Be careful. Be careful, they got ray guns. – Loomis in the Carpenter Street episode of Star Trek: Enterprise, 11/26/2003
In Ray Bradbury’s epic The Martian Chronicles, published in 1950, the author presented his futuristic vision of what might happen when explorers from Earth finally reach Mars, likely the second most habitable world in our solar system. As the first fictional spaceship rapidly approaches the Red Planet, a beautiful Martian housewife — there is no other kind, of course — becomes psychically linked to the human captain, something her jealous husband frowns upon, deciding that this activity is akin to flirting on FaceBook. Naturally, he does what any card carrying member of the Martian NRA would do — he grabs his trusty ray gun, saunters out to meet the ship as it lands and promptly turns the captain and his crew into mulch.
Years later, NASA, being well versed in Bradbury lore, took heed of this cautionary tale and endowed the Curiosity rover — currently sightseeing on the Martian deserts — with the ability to protect itself against alien farmers and their bored scantily clad, over sexed princesses / Amazons / mates casually mind melding with one — or both! — of the two computers on board.
Curiosity therefore landed in a crater on August 5, 2012 and a mere two weeks later tested their Jealous-Husband-Defense© capabilities: a built in rapid fire ray gun that delivered 30 pulses of one million watts in 10 seconds [!!] upon a poor unsuspecting rock that was presumably the vilest, meanest sunnuvabitchin’ rock this side of the Chicxulub asteroid.
Their cover story is that the ray gun – ahem, “laser” in NASA-speak – was designed to analyze the chemical makeup of the late, lamented rock. But we ain’t falling for that old story…
It takes an average of a half hour for Curiosity to transmit a photo of its target to earth and then receive its kill order, so we’re lucky a curious sacred pet or farmer’s daughter didn’t accidentally position itself in the line of fire in the interim, inadvertently launching a War of the Worlds scenario that even Tom Cruise couldn’t save us from.
What did you find out about the ray guns? — Hank in Radar Men from the Moon (1952)
Ray guns, of course, have long been an accepted tradition in science fiction alongside the other two requisite R’s – robots and rockets – since the genre spoke its first words. As a result, Buck Rogers can whip out his blaster without a plot stopping wordy explanation of its inner workings as readily as if it was Roy Rogers unholstering his six guns instead.
Which is kind of a good thing, since if anyone foolishly calculated the power required to turn a Bug-Eyed Monster back into its base elements, they’d realize that until the mythical Dilithium crystal is discovered, one shot would cause a blackout across the entire North American continent!
And since our late lamented BEM wouldn’t completely absorb all the energy dispatched in its direction, the beam would continue until it met something that would – like the wall of our intrepid hero’s spacecraft. On the plus side, Buck or Flash Gordon or Tom Corbett would then have an unimpeded view of Alpha Centauri! He’d have no breathable air, unfortunately, but a really, really great view!
Ray guns are merely a sub-category of modernistic weaponry called Directed Energy Weapons, or DEWs, for short. This encompasses a wide variety of items using now-you-don’t-see-them / now-you still-don’t-see-them ammo spanning the full electromagnetic spectrum, and physically as large as Star War’s planet destroying Death Star or as small as Star Trek’s phasers.
Don’t you have, uh, ray guns? Show me a piece of future technology. – Dr. Silberman in The Terminator (1984)
We likely have that l’il ol’ visionary, H. G. Wells, to thank for the first DEW in modern science fiction history, the heat rays of the invading Martian tripods in 1898’s War of the Worlds. This was written in those wild and wacky days just shortly after X-rays and radiation were first discovered and writers weren’t really sure what havoc a ray gun could wrought. So the pioneer scribes in the genre allowed their guns to disintegrate, melt, freeze, stun, magnetize, sterilize, shake or stir or just about any other function that Merlin or hundreds of witches that had come before had performed with their magic wands.
Even earlier, Gawd-like powers or dipping into the Dark Side was the preferred plot choice, dating all the way back to Zeus tossing lightning bolts at the Greeks in his idle moments, Thor using Norsemen for target practice or Umvelinqangi, the Sky God, doing the same in Zulu mythology. And nary a Percy Jackson in sight to set things right!
Human entities like the aerospace defense company Northrop Grumman recently or even Thomas Edison’s rival Nikola Tesla most famously have tried building real life death rays. Most of these have succeeded in simply causing nausea in their intended victims – which, though irritating, is unlikely to stop multi-tentacled invaders from Arcturus from overrunning Schenectady, since Arcturians are well known in science fiction circles for their deadly toxic vomit.
You mean to tell me that you came here without the invisible ray-gun and you expect me to believe that such a silly gun exists? — Maxwell Smart – Agent 86 in Get Smart (1965)
But the first recorded human to do-the-DEW was Archimedes, the Greek mathematician, physicist, engineer, inventor, and astronomer who toiled his trade between 287 BC and 212 BC. You all know Archimedes — he’s the guy responsible for defining the inedible pi to the chagrin of high school students everywhere.
The story, as recorded centuries later, involves the miraculous inventions he used to defend his home town of Syracuse against the attacking Roman Republic navy around 212BC. These included the Claw of Archimedes, a crane with a large metal grappling hook that could lift a ship out of the water, crush it and drop the pieces back into the Mediterranean. Modern experiments have tested the feasibility of the claw, and a 2005 TV documentary, Superweapons of the Ancient World, claim to have built a workable version.
If that wasn’t enough to dissuade the Romans to go back home and perfect the ultimate pepperoni pizza, Archimedes went ahead and created the first heat ray using mirrors!! Even though the blow-by-blow account of the battle doesn’t mention the mirrors, the lost writings of Dio Cassius from 400 years later, were used as the basis of a 12th century retelling by John Zonaras and John Tzetzes. Of such stuff, legends are made!
In this thrice-told tale, he reportedly used highly polished and reflective bronze shields to focus sunlight and set fire to the wooden ships attacking Syracuse!! For all you naysayers, the Greek navy recreated this experiment at the Palaska Training Centre on the island of Salamina on November 6, 1973 and somehow managed to set fire to a wooden boat at a distance of more than one and a half football fields!!
Archimedes was rewarded for his brilliance by being beheaded by a soldier while reportedly working on a math problem. Even then, nobody liked a know-it-all …
I would never believe a ray gun could have done all this. – Carol Carlisle in Space Patrol (1950)
As miraculous as all this sounds, nothing beats Arthur C. Clarke’s imaginative use of a facsimile Archimedes’ weapon in his short story The Stroke of the Sun [aka A Slight Case of Sunstroke] from the September, 1958 issue of Galaxy Science Fiction.
In that tale, two warring Central American states, Perivia and Panagura, are engaged in a championship football game, overseen by a corrupt and unpopular referee. One Perivian concocts a plot where half the spectators are given mirrors to reflect sunlight at the referee at a crucial moment in the game; the intent being to blind him.
Unfortunately for the poor ref, thanks to the bright tropical sunshine, he is instantly vaporized and disappears in a puff of smoke!!
Quoting Clarke, “The well-drilled fans had been told that the ref would merely be dazzled out of action for the game. But I’m sure that no one had any regrets; they play football for keeps in Perivia.”
While we wait for the latest prototype DEW to come from the brainiacs at MIT or Stanford — who foolishly seem more interested in the more boring task of figuring out how to wirelessly illuminate an unplugged light bulb from seven feet away — this idea brings hope to fanatical sports fans everywhere.
And somewhere in those ubiquitous alternate universes, Flash Gordon, Commando Cody, Adam Strange, Lucky Starr, Buck Rogers, Captain Future and all our other space heroes are salivating.
I, also, had read that Clarke story as a young’un, but it took an email from Terry Gibbons on a SF chat list about a decade ago to remind me of it! I’m sure there’s a lot more worthy stories that I’ve forgotten and need to go back and find! 🙂
Well done – funny and informative.
And thanks for reminding me about the Clarke story. I must have read it when I was about 12 but had completely forgotten about it.
Any interstellar packing list should always start and end with the line item Ray Gun.