The Murdering Twinmaker

It’s been a year since I submitted my PhD. I know this because the exegesis has just popped up electronically in my university’s library, available for anyone to read (but not the novel: the only way to get a taste of that at the moment is via “I, Q”). Here’s the link (pdf). Or here if you want the full info about my supervisors etc. It’s gripping stuff – if you’re like me and think that matter transmitters are the most interesting thing in the world!

I’ve posted an excerpt before. Here’s another, below, just to whet your appetite.

(Photo taken at Brisbane’s GOMA during the awesome writers’ festival last weekend.)

GOMA teleporters

“The Rise of the Space Machine”

The year 1876 saw the first complete performance of Richard Wagner’s epic opera cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen, including the premiere of the final instalment,Götterdämerung. In Act II, Scene 2 of Götterdämerung, the character Siegfried dons a magical helm and is instantly transported to “far-off lands” (Wagner 13). Later, he uses the same prop to change form, first into a dragon and then into a frog. The Tarnhelm’s nature is clearly magical, with no explanation offered for its function or purpose except that it is “the cunningest work of the Niblung”, a race of dwarfs. No speculation is offered regarding the original purpose of such works and how they might impact upon the world of the narrative.

The following year, with considerably less fanfare, Edward Page Mitchell published “The Man Without a Body”, a short story that is widely regarded as the first use of non-magical matter transmission in literature. Eschewing, even outright denying, the supernatural, Mitchell employs scientific terms and metaphors to render the fantastical at least partly plausible:

Matter is made up of molecules and molecules, in their turn, are made up of atoms. . . . Their dissolution may be accomplished by chemical affinity or by a sufficiently strong electric current. . . . There [is] no reason why matter could not be telegraphed, or to be etymologically accurate, “telepomped.” (n.p.)

Mitchell is aware that the Telepomp is an impossibility in the context of contemporary science of the day, but not as preposterous as “the spiritualist’s cant”. He lists it among such other impossibilities as “how to photograph smell, how to bottle music, how to freeze the aurora borealis”—undisputed phenomena that could, at least in conception, be captured by existing means. Lip service to the Scientific Method lends further credence to the device, with an account of the unfortunate Professor Dummkopf’s initial attempts to send simple compounds “such as quartz, starch, and water” from one room to another, which are followed, successfully, by a postage stamp. The first living thing transmitted is a captured cat that “disappeared in a twinkling” and arrived “alive and purring, although somewhat astonished”. (Mitchell)

Despite being armed with “all the truth and logic of stern science”, Professor Dummkopf commits a near-fatal mistake by transmitting himself without first checking that his batteries contain sufficient power to complete the process. The batteries expire before his journey is complete, leaving him the eponymous figure of the story, his body lost forever.

Mitchell’s neologism, “Telepomp”, may not have endured, but his formula undoubtedly did. In “The Man Without a Body” we see assembling, for the first time, the criteria of a contemporary matter transmission story. The wonder of instantaneous travel (in this case only modestly imagined across the Atlantic to London) is evoked by the use of scientific imagery, language and method, while at the same time the authority of the protagonist is undercut by his failure to fully examine the technology’s implications.[1] This story signals a clear break from the fantastical Tarnhelms of the past, and opens up entirely new narrative possibilities for the future.

[1]In my research, I have located precisely zero accounts of a female inventor of matter transmission. One possible candidate, “Jesse Evelyn Ramsbotham” turned out, unfortunately, to be a man (Heinlein 28).

To be continued…


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