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An ansible is a category of fictional devices or technology capable of near-instantaneous or faster-than-light communication. It can send and receive messages to and from a corresponding device over any distance or obstacle whatsoever with no delay, even between star systems. As a name for such a device, the word "ansible" first appeared in a 1966 novel by Ursula K. Le Guin. Since that time, the term has been broadly used in the works of numerous science fiction authors, across a variety of settings and continuities.[1] A related term is ultrawave.[2][3]

Coinage by Ursula Le Guin[edit]

Ursula K. Le Guin coined the word "ansible" in her 1966 novel Rocannon's World.[1][4] The word was a contraction of "answerable", as the device would allow its users to receive answers to their messages in a reasonable amount of time, even over interstellar distances.[5]

The ansible was the basis for creating a specific kind of interstellar civilization – one where communications between far-flung stars are instantaneous, but humans can only travel at relativistic speeds. Under these conditions, a full-fledged galactic empire is not possible, but there is a looser interstellar organization, in which several of Le Guin's protagonists are involved.

Although Le Guin invented the name "ansible" for this type of device (fleshed out with specific details in her fictional works), the broader concept of instantaneous or faster-than-light communication had previously existed in science fiction. Similar communication functions were included in a device called an interocitor in the 1952 novel This Island Earth by Raymond F. Jones, and the 1955 film based on that novel. Also in the "Dirac Communicator" which first appeared in James Blish's short story "Beep" (1954) and was later expanded into the novel The Quincunx of Time (1973).[6] Robert A. Heinlein in Time for the Stars (1958) employed instantaneous telepathic communication between identical twin pairs over interstellar distances, and like Le Guin, provided a technical explanation based on a non-Einsteinian principle of simultaneity.

In Le Guin's works[edit]

In her subsequent works, Le Guin continued to develop the concept of the ansible:

  • In The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), Le Guin writes that the ansible "doesn't involve radio waves, or any form of energy. The principle it works on, the constant of simultaneity, is analogous in some ways to gravity ... One point has to be fixed, on a planet of certain mass, but the other end is portable."
  • In The Word for World Is Forest (1972), Le Guin explains that in order for communication to work with any pair of ansibles, at least one "must be on a large-mass body, the other can be anywhere in the cosmos".
  • In The Dispossessed (1974), Le Guin tells of the development of the theory leading up to the ansible.[7]

Any ansible may be used to communicate through any other, by setting its coordinates to those of the receiving ansible. They have a limited bandwidth, which only allows for at most a few hundred characters of text to be communicated in any transaction of a dialog session, and are attached to a keyboard and small display to perform text messaging.

Use by later authors[edit]

Since Le Guin's conception of the ansible, the name of the device has been borrowed by numerous authors. While Le Guin's ansible was said to communicate "instantaneously",[7] the name has also been adopted for devices capable of communication at finite speeds that are faster than light. David Langford publishes the science fiction fanzine and newsletter Ansible (magazine)

Orson Scott Card's works[edit]

Orson Scott Card, in his 1977 novelette and 1985 novel Ender's Game and its sequels, used the term "ansible" as an unofficial name for the Philotic Parallax Instantaneous Communicator, a machine capable of communicating across infinite distances with no time delay.[8] In Ender's Game, Colonel Graff states that "somebody dredged the name ansible out of an old book somewhere".[8] In an answer on the question-and-answer website Quora, Card explained why he chose to reuse the word "ansible" for an FTL communication device instead of developing a new in-universe name for one: "In an ftl universe, you have several levels. I've you can travel hyperfast, but no radio signal can outstrip your ship. Therefore you have to carry the mail with you. It's like the way things were between Europe and America before the laying of the successful transatlantic cable. But once it was laid, messages could be sent long before a ship could make the passage. That is like the ansible universe in which Ursula K. LeGuin‘s early Hainish novels. Since I needed to use exactly that rule set, why not use the word — an excellent word — which I apply in the same way we all say “robot,” an invented word that has entered the language. Thus I paid tribute to the writer from whose works I learned the word."[9]

In the universe of the Ender's Game series, the ansible's functions involved a fictional subatomic particle, the philote.[10] The two quarks inside a pi meson can be separated by an arbitrary distance, while remaining connected by "philotic rays".[10] This concept is similar to quantum teleportation due to entanglement; however, in reality, quark confinement prevents quarks from being separated by any observable distance.

Card's version of the ansible was also featured in the video game Advent Rising, for which Card helped write the story, and in the movie Ender's Game, which was based on the book.[11]

Other writers[edit]

Numerous other writers have included faster-than-light communication devices in their fictional works. Notable examples include:

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Sheidlower, Jesse, ed. (July 6, 2008). "ansible n." Science Fiction Citations for the OED. Retrieved March 15, 2014.
  2. ^ Prucher, Jeff (2007). "ultrawave". Brave New Words: The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction. ISBN 978-0-19-530567-8.
  3. ^ Langford, David (2011). "Ultrawave". In Clute, John; Langford, David; Sleight, Graham (eds.). The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (4th ed.). Retrieved December 4, 2022.
  4. ^ Bernardo, Susan M.; Murphy, Graham J. (2006). Ursula K. Le Guin: A Critical Companion (1st ed.). Westport, CT: Greenwood Press. p. 18. ISBN 0-313-33225-8.
  5. ^ Quinion, Michael. "Ansible". World Wide Words.
  6. ^ Nicholls, Peter "Dirac Communicator" in Clute, John and Nicholls, Peter eds. (1995) The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. New York: St. Martin's Griffin, p. 337. ISBN 0-312-13486-X.
  7. ^ a b Le Guin, Ursula K. (2001) [June 1974]. The Dispossessed (mass ppb. ed.). New York: Eos/HarperCollins. p. 276. ISBN 0-06-105488-7. They print Reumere's plans for the ansible. 'What is the ansible?' 'It's what he's calling an instantaneous communication device.'
  8. ^ a b Card, Orson Scott (1994) [August 1977]. Ender's Game (mass ppb. ed.). New York: Tor Books. p. 249. ISBN 0-8125-5070-6. What matters is we built the ansible. The official name is Philotic Parallax Instantaneous Communicator, but somebody dredged the name ansible out of an old book somewhere and it caught on.
  9. ^ "Why did Orson Scott Card choose to reuse the word "ansible" for an FTL communication device instead of developing a new in-universe name for one -- Quora". Quora. Retrieved February 18, 2024.
  10. ^ a b Card, Orson Scott (1991). Xenocide. Orbit. pp. 40–46. ISBN 978-1-85723-858-7.
  11. ^ "Ender's Game (2013) movie script". Springfield! Springfield!. Archived from the original on April 19, 2018.
  12. ^ Rowley, Christopher (1986) [1986]. Starhammer (mass ppb. ed.). New York: Ballantine Books. p. 151. ISBN 0-345-31490-5. ...the technology of the Deep Link, which gives us instant communications access across the deeps.
  13. ^ Vinge, Vernor (1988). "The Blabber". Threats & Other Promises. Riverdale, NY: Baen. p. 254. ISBN 0-671-69790-0. 'It's an ansible.' 'Surely they don't call it that!' 'No. But that's what it is.'
  14. ^ Moon, Elizabeth (1995). Winning Colors (mass ppb. ed.). Riverdale, NY: Baen. p. 89. ISBN 0-671-87677-5. ...when I was commissioned, we didn't have FTL communications except from planetary platforms. I was on Boarhound when they mounted the first shipboard ansible, and at first it was only one-way, from the planet to us.
  15. ^ Jones, Jason; Kirkpatrick, Greg (November 24, 1995). Marathon 2: Durandal. Bungie. A connection [?ansible] was left; awaiting the next quiet [?peace]; and though destroyed by the threes, it will scream over the void one time.
  16. ^ Graf, L.A. [Cercone, Karen Rose; Ecklar, Julia] (1996). Time's Enemy. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Vol. Invasion, Book 3. Simon and Schuster. p. 203. ISBN 978-0-6715-4150-7. The two Dax symbionts can communicate with each other across space, instantaneously, because they're composed of identical quantum particles. I've become a living ansible, Benjamin.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  17. ^ Simmons, Dan (2003). Ilium (hbk. ed.). New York: Eos/HarperCollins. p. 98. ISBN 0-380-97893-8. I can see Nightenhelser madly taking notes on his recorder ansible.
  18. ^ Robinson, Kim Stanley (2012). 2312. Orbit. p. 227. ISBN 978-0-316-19280-4.
  19. ^ Yang, JY Neon (July 12, 2017). "Waiting on a Bright Moon". Tor.com. Retrieved September 10, 2020.
  20. ^ McDermott, Joe M. (2017). The Fortress at the End of Time. Tom Doherty Associates. p. 1. ISBN 978-0-7653-9280-0. We are born as memories and meat. The meat was spontaneously created in the ansible's quantum re-creation mechanism, built up from water vapor, hydrogen, carbon dioxide, and various other gases out of storage. The memory is what we carry across from one side of the ansible to the other, into the new flesh.

Further reading[edit]