Death Rays

Tagged: Theme

Rays that could kill, whether by heat or by disintegration, were the staple Weapons of pulp sf in the 1920s and 1930s and became a central item of sf Terminology (see Blaster; Disintegrator). In Charles W Diffin's "The Power and the Glory" (July 1930 Astounding), Scientists suppress a new Power Source based on Nuclear Energy because the device can be adapted as a death ray. At about the time such rays were becoming old-fashioned in sf, scientists in the real world saw fit to invent the laser, thus retroactively justifying one of sf's fantasies. The first laboratory demonstration of a working laser was in May 1960; authors quickly adopted the term, with early sf examples of killing laser sidearms appearing in Clifford D Simak's Way Station (June-August 1963 Galaxy as "Here Gather the Stars"; 1963) and Frank Herbert's Dune (fixup 1965).

The death ray always, however, had a basis in historical fact. After the well-publicized discoveries of X-rays by Wilhelm Konrad Roentgen (1845-1923) in 1895 and of radioactive emissions by Antoine Henri Becquerel (1852-1908) – he too called them rays – in 1896, the word "ray" entered the popular imagination. One of the earliest literary examples is the "heat ray" used by the Martians in H G Wells's The War of the Worlds (April-December 1897 Pearson's; 1898). Death rays were a well established sf Cliché by the time W E Johns published The Death Rays of Ardilla (1959). In Pierrepont Noyes's The Pallid Giant: A Tale of Yesterday and Tomorrow (1927; vt Gentlemen: You are Mad! 1946), the discovery that death rays had destroyed a possibly human civilization aeons earlier impels the narrator to warn a Near Future Europe that it was madness to re-invent this deadly weapon. The central puzzle of Lloyd Biggle Jr's Silence is Deadly (October 1957 If; much exp and rev 1977) is a backward planet's supposed possession of the death ray, which proves to be a native predator's natural ultrasonic weapon. [PN/DRL]

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