Thursday, September 1, 2016

Teleportation Horror

I've been playing Teleglitch recently, a top-down shooter inspired by the likes of Doom and Quake. The game has text logs that can be accessed from terminals that give insight into the lore of its universe. One the logs states this:

"The Teleglitch Incident 2"
The key for unlimited teleportation range is software that uses well packaged fuzzy randomness inside a fractal information structure that copies the human brain neural layout. Using the fuzzy randomness has a small chance to ocassionally [sic] produce super huge calculations in an instant, making teleportation possible for hyperlong distances. 

I found this statement to be both a disturbing and compelling as a fictional explanation for teleportation. Disturbing because it seems to place the life of the person being teleported at the mercy of some ill-defined "fuzzy math," the sort that George Bush liked to accuse his political opponents of using. Compelling in that such super jumps of physics are made possible by ambiguity, which you might say is an inherently literary concept. Numbers aren't ambiguous but interpretations are. So teleportation, in this log, ends up being where science and art meet, so to speak. The fusion of that which is inherently calculable with that which is inherently incalculable.

Anyway, this got me thinking about the use of teleportation more generally in fiction, games, and movies, and in particular, its application as a source of dread. Consider David Cronenberg's The Fly, or Frederik Pohl's Gateway, or even id Software's Doom. In each, teleportation serves as the main vehicle for narrative horror. There is something deeply unsettling about been transported, electrically, computational, across space and time, and each of these works taps into that in their own way, through mutated bodies, the fear of the unknown, and the threat of otherworldy intruders. But I wonder, what unites them all? Beneath the mutilations and invasions, what is the most basic thing that teleportation symbolizes that imparts to us such menace?

One possible reason has to do with what teleportation implicit says about the nature of the self. If a human can be broken down into a stream of data that can be re-assembled anywhere, then there isn't much room left for any sort of essentialist notion of the self or the soul. Teleportation basically says people, mind and body, are just data, no different than any other block of code. That's potentially a real blow to our collective egos. Saying I'm an individual (and think about how the word indicates something that can't be broken up) and realizing I'm a particular pattern of information are two very different things. In the latter, there really isn't any "there there," no true "I" behind the things we think and feel. Just a simulation of constancy that could be coming apart and back together again millions of times with every breath we take.

At the same time, teleportation horror is characterized by the trope that the transmission of data never goes as planned. Dematerializing and rematerializing from one location to another should be as easy as making a phone call or sending an email. But something always goes wrong. Bugs get in the unit, glitches get in the system, and the dream of pure communication becomes a nightmare of monstrosities. One of my favorite Next Gen episodes has Riker meet his teleportation-error produced doppleganger. The two gradually come to see each other as an enemy, even if they are technically the same person.

Still, I think there's something far more fundamental about teleportation horror. More than telling us we are just information or threatening us with mutants and clones, it seems to me that teleportation symbolizes in an interesting way our relationship with language, the oldest information technology known to man, and in particular, its use of metaphor. Metaphor, in its Greek roots, means "to carry over or transport" (meta=across/over, pherein=to carry). And that's what metaphors do too. They enable leaps of logic where two disparate things can be brought together. The flower of my heart or the apple in my eye. These things have no natural relationship, but with metaphor, they become welded together in a way that seems natural.

The horror element, we might say, comes from what literary critics call "catachresis." It denotes the way in which metaphor is inherently open to misuse and abuse. All metaphors are on some level disfiguring and mutating--a flower is grafted onto the someone's heart, an apple inserted into someone's eye. Convention, however, lets us pass over statements like apple in my eye as normal because we have heard them many times before and think we know their proper meaning. But say something like the apple in my ear, or even apple in my pupil, and suddenly people will look at you funny, like you yourself are some kind of monster. There's nothing less logical about these latter examples. They just aren't part of the established linguistic pattern.

What's more, new metaphorical combinations are appearing all the time, and nothing legislates which will be repeated and accepted and which will not. They are really out of our control and they remake the world anew over and over again with each new combination, linking our eyes to plant matter, our feet to wings, and our teeth to skin. And they are a foundational part of our thinking too because we often come to understand the world precisely through such metaphorical amalgamations (see Lakoff and Johnson's Metaphors We Live By for a great discussion of this). They are, to return to the opening quote from Teleglitch, that fuzzy math of randomness that nonetheless allows huge "hyperlong" calculations.

So if what comes out of teleporters in fiction is so often hybrid creatures and disfigured mutations, metaphors could be said to have been doing the same since the beginning of human consciousness. Both are about combining objects in unnatural ways through by overleaping time and space, and both come with the built-in threat of unpredictable distortion. The only difference is that one is a future science fiction and the other an ancient practice.

That leads me to say that teleportation horror is a metaphor for metaphor, or perhaps less playfully, metaphor made literal. Not a metaphor made literal, but metaphor itself render as a literal process. They're both scary because they both tie us deeply to something that we don't fully control or understand, but also compelling because they have so much to do with what we are and how we experience the world. Teleportation horror, as a kind of meditation on the mutating, hybriding, transporting power of metaphor, ends up being a representation of our complicated relationship with the world as language using beings.