At a yard sale recently, I bought an old copy of Hubbard's Battlefield Earth for twenty cents. "Beach" reading, perfect for summer. The characters are superficial, the plot movement often contrived, and some of the language confusing, but Hubbard does a good job building that momentum that gets you to turn to the next chapter (or part).
One of the main "science" premises of this science fiction novel is the mysterious workings of the antagonists' teleportation system:
Prior to this [discovery], it was thought that teleportation consisted of converting energy and matter to space and then reconverting it in another place so it would assume its natural form. But this had never been proven. En [the discoverer] had apparently found that space could exist entirely independently of time, energy, or mass and that all these things were actually separate items. Only when combined did they make up a universe.
Space was dependent only upon three coordinates. When one dictated [!] a set of space coordinates one shifted space itself. Any energy or mass contained in that space thereupon shifted with that space shift.
In the matter of a motor such as this freighter had, it was just an enclosed housing in which space coordinates could be changed. As the coordinates changed, the housing was forced to go along, and this gave the motor power.... A series of coordinates were progressively fed to the main motor and it self went forward or backward as the housed space occupied each set of coordinates in turn.
Teleportation over vast distances worked the same way. Matter and energy were pinned to the space, and when it was exchanged with another space, they simply changed too. Thus matter and energy would seem to disappear in one place and appear in another. They didn't actually change. Only the space did.
There are so many things wrong with this description that it is hard to know where to begin. Now of course, no one takes the "science" mumbo-jumbo in science fiction novels seriously (I mean most of these things technically don't even qualify as novels1), but for entertainment purposes, let's look at it more closely.
In the first place, this idea of absolute space (apart from an absolute time) was conjured up by Newton to facilitate his mechanics, which was based on Descartes's analytic geometry. It's took us centuries to get over this naive starting point, but as we all know, the consequences of Einstein's notions of space and time continua forming a unified space-time continuum were experimentally confirmed by the time Hubbard wrote his novel in 1982. In his special theory of relativity, Einstein showed how the dilation of time intervals and the correlative contraction of spatial dimensions at speeds approaching the speed of light explain many phenomena, most notably the constancy of the speed of light for all observers, however they are moving. So not only are space and time interdependent, but also there can be no absolute coordinate system---what would define the origin?
Further, in his general theory of relativity, Einstein showed that the geometrical structure of this spacetime depends on nearby masses. So space exists relative to mass-energy as well as time.
But the dubiousness of the idea goes deeper than physics. Coincidentally, I've also been reading A.W. Moore's The Infinite. Of course one of the puzzles of infinity is whether a magnitude or continuous quantity can be composed of discrete, infinitesimal points. Cantor's transfinite mathematics notwithstanding2, it is pretty clear that elements with length zero can never add up to a finite length. Philosophically speaking, using a teleporter to move through a continuum requires more sophistication (infinitely more!) than teleporting across the universe. That means that the teleportation motor that Hubbard describes cannot move continuously, but has to move itself through discrete points. Perhaps the resulting vibration is the reason the engines make such noise when "dictating" themselves through space. Of course, if space exists independent of the rest of the universe, then one has to wonder what sort of forces would allow one to shift it.
Hubbard's novel is interesting also for how it speaks about his personal philosophy, a philosophy that undoubtedly colors the doctrine of the Church of Scientology, which he founded. It shows a naive trust in human nature so characteristic of the 20th century. But in addition, Hubbard also displays a distrust of government and a simple faith in the abilities. More interestingly, Hubbard has at least a rudimentary respect for nature: his villains, a race of aliens called the Psychlos, have been altered at birth to suit arbitrary societal demands (working hard, preserving technological secrets) that also make them sadists.
Wikipedia says that Punch (April 4, 1984) sarcastically commended Hubbard's "excellent understanding of evil impulses, particularly deviousness, which helps with the plot, and [he] is well-enough aware of his weaknesses not to dwell upon frailties like love, generosity, compassion." I might add that Hubbard's detachment from humanity is reflected in his naive, purely quantitative conception of greatness. Beyond the 1000-page length of the book, the Psychlos are much bigger than humans (10-ft tall and weighing 1000 lbs each) and the greatness of their empire is reflected the vastness of the numbers that define it. As Hubbard writes,
The homeplanet of two hundred thousand worlds.
The center of an empire that had ruled and ruined sixteen universes over the period of three hundred and two thousand years.3
Wanna spice up your novel with more awe-inspiring bad-guys? Just add zeros!
1. A novel in the usual understanding centers around the development of a character. The cover of my copy of the present work is a painting in bold primary colors of a blond, bearded bare-chested man (physique of a body builder) firing two futuristic guns, in the background angular spacecraft zooming around (see the book homepage: www.battlefieldearth.com). In this case it seems you can judge a book by its cover. Tragic little of science fiction explores characters with any depth, though later writers have sought to overcome this shortcoming by introducing sex scenes, as if meaningless couplings add human depth! At least Hubbard refrains from the latter.
2. Cantor showed that there are (infinitely) more irrational numbers between any two rationals than there are rationals on the real number line. But his failure to show that the continuum is the next infinity bigger than the rationals leaves an indefiniteness to the place of the continuum in Cantor's hierarchy of transfinite numbers. More on this later.
3. P. 899. Somehow their tremendous evil does nothing to destablize their society.
4. Looks like Battlefield Earth is Presidential candidate Mitt Romney's favorite novel! Just the thing to read while you're having your hair blow-dried.
L. Ron Hubbard, Battlefield Earth: A Saga [!] of the Year 3000 (Los Angeles: Bridge Publications, 1984), 187-8.
A.W. Moore, The Infinite (Routledge, 1989).