A celebration of the sci-fi ray gun

News Ryan Lambie 16 May 2011 - 14:08
Han Solo

From Buck Rogers to Star Wars, we salute one of sci-fi cinema’s most familiar trappings: the mighty ray gun…

The ray gun is but one invention that, in the optimistic futurism of the early-to-mid 20th century, seemed to be just around the corner, like personal jet packs, food in pill form, and machines that launder your washing and hand it back to you neatly wrapped up in Celophane (thanks, Lost In Space). Sadly, a proper, real-world equivalent of the sci-fi ray gun has yet to materialise, and like matter transporters, flying saucers and personal robot butlers, they remain in the realms of genre fiction.

Going under a variety of pseudonyms – laser gun, death ray, beam gun, blaster, phaser – the ray gun is a sci-fi trapping that brought us a myriad memorable shoot-outs in pulp magazine stories and matinee serials such as Buck Rogers, and TV shows and features including Star Wars and Star Trek.

HG Wells’ seminal 1898 sci-fi novel The War Of The Worlds features what is widely thought to be the earliest description of a ray gun. Having arrived on Earth and constructed an army of towering, three legged fighting machines, the Martians begin laying waste to the Home Counties with gas and what Wells describes as a heat-ray.

“It was as if some invisible jet impinged upon them and flashed into white flame,” Wells wrote in the novel’s fifth chapter. “It was as if each man were suddenly and momentarily turned to fire.”

As we’ll see later, Wells’ description of the Martian heat-ray is remarkably similar to the kind of real-life directed energy weapons currently being developed by the US military – unlike the TV shows and films that would follow later (including both Hollywood adaptations of War Of The Worlds) the Martian’s weapons fire a beam that is invisible to the naked eye.

Later in the book’s fifth chapter, Wells describes the weapon’s workings in convincing detail.

“This intense heat they project in a parallel beam against any object they choose, by means of a polished parabolic mirror of unknown composition, much as the parabolic mirror of a lighthouse projects a beam of light,” Wells wrote. “Heat, and invisible, instead of visible, light. Whatever is combustible flashes into flame at its touch, lead runs like water, it softens iron, cracks and melts glass, and when it falls upon water, incontinently that explodes into steam.”

The heat-ray dreamed up by Wells, and the similarly exotic weaponry that began to appear in sci-fi literature in the wake of War Of The Worlds, such as the disintegrator ray seen in Garrett P. Serviss’ 1898 novel Edison's Conquest Of Mars, or George Griffith’s The Lord Of Labour (1911), were no doubt triggered by scientific breakthroughs in the real world – the Victorian discovery of the X-ray was almost certainly a key source of inspiration.

Nevertheless, Wells’ uncanny ability to anticipate key future inventions shouldn’t be underestimated; his novel The War In The Air and short story The Land Ironclads appeared to predict mechanised warfare years before WWI and WWII, while 1914’s The World Set Free described a weapon that behaved uncannily like the atomic bomb, three decades before the terrible destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Important though Wells’ work was for both sci-fi and the evolution of the ray gun in its various forms, the handheld ray gun didn’t become a recognisable part of the genre until the huge popularity of the Buck Rogers serial films of the 1930s. Originally appearing in the novella Armageddon 2419 A.D., Buck Rogers became one of the earliest popular heroes in sci-fi, resulting in decades of comic strips and TV and film adaptations.

The design of Buck’s XZ-35 Rocket Pistol, while not strictly speaking a ray gun, influenced almost every laser pistol, phaser and blaster that followed, and toy versions of the weapon and its variants – the XZ-38 Disintegrator, which arrived in 1939, was the first true ray gun – were immensely popular with youngsters.

The production of ray guns of all kinds reached its zenith in the 50s and 60s. Real-world scientific breakthroughs in laser ("light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation") and maser (“microwave amplification by stimulated emission of radiation”) saw numerous kinds of ray-gun appear in the sci-fi movies and shows of these decades, which no doubt fed back into the popularity of the huge armoury of toy weapons that appeared around the same time.

The classic sci-fi movie Forbidden Planet prominently featured two types of blaster – a small, pistol-like side-arm seen brandished by macho hero Leslie Nielsen, and a larger rifle that is later used to fend off the film’s unforgettable Id Monster.

The toy versions of the blasters in Forbidden Planet and other sci-fi properties such as Flash Gordon, Lost In Space and, later on, the iconic phasers from Star Trek, were so widely produced and popular that their appearance soon became the stuff of genre cliché.

The appearance and operation of a sci-fi ray gun (or laser gun, plasma gun, blaster, phaser…) became so standardised and widely understood that it’s easy to forget that their behaviour is largely nonsensical, from a scientific standpoint. In almost every instance, a sci-fi ray gun will emit a visible beam of coloured light that, if you’re fleet footed enough, you can avoid.

In reality, directed-energy weapons behave far more like the heat-ray envisioned by HG Wells over a century ago in War Of The Worlds. A High Energy Laser weapon recently tested by the US Navy emits a beam that is invisible, moves at the speed of light and sets things on fire, as demonstrated in this piece of footage that appeared online in April this year, in which a boat is zapped and burned by an unseen ray:

Such inaccuracies hardly matter in classic films such as Star Wars, of course, whose iconic blaster-based shoot-outs harked back to the romantic era of 30s sci-fi – Han Solo’s instantly recognisable DL-44 Blaster (with which he shot Greedo first, as we all know) is clearly inspired by Buck Rogers’ XZ-38 Disintegrator, with its sharply angled, Luger-like pistol grip and distinctive, conical muzzle.

The success of Star Wars ushered in a new wave of space opera sci-fi with similar roots in 30s pulp, such as Battle Beyond The Stars and Starcrash, which all contained ray guns of one sort of another, along with some decidedly variable special effects.

Perhaps in response to these films, the more, ‘mature’ sci-fi movies of the 80s to the present have made their weapons more like real-life armaments than the fanciful disintegrators of Buck Rogers. The Blaster in 1982’s Blade Runner looks and behaves more like a high-powered revolver than a ray gun, while the Phased Plasma Rifles of 1984’s The Terminator have the weighty, utilitarian look and sound of present-day military hardware, even if the vibrant beam of light that emerges from the business end is largely the same as in, say, Star Wars.

The changing fortunes of the ray-gun in sci-fi cinema are quite neatly summed up in two of Cameron’s other genre offerings, Aliens and Avatar. Despite its setting in the distant future, the marines of Aliens all brandish firearms that are closer to the weaponry of Vietnam War-era US troops than Buck Rogers (an allusion that is quite intentional, of course), while the evil invading earthlings of Avatar commit Na’vi genocide not with gigantic lasers but with rockets, projectile-firing guns and, best of all, knife-wielding giant mecha.

The ray gun, therefore, appears to have gone through three stages of perception: from a symbol of futuristic possibility in the 30s, via fuzzy nostalgia in the late 70s, to genre cliché from the 80s to the present.

Nevertheless, the ray gun still survives, albeit in modified form. The heroes and villains of modern sci-fi don’t carry cool, energy-emitting side arms as Buck Rogers or Han Solo did, but weapons that bear traces of the ray gun’s exotic air still in movies such as District 9, with its hilariously powerful Tesla Rifle, and videogames like the Halo series, which are full of pew-pew lasers.

And just to bring things full circle, take a look at the Martian ray as depicted in Steven Spielberg’s 2005 adaptation of War Of The Worlds.  The ray-gun may have slipped into the realm of cliché for the majority of sci-fi writers and filmmakers, but in Spielberg’s hands, the Martians’ weaponry is as deadly and terrifying as it was in Wells’ seminal novel a hundred years before.

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