So, I wrote a PhD, and guess what? It was on matter transmitters. I found out the day I left for England that it had been accepted. Here’s the intro, which goes some way towards outlining why I think d-mat is so cool. Warning: it’s pretty dry! I have added a lolcat chaser, but even that may not be sufficient to make the medicine go down. If there’s interest nonetheless, I may post some more. (The tl;dr version is that d-mat has a long and fascinating history unfairly overlooked because of TV.)
Note: I don’t seem to be able to indent on this site so block quotes are in italics.
“The ‘Murdering Twinmaker’: Putting Into Context an Overlooked Icon of Science Fiction”
Science fiction (SF) can be characterized by its frequent employment of conventions unique to the genre, ranging from relatively mundane props such as rayguns and sonic screwdrivers to
the great cosmic technologies that embody the science of sf: interstellar spaceships, time machines, ftl drive, navigable wormholes, evolution instigators, teleportation, artificial wisdom, material immortality. (Csicsery-Ronay 120)
Sitting at a critical juncture of technoscientific innovation and mainstream culture, SF is fundamentally concerned with introducing new concepts to the value-bearing stories and metaphors of social life. It “rationalizes highly romantic and fantastic stories by means of scientific ideas” and “places abstract information about technology and science in the service of figuration and narrative” (Csicsery-Ronay 115). This double service has the long-term effect of giving the exotic increased eminence in the public mind until what seems—and might actually be—impossible becomes paradoxically concrete in the social imagination (131). These conventions—the props, tropes and icons of SF—thus occupy a liminal space between the real and unreal, providing a set of familiar symbolic codes while at the same time demonstrating an enduring concern “with the dialectic of known and unknown” that ensures their continuance (Wolfe 16):
The recognizable ‘props’ of the genre such as mutations, alien being, spaceships, cities, robots, the wasteland . . . , it may seem, should have been done to death long ago; there is not one among them that we cannot find already well-developed in science fiction prior to 1940. Why, then, do such images exert such a powerful and continuing hold on the science-fiction imagination (and indeed on the popular imagination general, which has begun to turn more and more to science fiction images . . .)? Is it that the genre is indeed so narrow in scope that it must return over and over to the same images? Is it that science-fiction writers, constrained for so long by the formula-minded audiences and editors of a genre that began as pulp fiction, simply cannot free themselves from a standard repertoire of conventional images? . . . I would argue that such images as these transcend popular literature notions of conventions and stereotypes. They are in fact . . . representative of the fundamental beliefs and values that the genre explores. (Wolfe 16-18)
These “beliefs and values” and the conventions that engage with them ultimately have their genesis in the nineteenth century’s commitment to the Enlightenment. Investment in science, integrity of the individual, secularization and the pursuit of change clearly fuel proto-SF narratives, which combine and transform literary forms until the notion that “science fiction” exists as a genre in its own right appears early in the twentieth century (Rose 10). Subsequent evolution of the genre’s form and practice led to wild mutation and combination of tropes at its fringes, while other tropes actually came true, thereby robbing them of some of their symbolic effectiveness (Hollinger 244; Wolfe 28). No element of the genre emerged from the twentieth century unexamined. Those tropes that endure possess qualities that make them capable of engagement on numerous fronts
The trope of the matter transmitter, “a device that can dematerialize a thing—even a living body—into a pattern of information that it transmits as a beam and rematerializes at another location”, has laboured under many guises and names since its first recognizably science fictional appearance, “teleportation”, “transmatting” and “transporting” among them (Livingston 79). In my fiction I refer to this trope predominantly as “d-mat”, a term I will employ here alongside “matter transmission” except when quoting from primary texts. The “instantaneous or near-instantaneous transfer of matter from one point in space to another, usually without concern for intervening barriers” is often described as a “facilitating device . . . a way of magically whisking the lead characters out of tight situations [or into them]—a resource which [authors] sometimes overuse as a means of moving the plot along” (Langford 800; Stableford 123). Thanks to Star Trek’s imagined transporter, “Beam me up, Scotty” has become “a ubiquitous tag or cliché” (Bendle 54; see also Lengeman).
Studies that examine the technological influences on or philosophical implications of such instantaneous transportation tend to focus on time travel (for instance Time Machines: Time Travel in Physics, Metaphysics, and Science Fiction (Paul J. Nahin) or Generations: The Time Machine in Theory and Practice (Judith Burnett)). Moreover, what limited body of critical scholarship that is directly concerned with matter transmission is overwhelmingly focused on iconic examples in film studies, for example, or falls outside of literary and cultural theory into the fields of cognitive philosophy and particle physics. Only a very limited number of scholars have examined the trope in its original context, leaving a puzzling gap in the literature and something of a barrier to further scholarship—a tyranny of disinterest rather than a tyranny of distance, which is ironic given the trope’s conquest of the latter.
Gary K. Wolfe analyses the use of barriers such as distance in twentieth century literature as not only a narrative device, “but as a recurring image of alienation and isolation”:
Unlike other genres of modern literature that internalize the barrier . . . the constrictions of [science fiction’s] ancestral pulp narrative style have demanded that what inner conflicts exist must be portrayed in easily accessible images and actions. (30)
When the barrier is distance—passive, invisible, to be conquered time and again in SF—the matter transmitter is the simplest way to breach it, something Wolfe goes on to discuss only in the briefest possible terms, ignoring the trope’s many other functions:
Related to the image of the barrier is the image of the ‘portal’ or doorway, which is itself an opening in the hidden barriers that separate us from unknown worlds. (33)
Wolfe is more generous to another prop of the genre, the force field, which “may originally have evolved simply as science fiction’s version of the perfect defensive weapon, [but] has over the years accrued added meanings, until it is an almost an ideal image of the barrier that separates the known from the unknown (33).” Such barriers are undoubtedly meaningful, but breaching them is no less a meaningful act than erecting one in the first place, and the tropes that enable authors to do so are equally worthy of examination.
Although he overlooks the matter transmitter, Wolfe convincingly argues that some of SF’s familiar tropes might seem simple in conception but are rich in application and consistently reward deeper analysis. Three factors, he says, give particular tropes iconic status within the context of science fiction:
(1) the icon connotes opposition between the known and the unknown, and thus serves as a structural pivot for the work of which it is a part; (2) the icon represents not a mimetic, but what has been called “subjunctive” reality, portraying hypothetical environments and beings rather than imitations of real ones . . . and (3) the meaning of icons involves psychological and cultural levels as well as fictive and aesthetic ones, so that the emotional power of a particular icon does not derive exclusively from the aesthetic structure of which it is part. (17)
In this exegesis I will track the trope of matter transmission from its inception to the present day, examining its use in four key areas—society, the self, space and the body—and considering several reasons for the trope’s critical neglect. I will argue that the matter transmitter qualifies for iconic status by the criteria outlined above, that it therefore warrants further critical analysis, and that it will remain a vital germ of ideation for contemporary writers, including myself, for the foreseeable future.
Bendle, Mervyn F. “Teleportation, Cyborgs and the Posthuman Ideology”. Social Semiotics, Vol. 12, No. 1 (2002): 45-62. Print.
Csicsery-Ronay, Jr., Istvan. The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction. Middletown: Wesleyan UP, 2008. Print.
Hollinger, Veronica. “Science Fiction and Postmodernism”. A Companion to Science Fiction. Ed. David Seed. Oxford: Blackwell, 2005. Print.
Langford, David. “Teleportation”. The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy: themes works and wonders. Ed. Gary Westfahl. Westport: Greenwood, 2005. Print.
Lengeman, Bill. “The History of Matter Transmission.” The Internet Review of Science Fiction. <http://www.irosf.com/q/zine/article/10633>. Web. 15 June 2013.
Livingston, Ira. Between Science and Literature: an introduction to autopoetics. Champaign: Illinois UP, 2006. Print.
Rose, Mark. Alien Encounters: anatomy of science fiction. Cambridge, Mass : Harvard UP, 1981. Print.
Stableford, Brian M. Space, time, and infinity: essays on fantastic literature. Rockbury: Wildside, 2007. Print.
Wolfe, Gary. The Known and the Unknown: the iconography of science fiction. Kent, Ohio: Kent State UP, 1979. Print.