places that were light years apart. Space travel had arrived. Realistically speaking it would take us decades or even century or two, depending upon the speeds we could muster, to get to the nearest star, which is less than 5 light years away.

Rising to the challenge, writers created the faster-than-light (FTL) drive. Most postulated some sort of hyperdrive which took advantage of certain laws of the universe that weren't discovered until after Einstein had long since discovered whether or not God played dice with the universe. Going into another dimension was a favorite escape or more recently, taking advantage of wormholes which somehow cut across space (above? below?), thereby shortening the distance and therefore the travel time between two points.

Other writers came up with different solutions. The more technologically inclined writers employed matter transmission. The person or object enters a device which scans the item to be transmitted, breaks it down into its atomic or subatomic or electronic structure and sends the pattern to a distant point, whereupon the receiver reassembles the item into its original condition, either organic or non-organic. The transporter in the "Star Trek" series is probably the matter transmitter most familiar today. There are variations of course in size, reliability, type energy needed, and cost, but for the most part, matter transmitters are much alike.

On the other hand, some writers prefer to explore the powers of the mind, and these prefer to move their characters about by mental ability alone--teleportation. No machine is necessary, the adepts, who were either born with the power or learned how to teleport themselves, simply thought about going to another place and they were there.

If the story involved issues of human evolution, then only certain people would be born with this power--mutants--they were the next stage in the development of the human race. Other writers, more egalitarian in philosophy or simply in this story, would have it that all or most humans have this power but have never been trained to use it. A classic example of this type of story is Alfred Bester's _The Stars My Destination_, in which jaunting (named after its discoverer) or teleportation is something most people can learn, though they differ in their ability to teleport, much as is true of any human ability.

Regardless of whether it was by machine or by mind, the process seemed to involve three basic principles which hold true for all examples of teleportation, or at least all that I've read and remember.

1. The time to travel any given distance is null; it appears to be instantaneous for neither human nor animal nor object appear to be any older than when they began the trip.

2. The process had to have a predetermined destination. If it was matter transmission, then the destination was another matter transmission device. The pattern of the object had to be sent to a receiver. If it was by teleportation, then the destination had to be in the character's mind. I can't remember any story in which the character teleported at random and survived.

3. The original object moves from one place to another. It starts at Point A, is scanned, and then is transmitted to Point B. The object is no longer at Point A.

These, then, are the three major principles for either matter transmission or teleportation.

However, writers, being what they are, like to experiment. I have just finished reading a novel by Fred Pohl and Jack Williamson: _Farthest Star_, in which they vary the 3rd principle. A person, let's call him Ben, walks up to the matter transmitter, steps inside, is scanned, and the pattern (Ben2) is sent off to its destination. Ben then leaves the device, having lost only a few seconds or so while standing there and goes on to do whatever it was he wants to do. He undergoes no change whatsoever. It's the same as stepping into a photo booth and having a photo taken and then walking off. There are now two Bens in the universe, and the universe doesn't seem to mind.

Pohl and Williamson, unfortunately, do not explore this issue as it would occur in an ordinary situation--X has two appointments, one on Earth and one on Mars. X goes to a matter transmitter and X2 is sent to Mars to keep that appointment, and X on Earth keeps that appointment. After the appointments are over, what then? Does X2 stay on Mars, or does it return to Earth. If it returns to Earth, what is its status? Pohl and Williamson don't address that issue.

In the novels, the transmitter sends humans to places that will eventually kill the individual in a few months or possibly instantly in some cases or to places almost impossible to arrange a return. The "copies" in the story are used to explore this extremely dangerous environment, and in one case, three or four "copies" of one person have already died. Therefore, the issue of the real Ben does not become a real problem.

Keep in mind that the ones sent out are identical to the one who stays at Point A. Pohl and Williamson put us in the minds of several of the ones who were transmitted, and they are unhappy, for they feel they were the ones who lost the lottery.

In the brief discussion of the various forms of transportation, I could not see any moral issues being raised about any of those brought up. This, however, is not true, I believe, for the variation brought devised by Pohl and Williamson.

Is it moral to send someone off involuntarily to one's certain or almost certain death? One might argue that Ben agreed to the procedure, therefore he voluntarily placed himself in that situation--he volunteered. But, Ben also knew that "he" would walk away safely and go about his day. Did B2 have the same opportunity to make that decision?

Interesting question--but of no practical value I suppose. Yet, within the past year or so, I have read about experiments that suggest, at the quantum level anyway, that matter transmission is possible. Of course, in the same article, a scientist commented that while this may be possible at the quantum level, this certainly is impossible at our level. And this reminds me of Arthur C. Clarke's First Law:

"When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong."
-- Arthur C. Clarke--


  1. Have you read James Patrick Kelly's short story "Think Like a Dinosaur"? It involves the type of transporter that makes a copy of the person, and the copy will appear at the next transporter location. However, the story addresses the moral dilema of what to do with that extra version of a person. The transporter was invented by an alien race ( dinosaur-like in appearance) who came up with a solution: kill the person at the first transporter location after the second transporter location has the "copy". ( This fact is kept secret from humans until a malfunction occurs and the truth is discovered.) The story then asks all kind of questions about whether the "copy" is really the same as the original. I couldn't find it online , but here's a link of a review of the author's short story collection of the same name:

    It's one of my very favorite short stories.

  2. Cheryl,

    No, although the title sounds familiar, I haven't read Kelly's short story "Think Like a Dinosaur." From what you say, the story addresses very overtly the point I was trying to make about the moral issues involved. I definitely shall make every attempt to find the story.

    Thank you for your comments and the link.

  3. Oops.. I got it a bit wrong in describing the plot. (That'll teach me to post before I have my morning coffee! ) The humans know about it but USUALLY don't experience the death because it's so instantaneous with the creation of the new "copy". Since the "copy" doesn't remember the death, it kind of seems like it didn't happen. During the malfunction, something happens to change that.

  4. Cheryl,

    I found that I do have the story, but I haven't gotten around to reading the collection it's in. I'll move it up on my reading queue.

  5. Cheryl,

    I read Kelly's tale, "Think Like a Dinosaur." I can see why you mentioned it. It's matter transmission system is the same type as the one in the novel by Pohl and Williamson. A copy is made, which is moved, rather than having the original object moved to another place.

    Of course, Kelly's tale adds an interesting twist, in that the aliens have decided that there can't be two around, so one must die.

    I found it interesting that the human involved was able to push that button, justifying his actions by telling himself that this was the only way that humans would have access to the interstellar transport system, without which Earth would be isolated from the Galactic community.

    I don't know if I could push that button.