Elements

Tagged: Theme

Although little excitement is now aroused by the addition of yet another short-lived heavy element to the Periodic Table of Physics [see links below], new elements with extraordinary properties used to be highly popular sf devices. Public awareness of radioactivity led to much fictional exploitation of unstable, Ray-emitting nuclides, especially radium itself, and reawakening of interest in the old theme of Transmutation (which radioactive elements undergo spontaneously).

Quite apart from its promise of Nuclear Energy, radium was repeatedly invoked as incantatory shorthand for future wonders and marvels. Being rare and valuable, it often features as little more than a McGuffin or source of economic leverage, as in Frank Aubrey's The Radium Seekers, or The Wonderful Black Nugget (1904 Boy's Realm; 1905), Louis Pope Gratacap's The New Northland (1915), Rudolf Brunngraber's Radium (1936; trans Eden and Cedar Paul 1937) and Geoffrey Ellinger's The Blasted Acre (1936). One episode of T W Hanshew's Cleek of Scotland Yard (?-? 1912 Cassell's Saturday Journal as "Cleek of the Yard"; 1914) features radium as a quasi-Poison. Exaggerated and sensational versions of radium's properties were common; see Black Cat magazine. Edward Harold Crosby's Radiana (1906) overstates its usefulness in Medicine; it becomes the basis for fantastic Weapons in Albert Dorrington's The Radium Terrors (January-August 1911 The Scrap Book [US], 1911 Pall Mall [UK]; 1912), A M Low's Adrift in the Stratosphere (17 February-21 April 1934 Scoops as "Space"; 1937) and W E Johns's Biggles Hits the Trail (1935), the latter throwing in Invisibility just for luck; J U Giesy's All for His Country (21 February-14 March 1914 Cavalier; 1915) uses radium to justify Antigravity, and Christopher Blayre's "The Cosmic Dust" (in The Purple Sapphire, coll 1921; exp vt The Strange Papers of Dr Blayre 1932) suggests it may be the origin of life. "Radium repulsion rays" function as an anti-meteor Pressor Beam in Neil R Jones's "The Jameson Satellite" (July 1931 Amazing). Further dangerous and unlikely properties are ascribed to "Radium X" in The Invisible Ray (1936). As late as 1981, the Love and Rockets comic featured a Superhero named Castle Radium for no better reason than the word's resonance. This real-world element had a long vogue in sf.

The most plausible imaginary elements are those inhabiting hoped "islands of stability" among higher atomic numbers beyond the known Periodic Table, offering the potential of innovative nuclear Weapons and/or Power Sources. Notable sf examples are the "trans-Plutonian isotopes" making up the doomsday explosive PyrE in Alfred Bester's Tiger! Tiger! (October 1956-January 1957 Galaxy as "The Stars My Destination"; 1956; rev vt The Stars My Destination 1957), and the "trans-three-hundred elements" which form the ultimate fuel Illyrion in Samuel R Delany's Nova (1968). The highly explosive, earthquake-triggering Element 112 in The Night the World Exploded (1957) seems to be a gesture in a similar direction (element 112 was identified in 1996 and named copernicium). Piers Anthony's Apprentice Adept sequence, beginning with Split Infinity (1980), introduces a similar super-fuel metal called protonite which – this being a Science and Sorcery scenario – is also the Power Source for Magic in a fantasy-based Parallel World. Rick Raphael's "Guttersnipe" (November 1964 Analog) features the fictitious fuel metal Carpanium 463 as a contaminant which is extremely radioactive or "hot" and also has "a fantastically long half-life", properties which in real elements are mutually exclusive (see Scientific Errors). Relevant variations on known elements include the impossible isotope plutonium-186, which in Isaac Asimov's The Gods Themselves (March/April-May-June 1972 Galaxy; 1972) is imported from a Parallel-World universe that allows its existence, and the "safe uranium" of Walter Tevis's The Steps of the Sun (1983); no serious scientific justification is offered for the latter's useful property of being stable and non-radioactive until magnetized.

Gravity-defying elements are popular despite being ruled out by general Relativity. The most famous – actually described as a metal alloy somehow incorporating helium – is Cavorite in H G Wells's The First Men in the Moon (1901), which screens off gravity and allows the Spaceship to float away from Earth. It is homaged in the "cavorite mines" that yield a substance with impossible gravitational properties in Vernor Vinge's A Deepness in the Sky (1999). Related Antigravity elements are Nilgrav in Joseph Kitchell's The Earl of Hell (1924); Magellanium in David Duncan's Dark Dominion (1954), which is attracted only to the dwarf companion of Sirius; "Nth metal" in the DC Comics universe; flubber in The Absent Minded Professor (1961); upsidaisium in the television animations grouped as The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show (1959-1964); and unobtanium in the film Avatar (2009). For the varied uses of the latter semi-joky substance, see the entry for its alternate spelling Unobtainium.

Further wholly imaginary nonce-elements in sf include celestium, which in The Mystery (1907) by Samuel Hopkins Adams and Stewart Edward White is the key to a Mary Celeste-like nautical puzzle; canadium, the active element in a mysterious ore known as quap which is sought for its perhaps radium-like properties in H G Wells's Tono-Bungay (September 1908-January 1909 Popular Magazine; 1909) but has disastrous effects on the fabric of the ship transporting it; the unknown metal X of E E Smith's The Skylark of Space (August-October 1928 Amazing; 1946; rev with cuts 1958), which catalyses total conversion of matter to energy and permits Faster Than Light travel; kryptonite, Superman's recurring bane ever since its Radio-series introduction in 1943; identium, which in George O Smith's Venus Equilateral story "Pandora's Millions" (June 1945 Astounding) is the sole (synthetic) element which cannot be multiplied via Matter Duplication, and thus provides a stable medium of exchange (see Money); nipponanium, which in Margery Allingham's The Mind Readers (1965) is a catalyst for Telepathy; Quassium B, a versatile facilitator and McGuffin in John Pudney's Fred and I sequence of Children's SF novels beginning with Saturday Adventure: A Story for Boys (1950); dilithium, which in Star Trek (1966-1969) and its sequels facilitates the containment of Antimatter and highly energetic matter/antimatter reactions; tiberium, the highly useful yet toxic payload of a meteor impact in the backstory of the game Command & Conquer; vibranium, a Marvel Comics equivalent of unobtainium whose Physics-defying power of absorbing kinetic energy "explains" (in a 2001 retcon story) the remarkable efficiency of Captain America's shield; ondinium, the lighter-than-air metal used for personal wings (see Flying) in Dru Pagliassotti's Clockwork Heart (2008); and aposiderium, a rare Amnesia-inducing metal in Tom Holt's Blonde Bombshell (2010). There is a better pedigree for orichalcum, a fabulous metal mentioned as a treasure of Atlantis in Plato's dialogues: this is briefly rediscovered by W E Johns's famous airman in Biggles – Charter Pilot (coll 1943), but unfortunately turns out to be prone to spontaneous combustion.

The four classical "elements" – earth, water, air and fire – are often invoked in Fantasy but, being understood in Physics as four states or phases of matter (solid, liquid, gas and plasma), are of only metaphorical relevance to sf. In fantasy or Science Fantasy contexts they are often augmented by a mystical fifth element of spirit, a tradition going back to Aristotle or earlier: examples include Starhawk's The Fifth Sacred Thing (1993) and the film The Fifth Element (1997). David Pringle's essay "The Fourfold Symbolism of J.G. Ballard" (July 1973 Foundation) explores J G Ballard's use – recalling though unrelated to the classical four elements – of water, concrete, sand and crystal as symbols of, respectively, the past, the present, the Entropy-gnawed future, and eternity. Michael Swanwick's The Periodic Table of Science Fiction (coll 2005) comprises 118 Flash Fiction tales, each dealing with a different element. [DRL]

see also: Sapphire and Steel.

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