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Death Rays

Entry updated 24 June 2024. 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). An early Cinema example is "X-ray gun" Invention featured in the silent spy-adventure film The Intrigue (1916) directed by Frank Lloyd. In 1923 the inventor Harry Grindell Matthews (1880-1941) claimed to have invented a "carrier ray" that could stop engines, ignite explosives and kill. This received considerable publicity, was referred to as "new death dealing 'diabolic rays'", and popularized the concept of the death ray: Matthews himself wrote that "some are of the opinion it will cause the annihilation of the human race; others think that it will make war so terrible that it will be realized how useless it is." The stopping of car and plane engines became the stuff of Urban Legends and especially the UFO mythos.

Death rays were thus a well established sf Cliché by the time W E Johns published Biggles Hits the Trail (1935) and 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]

see also: Charles Addams; The Death Ray.

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