Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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  Science Fact-ion by Randall Hayes
March 2018

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.”
Marilynne Robinson

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 (and personal 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 in science fiction, and especially access to weapons.

Kinetic Weapons

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:

They 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 were ready.

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.

Chemical/Biological Weapons

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 real 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 danger.

Energy Weapons

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 phasers, 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.

Randall Hayes, 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. . .”








Read more by Randall Hayes

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