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Off on a Jaunt

One of the biggest challenges in science fiction is imagining the future of transportation, in particular when the distances to be travelled can be not just international but interplanetary or interstellar in scale. One of the common approaches adopted in science fiction is to consider the possibility of teleportation - the ability to move instantaneously between two locations, whether through natural mental abilities or technological means [1].

A Natural Talent

The first of these possibilities - a preternatural ability displayed by some or all individuals to relocate themselves through their own volition - was memorably exploited by Alfred Bester in his novel Tiger! Tiger! (1956, aka The Stars My Destination). While the novel follows protagonist Gully Foyle’s quest for revenge, it is set against a backdrop in which a widespread ability for personal teleportation, known as jaunting, has disrupted economic and social norms, leaving a society off-balance. Various aspects of this state, including the difficulty of maintaining privacy and of confining prisoners are explored:

"There were land riots as the jaunting poor deserted slums to squat in plains and forests, raiding the livestock and wildlife. There was a revolution in home and office building, labyrinths and masking devices had to be introduced to prevent unlawful entry by jaunting. There were crashes and panics and strikes and famines as pre-jaunte industries failed. Plagues and pandemics raised as jaunting vagrants carried disease and vermin into defenceless counties." - Prologue, Tiger! Tiger!

The unusual abilities of Bester’s jaunters were limited to the capacity to relocate themselves, and telepathy is a gift of just ten people in the whole Solar System. In other science fiction, however, teleportation is often associated with further mental abilities such as telepathy or telekinesis. Such abilities are often discussed in the context of privacy and property concerns. This is the case, for example, in the X-Men franchise, and in Anne McCaffrey’s Talent Universe (short stories and novels, 1969-1999). In an early short story, “Apple” (McCaffrey, 1969), the attempt of those with preternatural Talent to secure legal recognition and protection is almost derailed by a teenager who uses their newly-emerging abilities to steal. It is up to the Talented individuals to locate and restrain the thief. In later novels, the same abilities, now self-regulated into a hierarchy of talent levels, become pivotal in establishing an interstellar transport network, to satisfy the higher energy demands of which high level Talents can draw power from vast arrays of generators. This allows them to command huge salaries and satisfy both their needs and caprices, so that material desires are not a factor in their use of their abilities.

Tomorrow People Stephen, Elizabeth and John all wearing their iconic jaunting beltsA similar appearance of teleportation as part of a suite of mental powers can be found in children’s television series The Tomorrow People (1973-1979, with later reimaginings). Here the jaunting (the name nodding towards Bester’s earlier novel) is intrinsically short-range, difficult to direct with precision, and involves a split-second transition to “hyperspace” with a return to a different location. This rather limited natural ability can be enhanced by a “jaunting belt” (see image, later replaced by a wrist-band) which improves distance, power and direction with the assistance of a bio-electronic computer, TIM. A similar device can be used by a telepath to redirect their personal abilities to teleport other individuals (known as Saps for Homo sapiens). As was the case in the work of Anne McCaffrey then, there is a recognition that human biology might struggle to meet the energy requirements of teleportation; an analogy might be a human athlete who makes a challenging jump with the assistance of a spring board - the intrinsic ability is critical but can be boosted with the right equipment.

The Tomorrow People differs from the Talent series in that, while in both series the fundamental mechanism for teleportation requires an organic intelligence and can draw on external power, jaunting in The Tomorrow People is more compatible with technological modification and redirection. A second difference goes some way towards addressing the ethical challenges that McCaffrey's Talents faced: the Tomorrow People are naturally constrained by a "Prime Barrier" which prevents killing and is accompanied by a strong moral sensibility regarding the use of their abilities. This leads them to strongly resist pressure to engage in espionage or theft.

While various rationalisations for mental teleportation have been offered up [2], fundamentally these abilities - whether genetic or learnt - lie beyond the limits of physical laws as we know them and would require a new physics paradigm to operate as portrayed in fiction.

Beam Me Up, Scotty

The mental approach to teleportation has the advantage of allowing us to explore the consequences of free movement without worrying about the technical requirements. However some of the most famous examples of teleportation in science fiction involve external, technological solutions to personal transport. Examples include numerous never explained technologies including those used by humans (for example the T-Mat system in “The Seeds of Death”, 1969) or by aliens (e.g. the Sontarans in “The Poison Sky”, 2009) in Doctor Who (1963-present), the Goa’uld Ring system and Asgard transporters in the Stargate universe (1994-2018), the Farcaster door technology used to build multiplanet-houses and a highly mobile society in the Hyperion Cantos (Simmons 1989-1997), and the Treen matter transmitters in comic series Dan Dare (Eagle, 1950). However by far the most well-known example is that of the Enterprise’s transporters in Star Trek.

The Star Trek transporter platform with transport in progress.These devices require a control device at one or both ends of the journey (other examples including those above require instrumentation at both ends or a single device transported with the subject). Its working was not explained in any detail in the original Star Trek series (1966-1969), but was rationalised in the technical manuals written in the 1980s and 1990s and The Physics of Star Trek (Krauss, 1995). As a result, later Star Trek series include a number of details about the transporter technology.

Crucially, this work has clarified two key physics issues which must be considered by any technological solution to teleportation.

The first question which must be addressed is whether the physical body of the subject is being transported or merely its information. In the former case (as is usually considered to be true of mental teleportation or when a passage through hyperspace is involved) the main constraints which arise are those of energy requirements and the fundamental limitation that matter cannot travel faster than the speed of light. In the latter case, which is most commonly assumed for technological teleportation, the speed restriction might be circumvented by invoking a phenomenon known as quantum entanglement, but information requirements may well exceed fundamental quantum limits. Transporters in Star Trek are clearly positioned in the second category: they transport not physical matter (which is stored in local buffers or drawn from the environment) but the information required to construct an individual one atom at a time. Indeed, some episodes (e.g. ST:TNG “Relics”, 1992; ST:Voyager “Counterpoint”, 1998) feature individuals being stored in the transporter “pattern buffers” rather than instantly reconstructed, i.e. existing purely as information for an extended time period.

The second question arises in this information-transfer case, and arises from what we believe to be a fundamental law of quantum physics: how does the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle affect matter reconstruction?

In brief, this principle states that the better we know the location of a particle, the worse we can know its velocity, and vice versa. This is a problem because to reconstruct a human being with their thought processes, memories, organs and nervous systems intact, every cell must be reproduced with precision and effectively at rest relative to one another. If each atom is placed correctly to a fraction of its own size the first requirement will be achieved, but potentially at the cost of those atoms flying apart in different directions a moment later. If their velocity is constrained, then atoms may be sufficiently misplaced to break molecular bonds and shatter the structure of human tissues, causing either instant death or cancers. Whether the limits of the uncertainty principle could ever allow sufficient precision for transportation of living beings is unclear but perhaps unlikely. As a result, it’s long been established canon that Star Trek’s transporters are equipped with “Heisenberg compensators” - their operating principle unknown and lying beyond known physics, but their purpose clear from the name.

Morals and Monstrosities

The role of teleportation in science fiction can essentially be divided between scenarios in which it is simply used to avoid tedious journeys (its original goal in Star Trek) and those in which the consequences of teleportation itself forms the focus. Setting aside the way individuals choose to use teleportation (e.g. crossing borders, theft, spying or other crimes) and the economic consequences (e.g. regulation of trade, ultra-mobile workforces, spread of infectious disease etc), we have to ask what consequences might follow when teleportation goes wrong?

A fun early example of writing exploring the potentials of technological teleportation is the short story “Travel by Wire!” (Arthur C Clarke, 1937). This imagined that by the 1960s, the information transfer of radio and television (at the time of writing itself in its infancy) would be supplemented by transmission of human being by either wired or wireless communications networks. The former is preferred due to the risk of disruption of signal, described in a rapid-fire series of humorous anecdotes which nonetheless capture hideous mutilations and deaths in transition. In some ways the approach described, very much in the spirit of early technology pioneers rather than modern consumer-protection, is highly pragmatic: the fraction of journeys which result in death is small compared to road or air transport so the process is officially safe, but it’s still hard to see the kind of dramatic deaths and deformations described being acceptable in a newly-introduced technology today. Perhaps more worrying still was the suggestion that deliberate distortions could be introduced during the process resulting in weight loss. This is played for laughs by Clarke but could easily be more sinister, and other science fiction has dealt with deliberately influencing humans during the information-transfer stage through viruses (Glasshouse, Stross, 2006) or a form of parasitism (The Fall of Hyperion, Simmons, 1990)

William Riker confronts his transporter duplicate in ST:TNG episode Second ChancesAs well as information loss, another potential complication of information transmission which has been explored in science fiction is that of duplication. This could occur if the same information is reconstructed twice for any reason, rather than a single time, and has been explored in both literary science fiction and in visual media, notably in an original Star Trek episode “The Enemy Within” (1966) where positive and negative versions of Captain Kirk were created [3]. Star Trek: The Next Generation's Commander Riker was also duplicated in the episode “Second Chances” (1993), this time as two identical individuals who both had an equal claim on the life both remembered. This duplication effect poses really quite profound questions. If such a thing as a soul exists, how is it associated or transmitted with physical matter, and can it too be duplicated? Even if we set aside the question of souls, how can questions of identity, ownership and friendships be resolved when two individuals have identical bodies and memories? For that matter if a transporter is capable of duplicating the original through reconstruction, is the disassembly process involved in transportation technically a murder of that original?

There are no simple answers to these questions, although an interesting approach was taken by radio dramatist Wally K Daly in his one-off comedy drama Time Slip (BBC radio, 1983). In this story, two men deliberately duplicate themselves and send the unwitting duplicates home to their wives to give themselves more time at the pub… but the duplicates are programmed to explode in a self-destructive climax after a finite period, rather to the shock of the apparently-widowed women. While this is a comedy, and technically focussed more on duplication than transportation, it has moments of drama and pathos which capture the same questions of identity and loss that are explored in more serious science fiction - if there is no way to tell which individual came first, which should a spouse love and cherish, and even if there is a way to tell, is it fair to expect a duplicate identical in every way to accept death, rejection and loss when all their memories tell them they have lived a real life?

Perhaps fortunately, there is no sign that either organic or technological teleportation is likely given our current understanding of physics. While experiments in “quantum teleportation” have made headlines, these have involved the transfer of simple binary information between single elementary particles - a far cry from the vast amount of information required about each of the million, billion, billion, billion particles in a single human body for practical matter transference, let alone the complication of using that information. So the prospect of transporter malfunctions is one we likely won’t have to deal with in the near future. Nonetheless, as more conventional travel, remote working and similar aspects of modern life become ever easier, and property becomes less tangible and easier to access remotely, the questions teleportation fiction asks about how we adapt society to deal with such challenges remain current, as well as giving us an entertaining form of (literal) escapism.

"Off on a Jaunt", Elizabeth Stanway, Cosmic Stories blog, 16th October 2021.


[1] in the interest of brevity I’m restricting myself to examples of teleporting individuals, rather than opening wormholes, e.g. stargates, or instant transport of entire vehicles. [Back to text]

[2] I suggested a couple of decades ago that the teleporters in The Tomorrow People might be their own quantum observer, unconsciously selecting the miniscule fraction of the wave function for each particle in their body that lies in the location they want it to be, such that every atom in every cell of the body is observed to be there a split second after its been observed to be elsewhere. This is fun, but hardly plausible in terms of the information processing capabilities of the human brain, and does nothing to explain the mechanism involved! [Back to text]

[3] In addition to these duplications, Tuvok and Neelix were blended into a combined individual ST:Voyager “Tuvix” (1996). Many, many other examples of transporter malfunctions also exist in the Star Trek universe, most of them resulting in various deformations and horrible deaths. This trope was also parodied effectively in a Galaxy Quest (1999) scene where an animal is “digitised” and rematerialises inside out. Transporter malfunctions are not confined to the Star Trek universe either. In addition to the problems described in Clarke's "Travel by Wire!", the semi-comic character Spaceman Albert Digby in Dan Dare: Pilot of the Future, several times found himself landing on his head after a relatively benign malfunction when travelling through a Treen matter transmitter beam. [Back to text]