One of sf's trademark Clichés is the use of rays – of any colour or none at all, inhabiting the known electromagnetic spectrum or imaginary new spectra, or entirely based on Pseudoscience – for all manner of showy and/or narratively convenient effects. Exotic rays give ambiguous aid in Medicine or spawn Mutants, but above all they provide glamorous Weapons. (For surveillance applications, see Spy-Rays.)
The Heat Ray used by H G Wells's Martians in The War of the Worlds (April-December 1897 Pearson's; 1898) inspired many related energy weapons. The generic sf energy handgun or Ray Gun was traditionally the Blaster (which see). Early, vaguely described ray weapons were often said to involve radium, like the "yellow rays" beamed from Mars at space travellers in A M Low's Adrift in the Stratosphere (17 February-21 April 1934 Scoops as "Space"; 1937) – conveniently slow in their lethal effect, and quickly countered by switching on the ship's "anti-radium ray". Others were described in terms of focused radio waves, like the ship-destroying "concentration of wireless energy" in Agatha Christie's The Big Four (1927); similar notions are frequent in early Technothrillers. E E Smith describes increasingly potent energy weapons in his Lensman series: "macro beams", "primary projectors" and so on, the most grandiose of all being the sunbeam of Second-Stage Lensmen (November 1941-February 1942 Astounding; 1953) – a solar-system-wide grid arrangement which focuses the Sun's entire output upon hapless invaders. John W Campbell Jr made considerable play with beams of raw atomic energy, as in "Cloak of Aesir" (March 1939 Astounding as by Don A Stuart) with its "atomic blast of one-sixteenth aperture . . . capable of disintegrating half a cubic mile of matter per minute." A E van Vogt's titular emporia in The Weapon Shops of Isher (July 1941 and December 1942 Astounding; February 1949 Thrilling Wonder; fixup 1951) offer an extensive though barely described variety of energy guns. Charles L Harness's Flight into Yesterday (May 1949 Startling; exp 1953; vt The Paradox Men 1955 dos; rev 1984) deploys infra-red projectors to penetrate bullet-proof Force Fields. Narrow cutting beams are exemplified by the "needle-ray" featured in several Lensman books and as a handgun in Eric Frank Russell's Men, Martians and Machines (May 1941-October 1943 Astounding; exp as coll of linked stories 1955), and the Imaginary-Science snipgun (sub-nuclear interference projector) which in Norman Spinrad's The Men in the Jungle (1967) can apparently cut through anything. The development of actual coherent-energy beams in real life – masers (microwaves) in 1953 and lasers (light) in 1960 – was swiftly reflected in sf Terminology (> Death Rays). "Lasguns" appear in Dune (fixup 1965) by Frank Herbert, and the same author's "Committee of the Whole" (April 1965 Galaxy) centres on the Invention of a laser-like cutting ray of enormous potency. Further scientific proposals were also enthusiastically adopted, as with X-ray lasers in Larry Niven's Ringworld (1970) and in Niven's and Jerry Pournelle's Footfall (1985). Iain M Banks's Culture sequence refers to any laser-type armament as a CREW or Coherent Radiation Emission Weapon.
Matter Transmission provides the conduit for destructive energy beams in various fictional scenarios, from the vast experimental installation of A E van Vogt's "Secret Unattainable" (July 1942 Astounding) to Charles Stross's hand-held Blaster in Glasshouse (2006): in both cases a portal is established to a blue-white sun whose output spills through.
Other, less showy Death Rays act on the body chemistry. E E Smith's Second-Stage Lensmen introduces a mind-controlled Weapon of mass destruction which economically disrupts a molecule crucial to sentient life. Robert A Heinlein's Sixth Column (January-March 1941 Astounding as by Anson MacDonald; 1949 as Heinlein; vt The Day After Tomorrow 1951) has rays which coagulate both flesh and blood as in (this simile is used) a cooked egg, and can be racially tuned to kill "PanAsian" enemies (> Yellow Peril) while sparing white Americans – or vice-versa. Using the same tuning principle, Sixth Column's healing ray destroys only inimical bacteria and viruses. In Eric Frank Russell's Dreadful Sanctuary (June-August 1948 Astounding; rev 1951; rev 1963; further rev 1967), a hand-held "vibratory coagulator" can create fatal clots within a victim's bloodstream. Isaac Asimov features painless death by "protein depolarizer" ray in "The Feeling of Power" (February 1958 If).
Still other sf rays and ray-guns directly affect the nervous system. Here the classic sf example is the Stunner (which see) or stun-gun, of which the Star Trek phaser – "Set phasers to 'stun'" – is a relatively late variant. Humanity is subjected to an amnesia-inducing ray in Thomas Calvert McClary's Rebirth: When Everyone Forgot (March 1934 Astounding; rev 1944); space pirates in Robert A Heinlein's Citizen of the Galaxy (September-December 1957 Astounding; 1957) use paralysing rays to capture Spaceship prizes intact; and Fred Saberhagen's Berserkers (> Berserkers) have a slow-acting ray that inhibits reasoned thought in "Without a Thought" (January 1963 If as "Fortress Ship"; vt in Berserker, coll of linked stories 1967). The villains of Heinlein's Sixth Column use a convulsion-inducing "epileptigenic ray" on civilians; an apparently similar "convulsor" features in Gene Wolfe's The Urth of the New Sun (1987). The pain ray or "neuronic whip" of Isaac Asimov's Second Foundation (January 1948 and November 1949-January 1950 Astounding; fixup 1953; vt 2nd Foundation: Galactic Empire 1958) and The Currents of Space (October-December 1952 Astounding; 1952) reappears in several related stories of his Galactic Empire sequence; this weapon has also been borrowed for Ties set in the Star Wars universe, such as Timothy Zahn's "Jade Solitaire" (in Tales from the New Republic, anth 1999, ed Peter Schweighofer and Craig Carey). Nasty Aliens punish rebellious humanoids with a intangible "nerve-whip" in E E Smith's Skylark DuQuesne (June-October 1965 If; 1966). Real-world tasers, which fire electric wires that transmit disabling shocks, have been compared to the neuronic whip: a speculative wireless taser using ionized air to carry its charge might closely resemble the sf device. An actual pain ray deployed in 2010 is the US "Active Denial System", intended for crowd control: this projects low-penetration microwaves which produce an intensely uncomfortable though allegedly harmless burning sensation in human skin. Meanwhile Peter Watts's Blindsight (2006) makes some narrative play with the weird neurological symptoms that can in reality be produced by hyper-intense magnetic fields . . . rays of a sort.
Rays which inhibit Technology – typically causing an internal combustion engine's ignition to fail – have entered the realm of Urban Legend and in particular the UFO mythos. Such rumours, commonplace during World War Two, already existed in the 1930s: W E Johns's Biggles Hits the Trail (1935) ascribes this effect to a ray technology vaguely based on copious supplies of radium. Fredric Brown's "The Waveries" (January 1945 Astounding) sees human use of electricity and electronics blocked by the eponymous electromagnetic-radiation beings. The conquering Mule in Isaac Asimov's Foundation and Empire (April and November-December 1945 Astounding; fixup 1952; vt The Man Who Upset the Universe 1955) develops an "atomic-field depressor" that neutralizes his opponents' Power Sources.
Some anomalous "rays" consist of projected matter. Earthlight (August 1951 Thrilling Wonder; exp 1955) by Arthur C Clarke offers the paradox of an apparent energy beam which is glowingly visible in space – not for once a Scientific Error but a magnetically accelerated jet of white-hot molten iron. In Colin Kapp's Transfinite Man (November 1963-January 1964 New Worlds as "The Dark Mind"; 1964; vt The Dark Mind 1965) seeming sodium lamps are projectors which beam highly reactive sodium ions into the unfortunate target's flesh.
Rays based on Imaginary Science and Pseudoscience are very numerous. One egregious example is S P Meek's "Cold Light" (March 1930 Astounding), which extrapolates from the fact that a heat or light source can be focused through a suitable lens and ludicrously argues that – by inserting an opaque disc between source and lens – one can similarly focus the resulting absence of heat into a deadly beam of cold. "Even at two miles I could produce a local temperature of three hundred degrees below zero." Fleury's Ray, the mysterious violet-green energy that instantly condenses gas into liquid in Rudyard Kipling's With the Night Mail (November 1905 McClure's; rev 1909 chap), may also be a kind of cold ray but is wisely unexplained. Thorne Smith's petrifying ray in The Night Life of the Gods (1931) – which converts living flesh to stone and back again, as often as desired – is pure fantasy.
Also oddly reversible is the total-disintegration effect of the titular device in "The Disintegration Machine" (January 1929 Strand) by Arthur Conan Doyle. Most sf Disintegrator rays, as popularized in Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, are souped-up Blasters whose energy discharge completely vaporizes rather than merely damaging the target. With somewhat more subtlety, the ray emitted by Larry Niven's "Slaver digging tool" from Ringworld (1970) temporarily and locally reduces the charge of the electron, causing targets to fly apart in monatomic dust thanks to the internal repulsion of their net positive charge. Sixth Column includes a biologically-oriented disintegrator ray which releases the surface-tension energy of living cells, causing an exceedingly messy "organic explosion".
The interstellar rays of The Death Rays of Ardilla (1959) by W E Johns conveniently propagate through space at much less than the speed of light, so they can be outrun by sufficiently nippy Spaceships. Gigantic interplanetary laser beams in Fritz Leiber's The Wanderer (1964) may be plausible, but not their visibility in the vacuum of space nor the fact that they continue to be visible for some while after the firing stops. Stephen Baxter's highly implausible "starbreaker" handgun, introduced in "Blue Shift" (in L Ron Hubbard Presents Writers of the Future 5, anth 1989, ed Algis Budrys), likewise projects beams visible in space: later in the Xeelee sequence, this is semi-rationalized with the gloss that the emission consists of gravity waves. (For more on Gravity and Antigravity rays, see Pressor Beam and Tractor Beam.) In this context, Heinlein's enticing postulation of additional electro-gravitic and magneto-gravitic spectra in Sixth Column has been much imitated.
Stephen Baxter's starbreaker can destabilize suns, but the eponymous hand-held ray gun of Barrington J Bayley's The Zen Gun (1983) is designed to detonate them. The titular device of Colin Kapp's The Chaos Weapon (May 1977 Vortex [part 1 only]; 1977), fed by an ammo belt of suns and focused by a ring of ten Black Holes, is among the largest ray weapons ever imagined: the effect of its output blast of pure Entropy could hardly be other than anticlimactic.
Offbeat non-Weapon rays also abound. That of "The Ray of Displacement" (October 1903 The Metropolitan Magazine) by Harriet Prescott Spofford (1835-1921) allows the targeted person to achieve Matter Penetration and also grants invisibility. Healing rays include yet another adaptation of the Sixth Column technology for selective zapping of nasty micro-organisms; but the supposedly therapeutic effect of M John Harrison's "The New Rays" (Spring 1982 Interzone) is altogether more ambiguous, apparently splitting off psychic Doppelgangers of their subjects. There is very little, in sf, which rays cannot achieve . . . but the plausibility level varies greatly. [DRL]
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