Friday, April 20, 2012

Speculative Fiction Tropes: Ray Guns

Today continues the April A-Z Challenge. This month, I'll be blogging (almost) daily about a different speculative fiction trope, one for each letter of the alphabet. Today's entry is on Ray Guns. Disruptors. Phasers. Frickin' laser beams!

The colorful beams and flashy sounds of directed-energy weapons are one of the most well known staples of science fiction. In the early days of the genre, depicting energy weapons was one of the easiest ways to get the message across to the audience that they were depicting technology so advanced that it seemed like magic.

Over the years, enormously popular franchises like Star Wars and Star Trek have so ingrained the concept into science fiction fans' minds that simply using the term immediately calls to mind the trademark "pew-pew" sound of a laser gun for some people.

This trope (and many others) may have begun with the H.G. Wells alien invasion classic, The War of the Worlds. Wells wanted to convey the vast technological superiority of the invading martian fleet, and one of the ways he did so was to arm their tripod fighting machines with a mysterious weapon that produced "heat-rays." These rays would incinerate anything in their path, melting metal, vaporizing water, and searing the flesh of its victims.

In 1960, physicist Theodore Maiman made history when he became the first person to operate a working laser. Soon after, lasers became fashionable in science fiction stories as weapons. It was during this period that lasers would become associated with sci-fi, though scientifically minded writers soon began to depict ray guns in more creative ways when it became clear that real-life laser beams wouldn't make very efficient weapons. For instance, the laser pistols of the pilot episode of Gene Roddenberry's Star Trek would become "phasers" when the show went to air.

In the real world, experiments with directed-energy weapons supposedly date back to Archimedes, who purportedly used mirrors as parabolic reflectors to set ships ablaze during the Siege of Syracuse. Attempts to recreate or verify these claims have been inconclusive, however.

Modern militaries have pursued energy weapons since before the Second World War. Nikola Tesla was working on plans for a "death ray" up until his death in 1943, and Nazi Germany conducted several experiments with energy-based antiaircraft measures.

Today, directed-energy weapons have become a reality, with several types already out of the laboratory and in the field. These futuristic combat measures serve a variety of purposes, such as strategic electronics disruption and non-lethal crowd control. Everything from real life heat-rays to "dazzlers" that blind or disorient hostile targets are used by today's armed forces.

In most of my science fiction stories with military elements, I've eschewed energy-based weapons, mainly because of the hokey connotation they've come to have over the years. My soldiers still fire ballistic rifles in combat, though chemical propulsion has been replaced with electromagnetic means. This is not only more realistic, but has the side effect of being seriously awesome.

I still have a soft spot in my heart for the "pew-pew" ray guns of classic sci-fi though, and I hope they never go away. With J.J. Abrams revival of the Star Trek franchise, and large numbers of video game developers who are still willing to embrace cliche in the name of nostalgia and cool graphics effects, I don't think ray guns are done for just yet.

Recommended Reading:
The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells
Hyperion by Dan Simmons
The Ray-Gun: A Love Story by James Alan Gardner

Recommended Viewing:
Star Trek
Star Wars
The Day the Earth Stood Still

Recommended Gaming:
Mega Man
Fallout 3


  1. Laser weapons aren't feasible because they'd require way too much energy to become effective and inflict way less damage than a bullet. So they're not my favorites either, however fascinating they are to watch in movies. There are so many ways to wound and kill people, that it'd be a shame not to explore the alternatives in fiction.

    Railguns? You actually used railguns in your stories? Hah.. hahahah!

    *holds fist up in the air*

    Dude, we've gotta try harder and disagree every once in a while. It's unnatural to be so like-minded about sci-fi. Seriously.

    1. Haha, yep! Gauss guns, too! They do say great minds think alike, you know. All of this is just making me want to read your stuff one day. I'd be very upset if I find out we wrote the same book, after all. ;)

      Actually, that sci-fi novel I was working on is probably going to get a massive rehaul when I come back to it, and I've actually been wondering if the story would work in a fantasy setting . . .

      Thanks for reading, as always!

  2. I've heard about Archimedes and the mirror but always thought it to be just another myth. I do love a good ray gun, though. (Wish I had one to use against certain co-workers sometimes, ahahaha!) Thanks for an interesting Friday morning read!


    1. The Archimedes Death Ray is a very debated subject among historians. Chances are it's just a myth or exaggeration (if I recall correctly, the original account just mentioned setting enemy boats on fire, with the whole mirror array thing coming about later). The mythbusters have tried recreating it a bunch of times, as have a lot of different groups over the years. It's pretty fascinating!

      Thanks for reading, Randicop!

    2. The Mythbusters have indeed tried Archimedes "death ray" in just about every possible permutation, and it does not work to set things on fire. It's one of those things that, in theory it sounds good -like laser weapons - but then in reality it's a little disappointing.

      At least as a death ray. As a "dazzler" it would have been blindingly effective.

    3. It's a bit dissapointing, isn't it? It's such a fun thought to imagine Archimedes coming up with something like that in the heat of ancient warfare.

    4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Cool post! I agree with you that sci fi wouldn't be the same without guns that go pew-pew, but that the weapons need a bit of an upgrade in new stories.

    1. It's funny how some stories get you to suspend your disbelief much easier than others. I never even twice about "phasers" and "blasters," but if a new sci-fi movie came out with some other kind of laser rifle, I'd be rolling my eyes.

      Thanks for stopping by, Misha!

  4. Yes, good point Misha, now theres a challenge for the sci-fi writers - a new weapon!

    1. Sometimes it feels like everything's been done already! But science brings new things to the table every day, and some of the things they're working on now seem like sci-fi at first glance.

      Thanks for reading!

  5. I prefer a good mix, specially in space, where the problems of distance is far more important than "blooming" in atmosphere, although electromagnetic weapons have their own problems in atmosphere, mostly huge clouds of superheated plasma as the weapons fire (a combination of friction and the electromagnetic charge use to propel the slug).

    Projectile weapons are extremely flexible (in size and ammunition types) to chuck out of the window. It really depends on how you use them.

    1. The main problem I usually have with projectile weapons in space is when I read or watch something that features space battles where both parties are just spraying ballistic weapons all willy-nilly, huge machine gun turrets just blasting away, with seemingly little regard to whether or not they're hitting the target.

      That might be okay to do on Earth, where gravity and friction is eventually going to stop a missed bullet, but if you're in space you better address the fact that if you miss your bullets are just going to keep going until they hit something.

      But, I agree. Ballistics aren't going anywhere any time soon. I don't see why sci-fi shouldn't reflect that! Thanks for the comment, Rafael.

    2. Also, projectile weapons (once you resolve the jamming problems of rapid fire in near-vacuum) is that unless they are self-propelled, they can not make course corrections, and if you are engaging targets at thousands of kilometers (in my universe all engagements occur withing one light second, i.e. 300k kilometers or the distance between the Earth and the Moon) they are going to miss most of the time.

      But as a point defense weapon, I can see the advantages of a rail gun and laser weapons, while longer ranges would need missiles or far more powerful energy/exotic matter weapons such as plasma cannons or particle beam projectors.

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Thanks for reading!