Friday, 18 October 2013

Famous Teleportation Mishaps

How does teleportation work, exactly? That is, you are in one place, and then another; presumably, the air rushes in to fill the space after you are gone; but what happens to the stuff in the space you now enter?

Two possibilities. One, you somehow mingle with what you teleport into; the basis of both versions of The Fly, and of the nightmare scenario where you end up immediately dead after teleporting into a wall.

The other, which I prefer, is that you displace whatever you are teleporting into. Still leads to a sad and lonely death if you teleport into solid matter, but much more forgiving otherwise.

Of course, nothing says fantasy has to be consistent. Indeed, I'd think our intuitive approach to magical
teleportation is a mix of the two ideas. We like the gruesome consequences of teleporting halfway into a floor or ending up as a Brundlefly, but don't consider the consequences of mingling for normal teleportation, where your whole system would be pumped with a nitrogen - oxygen - CO2 mixture that probably would give rise to some version of the bends.

Summoning sickness, anyone?

Displacement, likewise, has some interesting side effects if applied consistently. For example, any wizard's district or magical academy where teleporting is practiced constantly would probably have an abundance of the hallmarks of slightly off teleports: footprints in the floor where a teleport went slightly too low, or in some cases craters where a wizard had to be dug out of solid rock.

One of the better dead ends in a dungeon might be one where, using detect magic, somebody dug their way to the entombed corpse of a way-off wizard to rob him for his enchanted loot. All that's left is the indentation of his body, maybe a skeleton, and a cursed item for the unwary ....

Call it pedantry if you like - but it's the good kind of pedantry, where working out the details of a consistent world leads not to "this can't happen" or "this is more boring" but "wow, really, that happens?"

Finally, for some reason, fantasy teleportation doesn't seem to arouse the same worries about scrambling matter that sci-fi* teleportation does, at least if game rules are anything to go on.  Maybe it's because we have an implicit model of magic as working off some idea of Platonic forms - a kind of object-oriented programming, if you will. Thus, the danger in a spell that changes the "location" attribute of "you" is not that you will be changed, but that you will end up where you don't want to be. By contrast, sci-fi teleportation works in a molecular physics of reality where it's much more clear that you will have to be disassembled and reassembled, monad by monad, giving rise to all sorts of philosophical dilemmas and wacky mishaps.

* Is the last person who viscerally hates this term finally dead?


  1. Teleportation type #3: Where teleporting from a place involves instantaneously collapsing into a singularity and arriving somewhere involves the inverse.

    So you leave with a sonic boom and arrive in a mushroom cloud.

    But here's some teleportation, made by Australians.

    1. That is an awesome kind of teleport. Certainly not the "continual light streetlamps" kind of magic.

  2. I suppose magical teleportation that swaps the teleported with destination materals would be interesting. Someone teleports away and a statue of earth appears where they stood before and you know things didn't go well for the teleported.

  3. "* Is the last person who viscerally hates this term finally dead? "

    Actually no. It was a bad pun, and it just sounds silly.

    If you want to shorten it, 'sf' is even shorter.

    1. But can we all agree to hate "Syfy"?

    2. We can. :)

      Sorry to be that guy, but since you asked...