Will There Eventually Be a National Raygun Association?
“It is no accident that Marxism and Social Darwinism arose together, two tellers of one tale. . .
Based on a single paradigm, they reinforce one another as legitimate modes of thought.
So it is with our contemporary Left and Right.
Between them we circle in a maelstrom of utter fatuousness.”
We appear to be in a
moment, a time where long-frozen patterns of thinking begin to melt,
to shift and flow, and maybe to collapse like glaciers into the sea.
The #blacklivesmatter movement has found powerful SF expression in
last year's Luke
Cage series on Netflix, with its images of
bullet-shredded hoodies, and in this year's more triumphant Black
Panther movie, set not in Harlem or the American
South but in the futuristic African nation of Wakanda.
The #metoo movement turned the entertainment world upside down and
led to real consequences for some abusers. The current Children's
Crusade launched by the survivors of the latest mucker
in Florida is likewise an important shift, a mobilization of vital
energies long suppressed.
Not all power struggles
are violent, in real life or in SF, but in much of SF, weapons
provide an extremely clear metaphor for technological sophistication
agency), more obvious to many people than advances in
food production, medicine, energy efficiency, or communications.
Violence gets our attention in ways that few other stimuli can. So
this month, let's look at weapons
fiction, and especially access
The classic fantasy
weapons, the bow and the sword, both require a certain amount of
strength and training to use effectively. Crossbows and guns, on the
other hand, are essentially point-and-shoot. At least, that was the
reason Corwin gave in The Guns of Avalon:
were short fellows, very hairy, very dark, with long incisors and
retractable claws. But they had trigger fingers, and they worshiped
me. . . . We drilled for close to three weeks before I decided we
Due to the magical
construction of his home realm of Amber, regular sulfur-and-saltpetre
gunpowder would not ignite there, or rather burned too slowly to be
useful. In classic arms-race fashion, however, Corwin stumbled upon a
pink powder from another realm that would explode, and
proceeded to substitute this mysterious substance into his plans for
a coup, spending the extra coin to arm his nameless “fellows”
with fully automatic rifles and silver bullets (just in case).
It's more common in
fantasy literature and games for these prohibitions of physical law
to be permanent features of the realm in question (like SM Stirling's
similar-sounding Emberverse), a plot device to prevent the
inconvenient technological development that drives the rest of SF.
The only solution to the problem posed by the author in those
situations is the author's solution. I'm not blaming Zelazny; he was
already messing with the fantasy conventions of his time by allowing
guns into his sacred space at all. But in the real world there are
always multiple solutions to a problem, limited by constraints beyond
the aesthetics of the author (or the audience). Compressed
air cannisters could push projectiles almost anywhere,
regardless of “local chemistry.”
The other classic
method of preventing access to kinetic weapons in fiction is to
physically lock them up in an armory, or to symbolically peace-bond
them by tying them into their scabbards with colored ribbons. Magical
versions of this are also used occasionally, as in Hrolf Kraki's
Saga by Poul Anderson. Mechanical or electronic
trigger locks for firearms, or “smart
weapons,” also appear here and there. Historical
legal methods of sword
control used in both Europe and Japan have rarely been
featured, except in role playing games:
You can have a bronze sword +1,
you can have aluminum +3,
and you can have vibranium +99.
However, in our real
world, the overwhelming advantage of good steel, free of slag
inclusions that could cause a blade to shatter
during combat, made it illegal
to sell a Frankish sword outside of Charlemagne's kingdom during the
Dark Ages. Of course, those restrictions were only partially
effective because they made the black market that much more
profitable (and possibly encouraged the Vikings to raid for them).
Lots of story possibilities there.
Guns and bombs are
hybrid weapons, using chemistry to drive kinetic projectiles. Purely
chemical weapons like gases have not seen as much use in SF (or in
life) after WW1 and the Geneva Convention. Their most
common use in SF and comics has been non-lethals, a convenient
way of overcoming the hero(ine) temporarily. Biological weapons have
been the opposite, scary and existential,
like The Stand's superflu or the virus from the latest Planet
of the Apes reboot—almost never used as nuisance weapons.
Think about just making an opposing army feel like crap for a few
days with a rhinovirus, reducing the efficiency of their patrols and
sapping their will to fight. Or a few weeks with mononucleosis,
or forever with an attenuated strain of malaria, as may have actually
happened in bug-bomb
tests during the Korean War.
Controls for these
kinds of weapons have again been access (including access to
scientific information, under active debate in the scientific
literature, and calls for a moratorium
on certain types of research), but also the provision of
countermeasures like gasmasks, antibiotics, and vaccines. Information
warfare is a whole other topic, but I'll point out one example from
The End of Epidemics—monitoring plague antibodies in
dogs and wild coyotes, which are in closer contact with the prairie
dog hosts of the disease-carrying fleas, to predict when a human
outbreak is more likely. SF has a long history with weapons of mass
deception, both in
and out of the bioweapons context, but in this particular case one
wouldn't even need to actually release anything. Just manipulate the
statistics a bit to distract the enemy from a naturally occurring
Three years ago, police
in Greensboro got their first car-mounted sonic crowd-control weapon,
which they tried to sell to the public as nothing more than a
powerful long-distance PA
system. The secret development of directed-energy
weapons by both sides of the Cold War is also a
surprising theme in Annie Jacobsen's book about psychics, Phenomena.
I can only assume she included those programs because the 20th
century's most important model for how psychic powers might work was
based on an analogy to electromagnetic waves.
With this raygun
category we're in the very heart of SF/fantasy territory, where the
distinction between science and magic largely disappears. Very few
people understand how these things might work, despite decades of
teasers and rosy predictions by the military, its contractors,
and Washington think
tanks, and so their use is constrained only by the
plot of the story and what looks cool on the screen. Star Trek
at least in the original series, are sometimes red, sometimes blue;
sometimes a continuous beam and sometimes a bolt; and they can be set
to stun, kill, or disappear (with an accompanying musical flourish
instead of an electronic squeal).
Since there are no
constraints on how these weapons work, there are also no constraints
on how they can be made to not work. How often are they simply
deactivated by some mysterious higher power? Try looking into the
real stuff in the References below. Their capabilities and
limitations are far more interesting.
It's funny, isn't it? I
ask writers to be more imaginative with kinetic and
chemical/biological weapons, but less imaginative with energy
weapons. I guess I'm just impossible to please. And don't even get me
started on psychics.
Ph.D., will forgo the snarky coda on this occasion and simply express
his appreciation and pride that young Americans are stepping up to
speak their minds.
Robinson, M. (2018). What Are We Doing Here? essays. Farrar, Strauss, & Giroux. New York, NY.
Opening quote from the preface.
“The awakening of minds and spirits is a sunlight that falls across the whole landscape of civilization.” -p25 of the titular essay. A chance discovery on a table at the B&N, but a happy one.
“It’s much easier to talk about racism when you’re able to use mutants as a metaphor. People would much rather talk about Charles
Xavier and Magneto than they would about Martin Luther King or Malcolm X.”
William Gibson’s tweets are particularly on point.
Mostly focused on large-scale weapons of war, including mecha and mass drivers, but also mentions the peculiarly American debate about the
right to bear arms, as in “The Weapon Shops of Isher.”
A new information source! Always a cause for celebration.
Brin has addressed this issue multiple times, with concrete policy proposals, and I won't repeat his work here.
Zelazny, R. (1972). The Guns of Avalon. Avon Books, Inc., New York, NY.
Book two of the ten-book Chonicles of Amber series.
Why does so much of the debate in the press use the term science fiction as an insult?
Neat description of the smelting process. Not directly relevant, but neat.
“And so this Bay of Bari incident produced the only mustard gas casualties in WW-II—Allies killed by Allied gas.”
Treats both country-based biowarfare and biocrime/bioterrorism.
Errol Morris’s Wormwood is interesting for many reasons. This is just one aspect of the story.
The Citations feature of PubMed is useful for these kinds of ongoing debates.
Specifically, gain-of-function experiments on human pathogens. “The choice is not between doing PPP experiments and doing nothing . . . what are
the benefits of including PPP approaches compared to the benefits of expanding other parts of the portfolio to use the resources in another way?”
Quick, J.D. And Fryer, B. (2018). The End of Epidemics: the Looming Threat to Humanity and How to Stop It. St. Martin's Press, New York, NY.
“Remember, remember, the fifth of November. . .”
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