The matter transmitter is one of science fiction's greatest inventions. It's been in hundreds of SF stories, perhaps most famously in Star Trek as the transporter. And yet writers keep trying to turn this incredibly useful, flexible idea into nothing more than a fancy system of transit. Which is all wrong.
The first attempts on the life of the matter transmitter were made in the 1930s, thanks to the film serials Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. The trope survived, but it was only a delay of execution. In the early 1960s, Doctor Who and the Outer Limits both took pot shots and in 1966 Star Trek delivered the fatal blow. "Beam me up, Scotty" killed the matter transmitter dead at the grand old age of 89.
Okay, maybe I'm exaggerating . . . but only slightly. I would still argue that television stripped one of SF's oldest and most powerful tropes back to a simple means of moving things around, and ignored its many other wonderful possibilities in the process.
This wasn't what TV set out to do, of course. Using camera trickery to move people from set to set is much easier than choreographing expensive model shots: that's the principle behind the TARDIS, which is of course a space machine as well as a time machine. (Early Doctor Who also used more conventional matter transmitters in "The Keys of Marinus" and "The Daleks' Master Plan".) It allowed writers to concentrate on different kinds of stories, ones less focussed on the mechanics of space travel than on the culture, creatures, and crises the characters encounter along the way.
That was a good thing, but it came at a cost. Embracing the matter transmitter as a convenient plot device meant ignoring the mechanics and consequences of the device itself. Stories that look at the effects such a machine would have on people and society are rare on television, and they have become rare in literature, too.
Let's look at the history of this venerable idea. The very first science fiction story about a device that takes someone apart at A and rebuilds them at B was published in 1877. Previously, there had been plenty of fables and stories about fantastical translocations, but this was the age of the telegraph. Scientists were busily convincing people that one day the seemingly impossible could be real, and fiction writers were catching on.
The author of this first story, Edward Page Mitchell, was visionary in this regard. He also wrote about electric trains, mechanical calculators small enough to fit inside a person's skull, and time travel ten years before H. G. Wells had a more substantial go at it. (You can read these stories for free in The Tachypomp and Other Stories.) "The Man without a Body" now seems rather clichéd. It's about the inventor of a functioning matter transmitter who, in the course of testing his machine, suffers a terrible injury. Très "The Fly", but three quarters of a century earlier than that story, and utterly ground-breaking.
Mitchell was the first to recognise that matter transmitters, when used as more than just a means of going from A to B, are revolutionary machines that turn everything upside down. He was far from the last, although you'd never know that now.
Hugo Gernsback took the trope further in 1909 and actively pursued such stories during the Golden Age of SF. Other editors did the same. Perhaps because of this push—or because the notion of total revolution seemed entirely plausible after the Second World War—the trope entered a golden age of its own around the 1950s. Writers imagined worlds transformed by the cheap replication of products, duplication of people, bizarre accidents, and easy access to space, among many other things.
Some stories were mere whimsy, such as Raymond E. Banks's "Rabbits to the Moon", in which bones lag behind other tissues so test subjects arrive without their skeletons—in much the same way as Professor Challenger was transported without his beard thirty years earlier in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's "The Disintegration Machine".
Others were deadly serious. Algis Budrys's Hugo Award contender Rogue Moon is both an exploration of a dangerous alien artefact and a critique of the people willing to put their lives in harm's way. Clifford D Simak's Hugo-winning Way Station is a moving meditation on the loneliness of a long-lived outsider in a universe connected by matter transmitting machines that kill the people who use them.
A list of the authors who meaningfully grappled with the idea at least once in their career reads like a who's who of Twentieth Century SF: Robert Silverberg, John Brunner, Isaac Asimov, Poul Anderson, Arthur C Clarke, Lester Del Rey, Philip K Dick, Thomas M Disch, Philip José Farmer, Harry Harrison, Robert Heinlein, Frank Herbert, Damon Knight, Barry N Malzberg, Fred Pohl, Bob Shaw, Theodore Sturgeon, A. E. Van Vogt, Jack Williamson—and of course Larry Niven, who had a profound impact on me personally, with his many stories exploring the social impact of teleportation on an unsuspecting culture.
Occasionally in recent decades, the trope has found its way back into the limelight. The positive reception of James Patrick Kelly's Hugo-winning "Think like a Dinosaur" demonstrates that readers are willing, even eager, to grapple with the philosophical conundrum the trope can raise.
However, movies, TV, and now computer games continue to perpetuate the perception that matter transmission is just for moving people around. Only few writers—Vernor Vinge, Charlie Stross, Dan Simmons, Christopher Priest, and Wil McCarthy among them—employ it at novel length. (Someone needs to write a paper on why all these writers are men. It's not selection bias, I swear.)
One way to track this is via counting the neologisms writers have given to the trope, in order to make it seem fresh and new. My research indicates there's a clear rise from single digits per decade until the 1950s, when suddenly the rate hits five times the previous average. The number of names peaks in the 1960s, with the 1970s closely following, possibly as a result of the trope's new mainstream prominence, thanks ironically to TV. Almost immediately after the novelty wears off, the graph drops down. There were only twenty new attempts to name the trope since 1980, and five of them were mine.
Why does this matter? Earlier, I described the trope as "powerful", and what I mean by that is this: Science fiction is lots of things to lots of people, but one thing we can all probably agree on is that it gives us a mirror to look at ourselves—a mirror that is translucent and twisted in unexpected ways, and despite or because of this allows us to access a deeper truth, or at least a deeper question.
The matter transmitter reconfigures ourselves and our worlds in almost literally any way imaginable, allowing an author to interrogate notions of identity, embodiment, society, economy, spatiotemporal relationships . . . pretty much everything. Provenance, thievery, and intellectual integrity? Done. Dysfunctional families? Done. Money as both a work of art and a WMD? Done. Isolation, mortality, and loss? Done and done and done.
These links lead to stories I have written, but there are many others in the dusty archives of science fiction. They're well worth the effort of finding, if only to test the veracity of my claim that no other trope offers as much flexibility and philosophical traction as the matter transmitter. Not one. I would even suggest that the current fascination with virtual reality and cyberspace is but a reflection of this much older trope. Both put what we regard as "real" to the test on the road to some of the most remarkable SFnal futures imaginable.
Some might argue that matter transmission is a fundamentally impossible dream, far beyond our present science, so that makes the trope more fantasy than SF and therefore one not to be taken too seriously. I would say, why doesn't this apply to time machines, which are the subject of multiple academic papers and books? (There is not one, to my knowledge, devoted to the matter transmitter that wasn't written by me.) I would say, look at the rapid evolution of 3D printers, communication technologies, and imagers and tell me why we shouldn't speculate about the convergence of all three? I would say, remember when people thought heavier-than-air travel was unfeasible? That didn't stop the great writers of that age using their imaginations. Why should it stop ours?
Science fiction needs bold ideas. Matter transmission is the boldest. Let's bring it back from the dead and see what it can tell us . . . about us.
Sean Williams has written multiple novels, over thirty short stories, and a PhD thesis all exploring the same question: What can't matter transmitters do? When not telling tales about body-swapping teenagers, memes that take on a life of their own, and serial killers that are both innocent and guilty at the same time, he co-writes fantasy books for middle grade readers with fellow Australian Garth Nix from his home town of Adelaide (far away from anywhere). The second book in his Twinmaker series, Crashland, is out this month.