Sean Williams: October 2015 Archives

This is not a post about Breaking Bad's brilliant Star Trek pie-eating contest scene, although the title would work.

Rather, it's about a pet theory of mine, which is that one of the reasons the matter transmitter is overlooked as an enduring and important trope of science fiction is because it doesn't have a cool name.

"Ray gun", and "robot" are examples of evocative nomenclature that entered common parlance way back when and stuck there. Alternatives exist, such as "blaster" or "android", but they're not universal. Everyone knows what a "time machine" is, if you want another great example.

So why not the matter transmitter?

I'll admit that this is a personal bug-bear. I've been selling matter transmitter stories since 1991, up to and including my latest novel, Hollowgirl. A couple of years ago I received a PhD for research into the trope, making me arguably the world expert on the subject. (Which is not to say that I am a complete authority, just that no one else has taken it on.) I'm currently outlining a non-fiction book called Traveling Light in order to explore the topic further, because I think it has interesting things to say about the evolution of science fiction and of science itself. The idea is almost a century and a half old, after all, and not much closer to becoming a reality than it was then, despite the convergence of 3D printing and scanning technologies. Maybe it's too fantastical for hard SF to deal with, or maybe the ramifications of the technology are too broad. Drop a working matter transmitter into your story, I'd argue, and everything changes. The trope is like a black hole, warping everything else around it.

Or maybe, as suggested earlier, it's just the name.

So where did it all go wrong?



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