This is RPG-ology #25: Transmats, for December 2019.
This article has been republished from Gaming Outpost’s Game Ideas Unlimited series from June, 2001, only slightly edited for republication here, originally entitled
Game Ideas Unlimited: Transmats.
Matter transmitters bug me. In short, I find them incredible in the most basic meaning of that word: I don’t believe them.
If by some chance you’ve avoided all science fiction, let me explain the matter transmission concept. A material object, possibly even a living object, is deconstructed particle by particle, and a complete record of the position, motion, and energy of each particle is recorded and transmitted to another location where an exact copy of the original is constructed particle by particle, having the same energy levels and motions and relative positions. It’s the teleporter of Star Trek, the transmat encountered on Doctor Who. Larry Niven envisioned such matter transmission booths replacing telephones. And there’s something about it all that I just don’t believe.
It actually is not the science. It is pseudo-science, certainly; someone is going to have to find a way around the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle if it’s going to work. But there’s a logic to it that suggests to me it will one day be accomplished. I don’t know that I will live long enough to have my molecules disintegrated and reintegrated, but I would be surprised if no one ever manages it.
What bothers me is the way in which this technology doesn’t matter in the worlds in which it is prevalent. To have done this is to have accomplished much more, but generally those aspects are not considered or even worse are discounted for insensible reasons. So bear with me while I take another look at transmat technology.
In order to build a matter transmitter, you have to be able to disintegrate a target. This may seem obvious; yet in how many settings do they include matter transmitters and don’t include a simple disintegrating weapon? If I can find and disintegrate a dozen men on the surface of a planet far beneath me, why doesn’t it work as a weapon? Since I don’t have to worry about reproducing the object disintegrated, I should be able to destroy buildings, structures, perhaps entire cities.
But that’s just the beginning of my interest in disintegration. After all, I’m quite aware that if you disassemble a molecule, you convert it to an enormous amount of energy. The problems inherent in containing and controlling such levels of energy are another question; but why can’t this technology be used to generate power? Given the amount of energy in a mass the size of a human body, the energy required to initiate the disintegration reaction must be a tiny fraction. When the dilithium crystals are failing, why don’t we just throw furniture into the transporters and convert it to reserve power?
And the weapon use of such power is staggering. A moment ago I was talking about a disintegrator; but if you start to take apart the molecules of an object, you initiate nuclear decay on a massive scale. Every building, every person, every rock is a potential nuclear bomb whose massive energy can be explosively released with a bit of prodding from our disintegration technology. As it says in Multiverser, “a device which disintegrates without containment is a remote nuclear fission reaction stimulator.”
And that leads me to think about the containment. If I’ve built a transmat, I’ve found a way to contain the energy of complete nuclear collapse. I don’t know what those force fields will be like, but somehow I think they’ll be able to deflect or absorb unimaginable amounts of power. We are casually assuming the presence of a shield that could have easily contained the impact of Hiroshima. We are tossing those shields around as an everyday tool, without any consideration of their real power.
It’s probably not impossible to design a matter transmitter which reintegrates directly from the disintegration pattern; but it makes more sense to include a memory circuit. And most of the matter transmitters in most fiction at least imply the existence of such memory banks. That means that whenever you transfer an object from one point to another you also make a data copy of it; and as long as you have that data copy, all you need to do is add energy to it and you can make another–and another, and another, as many as you need. You can make a hundred dinners, a thousand starships, a million soldiers. But this is a largely untapped resource, and the excuses used are complete nonsense. Not enough energy? Easily rectified: throw a few rocks into the disintegrator. Pattern loss? This is as foolish as those badly-written spy shows where they are passing around the “only copy” of a computer program. If making a copy of a program deleted the original, it would make sense–but anyone who understands even a little about computer memory knows that even deleted data is still there until something replaces it. Keeping the file in memory is easier than losing it. But is the available memory too small? The memory circuit really only makes sense if it’s large enough for the entire file.
But writers go to great lengths to make it impossible to copy things, especially people. We are told that complex DNA molecules are imperfectly replicated such that life forms can’t be copied. But we know that life forms can be copied, because that’s what happens when we teleport them. Really, we’ve completely destroyed one body and built another identical to it. Besides, those “tiny molecular changes” are inconsistent with most of the other replication applications we can conceive. How many water molecules have to accidentally be mis-linked as hydrogen peroxide before the liquid is not merely bitter but deadly? How many mistakes can you make in the atomic structure of a metal object before the levels of radioactive decay are measurable? No, molecular copying has to be perfect for it to be useful at all; it doesn’t have to work substantially better to copy life forms than anything else.
Not only can we copy things, we can modify them. The applications of this have never been adequately explored. In fact, the medical applications alone are mind boggling. Did you break a bone? We disintegrate you, make an adjustment to the program, and reintegrate you with the bone corrected and fully strengthened. You can do the same thing with a ruptured spleen, or a hernia, or a defective heart valve. With a filtering program, you can completely remove every trace of a targeted virus or a chemical poison. If there’s chemical imbalance, whether insulin or hormones or neurotransmitters, you can adjust to correct levels. Body temperature can be corrected. With our growing knowledge of the human genome, we would be able not merely to instantly undo the effects of such genetic disorders as sickle-cell anemia or Chrone’s Disease but to reconfigure the genome itself to remove the cause. And when it comes to cosmetic surgery, well, “you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.” You want to be taller? We’ll re-craft your long bones and vertebrae. Overweight? We’ll filter out a hundred pounds of fat on one shot. We can add muscle mass in all the right places, turning a ninety-eight pound weakling to The Incredible Hulk in minutes. Forget hair dye; we can change the color of your eyes, the pigments in your skin, the length of your fingernails. Your facial structure can be completely rebuilt. If we want we can provide you with entirely alien features, or make you look like someone else. Giving you short blond hair in the morning and long dark hair by dinner is no problem at all.
Let’s consider cooking. Insert the roast of your choice and enter the program. We can increase the temperature such that it is fully cooked in seconds. At the same time, we can screen out gristle and bone while dispersing the ideal amount of fat and moisture for the most tender servings. And spices can be added not merely to the surface but throughout the meat. It’s as easy to chill as to heat. Water can be turned to ice, cream and sugar to ice cream–we can even make Baked Alaska, with the hot cake and meringue surrounding the frozen center. Spoiled food is no longer a problem, as we can screen toxins from our meat and dairy product far more easily than we could from our bodies and serve them fresh and delicious.
Your wardrobe is as flexible as your imagination. Oh, there will still be designers; but instead of selling clothes they’ll sell computer files. And getting dressed won’t take long. Stumble out of bed in the morning into your transmat and execute the preprogrammed routine. A few seconds later you arrive at work dressed in a new suit cleaned and pressed, with your hair combed and your teeth clean. If you like you can even program a shot of caffeine already in your blood, or go one step better and clear those endorphins from your brain. After work, you enter another program into the transmat and go directly from work to the club; you arrive in a completely different outfit with your makeup redone and even a new hairstyle.
But we don’t have to stop there. Do you like being thirty-five? No reason for you to get any older–we’ll just save the pattern of your thirty-five-year-old body and restore you to that physical form with each trip. Or if you’d prefer being younger, we can probably do that too–maybe not the body you had then, but something very like it.
And of course everything that isn’t true of cloning is true of transmat copies: they have your personality, your memories, even your fingerprints, and they’re your age. Today there are people who are highly skilled to the point of indispensable; tomorrow we’ll be able to copy these people so that they can be in several places at once, and if something should happen to one he’s not entirely irreplaceable.
And we could go beyond that: we could design our own people. Once we know the basics of the human genome, we can modify it to suit our preferences; and unlike with genetic splicing, we don’t have to wait to see the results of our changes: we can birth the new person fully grown. And we don’t have to be limited to people. We could design and build a faster race horse, a smarter ape. We could design bodies completely different from anything we’ve seen. And if we like we can give them human levels of intelligence.
That, of course, leads to a much deeper question. Why is it that we don’t let our science fiction stories make copies of people? At least, whenever we do it’s usually an accident, and usually with serious complications. For television, it may be in part because of the technical problems of having multiple roles played by the same actor. But there are also moral and theological challenges raised.
As already said, everything that isn’t true about clones is true about transmat duplicates. At the moment of their creation, they match the pattern exactly. They will diverge from each other thereafter, as each acquires distinct experiences and memories, but depending on how established their characters are at the time the pattern is made they will always be similar. Which is the original? In truth, neither–both are copies, the original having been destroyed in the creation of the pattern. Neither has any more claim to being that person than the other; each has the same continuity of consciousness up to the moment the original was disintegrated. And you might argue that it is illegal, immoral, or unethical to make copies of people–but is that going to prevent it from happening, or force it underground?
But there’s a deeper problem, a theological problem which you have to answer before you can use a matter transmitter: is man merely the sum of his material parts? Is there nothing more, nothing intangible, what might be called spiritual? If there is, then when the body is disintegrated it would presumably leave a disembodied spirit; and when it is again reintegrated, some spirit would have to occupy it. It’s easy to hypothesize some sort of spiritual dimension such that the spirit of the man can travel any distance instantly and so be immediately reunited with the body; but it’s just as easy to imagine that some other disembodied spirit would fight him for that body–one of the dead, perhaps, or something worse. Also, if a man has one spirit, and you duplicate him, what spirit occupies the other body?
The presence of matter transmission technology in a game world has so many other implications it should be carefully considered before inclusion. If you’ve got it, you have the basis for uncounted changes to the world from its weapons of warfare to its basic social structure. You also have some very challenging story ideas from which to build adventures that can be as intellectually compelling as they are exciting.
Technology always changes the world in unanticipated ways. When you consider the effects it has in your world, make sure you don’t stop with the obvious.
Since the original publication of this article, I have been reliably informed that the property known as quantum non-locality will make it possible to overcome Heisenberg and possibly build a matter transmitter, but probably will not work for the communication system I envisioned in that linked article–although I did give permission to another science fiction author to use it in his work, and it has a plausibility to it.