Ray Gun

Tagged: Theme

This generic energy Weapon, usually hand-held, is one of the best-known sf Clichés which became established in the Pulp magazine era; hence the Retro-Pulp magazine title Ray Gun Revival. The term seems to have been coined by Victor Rousseau in The Messiah of the Cylinder (June-September 1917 Everybody's Magazine; 1917; vt The Apostle of the Cylinder 1918), whose magazine serialization includes this passage:

All is not going well, Arnold: the ray-rods are emptying fast, and our attack upon the lower level of the wing has failed. Sanson has placed a ray-gun there. All depends on the air-scouts, and we must hold our positions until the battle-planes arrive.

The revised book edition has "Ray gun" for "ray-gun". In Genre SF, the earliest usage recorded by the Oxford English Dictionary Science Fiction Citations project is from John W Campbell's "The Black Star Passes" (Fall 1930 Amazing Stories Quarterly):

Soon they saw a hand reaching out with a ray gun; then another hand with a different ray gun, from behind the silent engine; a sudden crash of metal, a groan and quiet.

The phrase appears in many later stories, such as George O Smith's Venus Equilateral episode "Recoil" (November 1943 Astounding) – which attempts some realistic analysis of the possibilities and drawbacks of electron-beam weaponry in space – and A E van Vogt's "The Monster" (August 1948 Astounding; vt "Resurrection" in The Other Side of the Moon anth 1956 ed August Derleth). Pre-1917 adumbrations include the Heat Ray from H G Wells's The War of the Worlds (1898), which is not specifically termed a ray gun, and a near miss in the form of the World War One-era "X-ray gun" Invention featured in the silent spy-adventure film The Intrigue (1916) directed by Frank Lloyd. This in turn was preceded by various (non-weapon) scientific uses of "X-ray gun" when describing the generating apparatus for X-rays, discovered in 1895 by Wilhelm Röntgen (1845-1923).

Ray guns in sf may of course project any of the exotic Rays (which see for detailed commentary) imagined by sf authors: popular varieties include the purely destructive energy of the Blaster or Disintegrator, the quietly lethal Death Ray, and the theoretically non-lethal Stunner or paralyser. Star Trek's phasers are famously switchable between blast and stun settings, as are earlier sf handguns like the Denton (an imaginary brand name) in A Tale of Two Clocks (1962; vt Legacy 1979) by James H Schmitz. Another notable ray gun is Isaac Asimov's agony-inducing neuronic whip. [DRL/AR]

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