An ansible is a category of fictional device or technology capable of near-instantaneous or superluminal 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.
Coinage by Ursula Le Guin
Ursula K. Le Guin coined the word "ansible" in her 1966 novel Rocannon's World. 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.
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. For example, 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, and in the "Dirac Communicator", which first appeared in James Blish's short story "Beep" (1954), which was later expanded into the novel The Quincunx of Time (1973).
In Le Guin's works
In her subsequent works, Le Guin continued to develop the concept of the ansible:
- The Dispossessed, Le Guin's award-winning 1974 novel in the Hainish Cycle, tells of the invention of the ansible.
- In The Word for World Is Forest, 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 Left Hand of Darkness, it is stated 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."
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.
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", the name has also been adopted for devices capable of communication at finite speeds that are faster than light.
Orson Scott Card's works
Orson Scott Card, in his 1977 novelette and 1985 novel Ender's Game and its sequels, used the term "ansible" for his own fictitious communication device. In Ender's Game, a character stated that "somebody dredged the name ansible out of an old book somewhere."
In the universe of the Ender's Game series, the ansible's functions involved a fictional subatomic particle, the philote. The two quarks inside a pi meson can be separated by an arbitrary distance, while remaining connected by "philotic rays". This concept is similar to quantum teleportation due to entanglement; however, in reality, quark confinement prevents quarks from being separated by any observable distance.
Numerous other writers have included ansibles in their fictional works, using that word to refer to a faster-than-light communication device. Notable examples include:
- Vernor Vinge, in the 1988 short story "The Blabber"
- Elizabeth Moon, in the 1995 novel Winning Colors
- Jason Jones, in the 1995 computer game Marathon 2: Durandal
- L.A. Graf, in the 1996 Star Trek: Deep Space Nine novel Time's Enemy
- Dan Simmons, in the 2003 novel Ilium
- Kim Stanley Robinson, in the 2012 novel 2312
- Becky Chambers, in the 2014 novel The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet
- Joe M. McDermott, in the 2017 novel The Fortress at the End of Time
- Sheidlower, Jesse, ed. (July 6, 2008). "ansible n." Science Fiction Citations for the OED. Retrieved 2014-03-15.
- 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.
- Quinion, Michael. "Ansible". World Wide Words.
- 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
- 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.'
- 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.
- Card, Orson Scott (1991). Xenocide. Orbit. pp. 40–46. ISBN 978-1-85723-858-7.
- "Ender's Game (2013) Movie Script". Springfield! Springfield!. Archived from the original on 2018-04-19.
- 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.'
- 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.
- 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.
- Graf, L.A. [Cercone, Karen Rose; Ecklar, Julia] (1996). Time's Enemy. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. 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.
- 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.
- Robinson, Kim Stanley (2012). 2312. Orbit. p. 227. ISBN 978-0-316-19280-4.
- 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.