Transports of Limited Delight

Star Trek

Action considerably speeded up through teleportation. James Blish’s novelisation of the original scripts. Published by Bantam Books 1967. Cover art by James Barna

A machine to teleport people and objects from one place to another, without the tedium of having to actually travel between the two points, would surely be one of the greatest benefits to modern civilization. The usual method suggested in science fiction is a form of matter transmission that deconstructs the person or object at one location and then reconstitutes it at the other, hopefully at or around the same time. All of which could be rather scary for any person undergoing the process.

 A character in Isaac Asimov’s 1954 short story It’s Such a Beautiful Day, where people travel from building to building using a transporter system of ‘Doors’ and never venture outside, thinks such an attitude is not surprising when “for an instant your atoms are converted into field energies, transmitted to another part of space and reconverted into matter. For that instant, you’re not alive.”

There’s always the possibility that something goes wrong, as demonstrated in George Langelaan’s famous 1957 short story The Fly, filmed in 1958 and again in 1986. When a housefly enters the transmitter pod of a teleportation machine at the same time as a human who is preparing to be transported, the potential for mixing up the atoms of the two bodies seems fairly inevitable. Who wouldn’t be just a little wary of entering a device which has such a serious effect on one’s body?

Matter transmitters have been a regular feature of science fiction over the years, allowing the action to flow seamlessly from location to location without worrying about journeys in between. The Star Trek universe would certainly be a different place without Odysseythem. In the Star Trek: Enterprise series, set in a time when humanity is taking its first steps into interstellar space, the ‘transporter’ is still in its early stages of development and everyone is understandably nervous about sending living beings through it; a shuttlepod – a small spacecraft – is much the preferred method of getting around.

 There are serious concerns about whether it will work in the 2002 episode Vanishing Point, when there is little choice but to use it to get off a planet’s surface quickly – what if your molecules aren’t assembled in the right order? There are tales of a Cyrus Ramsay, an early experimental subject who didn’t make it, and it all goes horribly wrong for Ensign Sato during the process. Perhaps the person is killed on “transmission” and a duplicate, with all the subject’s memories, is built somewhere else?

This may be what happens in Second Chances, a 1993 episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, set at a later date by which time major problems ought to have been ironed out. A transporter used in abnormal conditions results in two identical versions of the same person materializing; are they both really the same individual? Or in the earlier 1992 episode The Next Phase, two people appear as a sort of ghost when the transporter signal is disrupted and their molecular structure is changed so they have no substance. The problem is how to communicate with anyone else and return to reality.

Anything that messes around with your molecules is worrying. But even if it all works perfectly, Asimov’s 1954 story explains a potential downside of teleportation that anyone, whether on Earth or in space, might face. He describes how the use of ‘Doors’ means that people develop an aversion to being outside, which is seen as somewhere dirty and unpleasant to be avoided if at all possible. They know it’s out there but, since they can spend their entire lives within buildings, transmitted from one to another whenever necessary, they don’t know what being out in the open is like.  

So they miss out on the beauties of nature and all that the open-air has to offer, just as astronauts beaming down to a planetary surface could miss the wonders and excitement of travelling down to a new world. There is a danger in getting too wrapped up with technologies that keep us indoors.


Richard Hayes, Assistant Editor (Odyssey)

With a lifetime’s interest in science, history and human behaviour, Richard Hayes focuses his writing on how the imagination has created the world in which we live, and where it may lead us in the future.  Odyssey, the e-magazine of the British Interplanetary Society, draws on the rich treasury of science fiction to explore many fields of speculation, enabling us to glimpse what might yet be, both here on Earth and out amongst the stars.

For related Odyssey posts, please click here: The Brutal Reality | All In The Mind



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