Monday, April 23, 2012

Speculative Fiction Tropes: Teleporters

Today continues the April A-Z Challenge. This month, I'll be blogging (almost) daily about a different speculative fiction trope, one for each letter of the alphabet. Today's entry is on Teleporters.

The seemingly magical ability to be whisked away from one place to another in the blink of an eye is not a new one. It can be seen in folk tales as old as Aladdin, in which the supernatural djinn can transport themselves from China to Morocco in an instant.

This entry will primarily deal with the technology-assisted science fiction version of the trope. Made famous by Gene Roddenberry's Star Trek (originally as a cost-cutting device to avoid filming landing scenes), the concept involves an advanced construct of some kind that can break matter down and convert it into a data pattern, reassembling the object or person at the destination.

Teleportation is one of the more fantastic elements of science fiction. It would be very nice to press a few buttons and find yourself on the other side of the world in an instant, but the truth is that a technology like this will most likely not exist in our lifetimes. Even if a working method for matter teleportation was devised, a real-life teleporter would need a massive data capacity and tremendous computational power, not to mention the astronomical energy requirements of converting matter to energy and back again. I'm afraid we're stuck driving each other around for a little while longer.

The concept does come up in the news every couple of years or so however, pretty much every time there's a breakthrough in quantum teleportation. Unfortunately, this is usually just a case of the media confusing things due to misleading terms.

Science fiction, of course, will not be deterred by technological infeasibility. Sci-fi writers have not only explored the applications that such an advancement would bring, but also its potential for disaster. Star Trek has had several episodes featuring transporter accidents, but my favorite cautionary tale is The Fly.

Written by George Langelaan, The Fly has been adapted to the screen several times, most recently in the 1986 David Cronenberg film. It relates the sad tale of a scientist experimenting in teleportation. Upon perfecting the device, he tests it on himself, unaware that a housefly has flown into the pod. The results are not pretty.

The only time I've played with the concept of teleportation in my own work is while brainstorming ideas for faster-than-light travel for a space opera story. One of the concepts I kicked around involved using matter teleportation with time travel (which I later learned was similar to a Michael Crichton novel) to make travel over interstellar distances more feasible. I ended up not using the idea, but I still have it tucked away for safekeeping.

I think teleportation is one of those tropes that requires a greater degree of suspension of disbelief, depending on how the story handles it. That doesn't mean it shouldn't be used, it just means that the writer will pay for it faster and harder if using it as a "techno-crutch" or deus ex machina device. The story must be compelling enough that the reader or viewer isn't distracted by its presence.

I must admit, there are times when I really wish this technology existed. I hate driving, even just down the road to work. I'm patiently waiting for the day when I can just tap my com-badge and say "energize!"

Recommended Reading:
Known Space series by Larry Niven
Hyperion series by Dan Simmons
The Jaunt by Stephen King

Recommended Viewing:
The Fly
The Prestige

Recommended Gaming:
Half-Life series
Portal series
Space Quest V


  1. That quantum teleportation cartoon was hilarious! :D

    It does exert an endless temptation, doesn't it, even though one knows it's not going to happen. I still wish to be disassembled here and reassembled there, despite probably ending up as human stew.

    've not toyed with it in my own fiction yet, but that's just because I need my inter-stellar travels to take time, and because I'm a greenhorn when it comes to transportation technologies. But it's also on my list of things "to-figure-out".

    How would you make it work? *curious fretting*
    You don't have to answer that if it's a Gollum thing. We understands. ;)

    1. I had a pretty complex system worked out, but it was mostly superficial. There was a lot of hand-waving, which is why I didn't end up using it. I wasn't confident I could pull it off. It basically involved sending emails through wormholes (with people attached). :P

  2. New follower via Vero!

    The teleporter is definitely on my "science must take a great leap and invent it in my lifetime" wish list. I loathe flying. ;)

    I'd even risk an insect's head. Well, maybe.

    1. Welcome aboard, Tracy!

      I actually like flying, but I think I'd risk the occasional bout of kaleidoscope vision to save on gas. Thanks for stopping by!

  3. Teleport or Magic: making the trips quicker & safer, gets my vote!
    #53 following

  4. Once again, another Spaceballs reference, which is PERFECT for this post! I love the thought of teleporting from one back to another... I do feel that teleporting from one machine to another would likely leave the human body in the form of an irreperable pile of goo, though. I just don't trust billions of tiny particles to perfectly reunite upon bonding to each other once again-!

    Great post-!

    1. Sounds like you and Bones McCoy would get along swimmingly! I think I'm with you though. As much as I really wish this was real tech, I would not want to be first in line to test them.

      Thanks, Randi!

  5. You know, I played a Mage character on an MMORPG and I tried desperately to achieve a certain level to be able to acquire the ability to teleport my way out of a bad situation, but I kept dying and losing levels. :)

    Open portal
    Step through portal

    BLAMO, you have arrived in your new area!

    1. It just makes everything so much easier! Why must this hurdle be so high? We need to get some real-life mages on this problem.

      Thanks for stopping by, Diane!

  6. I don't think we will ever achieve personal teleportation. It's a neat idea, though. Teleportation is the one thing I wish I could do, like that movie Jumper.

    1. It would just solve so many problems and save so much time! It's a shame that of all the things Star Trek predicted accurately, this isn't one of them.


Thanks for reading!