Clifford Simak and the Interstellar Matter Fax

i-1e5948009f1f465975aea838cbf7e6d7-waystation2.jpgInformation is easier to move than matter. A good way to travel between the stars would be if you had a matter scanner at one end, an instant information transmitter, and a matter assembler at the other end. Then you could fax yourself across the galaxy. James Patrick Kelly’s award-winning 1995 story “Think Like A Dinosaur” revolves around this idea. More specifically, it’s about what happens to your original once you’ve assembled a copy somewhere else.

I’m re-reading Clifford Simak’s 1963 novel Way Station for the first time since I was a boy. To my surprise I find in ch. 12 that he’s got this interstellar transportation method too. He just notes that your original dies, but doesn’t specify how. I wonder if he was the first to come up with the concept.

Funnily, Simak has a dualistic view of mind and body: “Moments ago the creature in the tank had rested in another tank in another station and the materialiser had built up a pattern of it – not only of its body, but of its very vital force, the thing that gave it life.”

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13 thoughts on “Clifford Simak and the Interstellar Matter Fax

  1. That sort of mind-body dualism seems to have been common in the science-fiction of the time. I never met the man, but somehow I suspect that if he wrote that book at the end of his career he would not have included a line suggesting a mind-body dualism because the intellectual zeitgeist had changed towards accepting a less mystical understanding of ourselves.

    That being said, ‘Way Station’ is, in my view, one of Simak’s best, right up there with ‘Mastodonia’.


  2. The movie “The Prestige” poses this problem of duplication and subsequent disposal of the original in an ingenious way. The matter duplicator is a creation of Tesla. Check it out.


  3. I don’t know anything about Simak and his book (and may hence be way off the mark), but it seems to me from the short passage that he was actually commenting on the dualism/monism issue by saying 1) a creature is just a monolithic chunk to the materialiser, and 2) I, the writer, am uncomfortable with that idea. Machinery vs. gut instinct fed by tradition. New vs. old. That conflict is at the heart of so many robot stories of the period. An author writing 50 years earlier would likely have used religious terminology.


  4. I get the impression that Simak actually believed in dualism and made it one of the book’s main themes. Just a few pages after the passage I quoted, we get simulated people who are all soul and no body, and then a bunch of friendly aliens who “wear their life-force on the outside” and are exceptionally beautiful because of this. But when one of them suddenly dies, the book’s human protagonist can barely stand looking at the alien body once the life-force has fled.


  5. Yes, that makes it fairly clear. Still, his naming of the transporting device (materialiser) is worthy of note, as it seems to imply that “life-force” can also somehow be conceived of as matter.


  6. The tech in the book is pre-digital. The way station operator receives communications from other nodes in the network in the shape of characters stamped onto pieces of metal foil by a machine that emits a “plaintive whistle” when there’s mail.

    I just discovered a major plot hole. A big turning point comes when that alien dies and the protagonist has to figure out what to do with the body. But we have already been told that several times a week, alien travellers are killed by the matter fax in his house, and their bodies end up dissolved in a tank in the basement. (Presumably their chemical components are used by the materialiser to build new aliens.) Still, somehow it’s an important distinction when this one traveller croaks on the guy’s couch instead of in the big machine across the room.


  7. Damnit, someone else mentioned the Prestige already… Surprised you haven’t seen it, it’s really good. And a bit creepy. Although now that you’ve been told one of the major plot points you’ll miss out a bit on the “oh… oh!” factor.


  8. I was a big Simak fan back in the day. The guy was not so much a mystic as someone who referenced down to earth spirituality — idealized farmers, for instance. His philosophy was (I think) given in his short story “The Answers”. (I can’t find a copy just now but, as I recall: “Life has no purpose or meaning. It just is.”) And as for machines and soul, well, check out his novel City where robots inherit the Earth.


  9. You can find this idea in Norbert Wiener’s Human Use of Human Beings, written in 1950. In chapter 5, He examines the possibility of faxing a human being by transmitting the information about the material makeup of the person, and reassembling it on the other side.

    He assumes that any detailed scan would destroy the original, but considers the possibility of leaving the orginal intact as a type of twinning.


  10. Algis Budrys’ novel “Rogue Moon” from the early 1960s also features a “matter fax” -the protagonists use this for (always fatal) probing of a structure that may or may not be of intelligent origin. The original person (faxonaut?) briefly remains in a telepathic contact (quantum effect?) with its twin, and is able to report exatly what caused the death of the twin. Thus, the enigmatic structure can be mapped piece by piece, like a 3D minefield, making it possible for scientists to eventually studying it safely.


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