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!
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.
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.
The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells
Hyperion by Dan Simmons
The Ray-Gun: A Love Story by James Alan Gardner
The Day the Earth Stood Still