JANE: Last time you promised to tell me about a story in which teleportation was used as a last-ditch mechanism to escape from great peril. I’ve been speculating all week and I think I’ve guessed what it is.
ALAN: Yes, I’m sure you have, for the story I have in mind is a very famous one. The idea was used by Alfred Bester in his 1956 novel Tiger! Tiger! (aka The Stars My Destination).
JANE: That’s the one I was thinking about! However, it’s an older work, so many of our readers may have missed it. Why don’t you explain the role of teleportation in the story?
ALAN: The novel is a science fictional re-telling of The Count of Monte Cristo which takes place in a society where everyone has the ability to teleport – Bester calls it “jaunting”. In a prologue, Bester tells us how the ability to jaunt was first discovered. A researcher called Charles Fort Jaunte accidentally sets himself on fire. He yells for a fire extinguisher and suddenly finds himself standing by the extinguisher even though it was more than seventy feet away from his bench. His fellow scientists, intrigued by this incident, put him in perilous situations in order to investigate the effect.
They seal Jaunte into an unbreakable tank. They open a valve that feeds water into the tank and then smash the valve so that the flow of water can’t be stopped. As he is about to drown, Jaunte suddenly appears outside the tank. After many further experiments on volunteers, most of whom die, the ability to jaunte is finally fully understood and society adopts the practice whole-heartedly.
JANE: I’d forgotten the prologue. What I remember is the gripping way Bester uses jaunting in his novel. It’s what elevates The Stars My Destination above a mere “retelling” of The Count of Monte Cristo into a powerful novel in its own right.
There’s no “burning man” in Dumas’ tale – nor the powerful implications behind his appearance. I’ll stop there, lest I provide a spoiler. But now there are two Bester novels these discussions have made me want to re-read.
ALAN: He has a lot of short stories which are well worth searching out as well. I think you have quite a lot of reading in your future…
JANE: It’s worth noting that, by giving his researcher the name Charles Fort Jaunte, Bester was deliberately recalling another researcher who – like Rhine, who we mentioned a couple of weeks ago – set out to collect information about phenomenon outside of areas admitted to by the scientific establishment.
Did you know that Charles Fort is generally credited with inventing the term “teleportation”?
ALAN: No – I didn’t know that.
JANE: So in his naming of his researcher, Bester was showing his own knowledge of teleportation lore.
Talking about Bester reminded me of one of the explanations for psionic abilities that I don’t think we’ve touched on yet. I’m not sure where I first encountered it, but it’s basically that psionic abilities evolved in humans as a survival mechanism for a creature that was very poorly equipped to survive in a world where just about everyone else had fur, fangs, claws, and the like.
The theory is that abilities like telepathy, clairvoyance, precognition, and all the rest would have helped humans to survive but, once humans became tool users, these abilities were both less necessary and – in some cases – actually a problem. Telepathy is great if it lets scattered hunter-gatherers communicate over long distances, but it’s a problem in a settled community.
In this view, then, psionics abilities are there, lurking in our DNA, waiting – as in the case of Charles Fort Jaunte – for extreme danger or a similar stimulus to activate them. I find this a very appealing theory, more so than the idea of posthuman psionics suddenly evolving, which is highly unlikely without either a major genetic mutation or scientific tinkering.
ALAN: And even if that idea doesn’t work out in real life, it still makes an intriguing and powerful literary device.
But the appeal of having psionic powers also has its downside as Robert Silverberg makes abundantly clear in his superb novel Dying Inside (1972). David Selig has been a telepath all his life but now, in middle age, his powers are starting to fade away and he has to come to grips with this and try to live his life just like other people. But how do people do that? Selig has a real struggle to maintain his grip on reality as he loses the ability on which he has always been completely dependent for everything.
You can argue that the novel is an allegory – after all, we are all dying inside as our own very human abilities fade with age. But Silverberg does it so skillfully that the whole of the book is much greater than the sum of its parts. The poignancy of loss contrasts beautifully with episodes from early in Selig’s life when he was at the height of his powers. It’s a brilliant answer to the question of what it means to be human. The novel is Silverberg’s masterpiece.
JANE: It sounds pretty grim…
ALAN: Oh it has its lighter-hearted moments as well. At one point in his life David Selig makes a living writing reports and essays for college students to present to their professors. He guarantees the grade the reports will earn by lifting ideas from the minds of other students whose essays have already been written and graded. The higher the grade you want, the more expensive the paper…
JANE: Oh! That’s cute. As a former college prof, I firmly disapprove of course, but I love it!
ALAN: Stories such as the ones we’ve been discussing suggest to me that psionics really is a perfect literary tool for examining the human condition – though the literary mainstream continues to ignore it, which I think is a pity, and their loss.
JANE: I’m not sure we’re done with it – or with SF tropes either. But, for now, I need to go contemplate all the things I left until “after the holidays.” It’s a pretty scary pile. I wonder if I can teleport away from it?