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Weapons in science fiction

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Strange and exotic weapons are a recurring theme in science fiction. In some cases, weapons first introduced in science fiction have now been made a reality Template:Ref. Other science fiction weapons remain purely fictional, and are often beyond the realms of physical possibility.

At its most prosaic, science fiction features an endless variety of sidearms, mostly variations on real weapons such as guns and swords. Among the most well-known of these are the phaser used in the Star Trek television series, films and novels and the lightsaber featured in the Star Wars fictional universe.

As well as its entertainment value and purpose, themes of weaponry in science fiction sometimes touches on deeper concerns, often motivated by contemporary concerns of the outside world.

Weapons in early science fiction Edit

Weapons of early science fiction novels were usually bigger and better versions of conventional weapons, effectively more advanced methods of delivering explosives to a target. Examples of such weapons include Jules Verne's fulgurator and the "glass arrow" of the Comte de Villiers de l'Isle-Adam.[1]

A classic science fiction weapon particularly in British and American science fiction novels and films is the ray gun. A very early example of a ray gun is the Heat-Ray featured in H. G. Wells' The War of the Worlds (1898).[2][3] The discovery of x-rays and radioactivity in the last years of the 19th century led to an increase in the popularity of this family of weapons, with numerous examples in the early twentieth century, such as the disintegrator rays of George Griffith's future war novel The Lord of Labour (1911).[1] Early science fiction film often showed raygun beams making bright light and loud noise like lightning or large electric arcs. Nikola Tesla's attempts at developing directed-energy weapons, or "death rays", also fueled the imagination of many writers, with death rays featuring in novels like Pierrepoint Noyes' The Pallid Giant (1927).[1]

Wells also prefigured modern armored warfare with his description of tanks in his 1903 short story "The Land Ironclads", and aerial warfare in his 1907 novel The War in the Air.

Lasers and particle beams Edit

Arthur C. Clarke envisaged particle beam weapons in his 1955 novel Earthlight, in which energy would be delivered by high-velocity beams of matter.[4]

After the invention of the laser in 1960, it briefly became the death ray of choice for science fiction writers. For instance, characters in the Star Trek pilot episode The Cage (1964) and in the Lost in Space TV series (1965–1968) carried handheld laser weapons.[5]

By the late 1960s and 1970s, as the laser's limits as a weapon became evident, the ray gun began to be replaced by similar weapons with names that better reflected the destructive capabilities of the device. These names ranged from the generic “pulse rifle” to series-specific weapons, such as the blasters from Star Wars, or the phasers from Star Trek.

Weapons of mass destruction Edit

Nuclear weapons are a staple element in science fiction novels. The phrase "atomic bomb" predates their existence, and dates back to H. G. Wells' The World Set Free (1914) when scientists had discovered that radioactive decay implied potentially limitless energy locked inside of atomic particles (Wells' atomic bombs were only as powerful as conventional explosives, but would continue exploding for days on end). Cleve Cartmill predicted a chain-reaction-type nuclear bomb in his 1944 science-fiction story "Deadline," which led to the FBI's investigating him, due to concern over a potential breach of security on the Manhattan Project. [6]

The use of radiological, biological and chemical weapons is another common theme in science fiction. In the aftermath of World War I, the use of chemical weapons, particularly poison gas, was a major worry, and was often employed in the science fiction of this period, for example Neil Bell's The Gas War of 1940 (1931).[1] Robert A. Heinlein's 1940 story "Solution Unsatisfactory" posits radioactive dust as a weapon that the US develops in a crash program to end World War II; the dust's existence forces drastic changes in the postwar world.

A sub-genre of science fiction, post-apocalyptic fiction, uses the aftermath of nuclear or biological warfare as its setting.

Powered armor and fighting suits Edit

The idea of powered armor has appeared in a wide variety of fiction, beginning with E. E. Smith's Lensman series in 1937.Template:Fact One of the most famous early versions was Robert A. Heinlein's 1959 novel Starship Troopers, which can be seen as spawning the entire sub-genre concept of military "powered armor,"Template:Fact which would be further developed in Joe Haldeman's The Forever War.

Cyberwarfare and cyberweapons Edit

The idea of cyberwarfare, in which wars are fought within the structures of communication systems and computers using software and information as weapons, was first explored by science fiction.

John Brunner's 1975 novel The Shockwave Rider is notable for coining the word "worm" to describe a computer program that propagates itself through a computer network, used as a weapon in the novel.[7][8] William Gibson's Neuromancer introduced the idea of cyberspace, a virtual battleground in which battles are fought using software weapons and counterweapons.

Doomsday machines Edit

Template:Unreferenced section A Doomsday machine is a hypothetical construction which could destroy all life, either on Earth or beyond, generally as part of a policy of mutual assured destruction.

In Fred Saberhagen's 1967 Berserker stories, the Berserkers of the title are giant computerized self-replicating spacecraft, once used as a doomsday device in an interstellar war aeons ago, and, having destroyed both their enemies and their makers, still attempting to fulfil their mission of destroying all life in the universe. The 1967 Star Trek episode "The Doomsday Machine" written by Norman Spinrad, explores a similar theme.

Alien doomsday machines are common in science fiction as "Big Dumb Objects", McGuffins around which the plot can be constructed. An example is the Halo megastructures in the video game franchise Halo, which are world-sized doomsday machines.

The sentient weapon Edit

Template:Unreferenced section The science fiction themes of autonomous weapons systems and the use of computers in warfare date back to the 1960s, often in a Frankensteinian context, notably in Harlan Ellison's 1967 short story "I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream" and films such as The Forbin Project, originally released in 1970. In Keith Laumer's Bolo novels, the eponymous protagonists are huge main battle tanks with self-aware artificial intelligence.

Another common theme is that of dehumanised, cyborg or android soldiers: human, or quasi-human beings who are themselves weapons. Philip K. Dick's 1953 short story "Second Variety" features self-replicating robot weapons, this time with the added theme of weapons imitating humans. In his short story "Impostor", Dick goes one step further, making its protagonist a manlike robot bomb that actually believes itself to be a human being.

The idea of robot killing machines disguised as humans is central to James Cameron's film The Terminator, and its subsequent media franchise.

In Harlan Ellison's 1957 short story "Soldier From Tomorrow" the protagonist is a soldier who has been conditioned from birth by the State solely to fight and kill the enemy. Samuel R. Delany's 1966 novella Babel-17 features TW-55, a purpose-grown cloned assassin. Ridley Scott's 1982 film Blade Runner, like Philip K. Dick's novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, on which it is loosely based, uses the story of a hunt for escaped military androids to explore the idea what it means to be human.

The idea of animate weapons is now so much a science fiction cliche that it has spawned a whole genre of science fiction films such as Hardware, Death Machine and Universal Soldier.

War on the mind Edit

Themes of brainwashing, conditioning and other mind control methods as weapons of war feature in much science fiction of the late 1950s and 1960s, parallelling the contemporary panic about communist brainwashing, and the real-world attempts of governments in programs such as MK-ULTRA to make such things real.

David Langford's short story BLIT (1988) posits the existence of images (called basilisks) that are destructive to the human brain, which are used as weapons of terror by posting copies of them in areas where they are likely to be seen by the intended victims. Langford revisited the idea in a fictional FAQ on the images, published by the science journal Nature in 1999.[9][10]

The carrying of weapons in science fiction Edit

A common theme of American science fiction is the carrying of weapons by an armed populace; much early science fiction depicts the space frontier as analogous with the Wild West or medieval Europe, where the carrying of weapons is an unexceptional fact of life.Template:Fact Later science fiction would revisit the theme of an armed society from a sociological viewpoint.Template:Fact

Parallels between science fiction and real-world weapons Edit

New forms of real world weaponry often resemble weapons previously envisaged in science fiction weapons. The Strategic Defense Initiative gained the popular name "Star Wars" after the 1977 film by George Lucas.[11]

In some cases, the influence of science fiction on weapons programs has been specifically acknowledged. In 2007, the science fiction author Thomas Easton was invited to address engineers working on a DARPA program to create weaponized cyborg insects, as envisaged in his novel Sparrowhawk. [12]

Active research on powered exoskeletons for military use has a long history, beginning with the abortive 1960s Hardiman powered exoskeleton project at General Electric[13], and continuing into the 21st century.[14] The borrowing between fiction and reality has worked both ways, with the power loader from the film Aliens resembling the prototypes of the Hardiman system.[15] As of 2008, practical powered exoskeleton prototypes have been constructed and tested outside of the laboratory.[16]

American military research on high power laser weapons started in the 1960s, and has continued to the present day,[17] with the U.S. Army planning, as of 2008, the deployment of practical battlefield laser weapons.[18] Lower-powered lasers are currently used for military purposes as laser target designators and for military rangefinding. Laser weapons intended to blind combatants have also been developed, but are currently banned by the Protocol on Blinding Laser Weapons, although low-power versions designed to dazzle rather than blind have been developed experimentally. Gun-mounted lasers have also been used as psychological weapons, to let opponents know that they have been targeted in order encourage them to hide or flee without having to actually open fire on them.[19][20]

Cyberwarfare has moved from a theoretical idea to something that is now seriously considered as a threat by modern states.Template:Fact

References Edit

See also Edit

Template:Portal Template:Science fiction

Further reading Edit

  • David Seed. American Science Fiction and the Cold War: literature and film ISBN 1853312274
  • John Hamilton. Weapons of Science Fiction ISBN 1596799978

External linksEdit

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