Entry updated 30 January 2021. Tagged: Theme.
In the catalogue of possible technological wonders offered in the New Atlantis (bound in with Sylva Sylvarum 1626; 1627 chap), Francis Bacon included more powerful cannon, better explosives and "wildfires burning in water, unquenchable". Such promises could not be left out if his prospectus were to appeal to the political establishment – his most important predecessor as a designer of hypothetical machines, Leonardo da Vinci, had likewise sought sponsorship on the basis of his ingenuity as a military engineer.
In the second half of the nineteenth century, when the effects of technological progress on society became the subject of widespread speculation, the advance of weaponry became one of the most important stimulants of the imagination. George Chesney's The Battle of Dorking (May 1871 Blackwood's Magazine; 1871 chap) popularized the concern felt by a number of politicians that the UK's armaments had fallen considerably behind the times (see Battle of Dorking). In the new genre of popular fiction which it inspired, the Future-War story, speculation about the weapons of the future soon became ambitious. In The Angel of the Revolution (21 January-14 October 1893 Pearson's Weekly; cut 1893) George Griffith imagined a world war fought with Airships and submarines, armed with unprecedentedly powerful explosives. The French artist Albert Robida offered spectacular images of future weaponry in action in La guerre au vingtième siècle ["War in the 20th Century"] (1887). Jules Verne's Face au drapeau (1896; trans as For the Flag 1897) features the "fulgurator", a powerful explosive device with a "boomerang" action – a primitive guided missile. H G Wells's "The Land Ironclads" (December 1903 Strand) foresaw the development of the tank, and bacteriological warfare was anticipated in T Mullett Ellis's Zalma (1895) and M P Shiel's The Yellow Danger (5 February-18 June 1898 Short Stories as "The Empress of the Earth"; 1898).
The discovery of X-rays and radioactivity in the last years of the nineteenth century gave a tremendous boost to the hypothetical armaments industry. The imagination of writers leaped ahead to imagine all kinds of weapons causing or using the energy of atomic breakdown. In The Lord of Labour (1911) George Griffith described a war fought with atomic missiles and disintegrator Rays, and awesome rays have remained a standard part of the sf armoury ever since. During World War One William Le Queux attempted to raise morale with his account of the fight to develop a new ray to function as The Zeppelin Destroyer (1916). Percy F Westerman's The War of the Wireless Waves (1923) was one of countless Near-Future thrillers featuring arms races; here the British ZZ rays must counter the menace of the German Ultra-K ray.
Criminal Scientists often armed themselves with marvellous Rays or atomic disintegrators, as in Edmund Snell's The Z Ray (1932), Austin Small's The Avenging Ray (1930 as by Seamark) and one of the earliest examples of Soviet sf, Giperboloid inzhenera Garina (1926; rev 1937; trans as The Deathbox 1936; new trans of rev edition vt The Garin Death Ray 1955 USSR) by Alexei Tolstoy. Few actually succeeded in destroying the world, although Neil Bell's The Lord of Life (1933) almost did. Criminal scientists deployed more subtle agents, too: Sax Rohmer's Fu-Manchu was especially adept with exotic Poisons, and biological blights were used as threats in Edgar Wallace's The Green Rust (1919), William Le Queux's The Terror of the Air (1920) and Robert W Service's The Master of the Microbe (1926). Others, not quite so egotistical, tried to use their weapons altruistically to force peace upon the world; they included the heroes of His Wisdom the Defender (1900) by Simon Newcomb, Empire of the World (1910; vt Emperor of the World) by C J Cutcliffe Hyne and The Ark of the Covenant (1924; vt Ultimatum) by Victor MacClure.
Few early writers were aware of the differences which advanced weaponry might make to the nature of warfare, and only H G Wells, in Anticipations (1901), realized what an appalling difference very simple innovations like barbed wire might make. George Griffith recognized that aerial bombing would not discriminate between combatants and noncombatants, although he did not explore the political ramifications. After 1918, however, Poison gases of various kinds became the major bugbear of UK Future-War stories, deployed to bloodcurdling effect in such stories as Shaw Desmond's Ragnarok (1926) and Neil Bell's The Gas War of 1940 (1931 as Miles; vt Valiant Clay 1934 as NB). It is perhaps surprising that the scientific romancers' pessimism about the likelihood of the Geneva Convention being observed in the next war proved largely unjustified. Other political fantasies of the period, including Harold Nicolson's atom-bomb story Public Faces (1932) and John Gloag's Winter's Youth (1934) – which features a kind of super-napalm called "radiant inflammatol" – also proved (mercifully) a little too cynical.
The early pulp-sf writers took to superweapons – particularly Rays – in a big way. E E "Doc" Smith's The Skylark of Space (August-October 1928 Amazing; 1946) features heat rays, infra-sound, ultraviolet rays and "induction rays", and entire weaponized planets are deployed with increasingly reckless abandon in the Lensman series: Gray Lensman (October 1939-January 1940 Astounding; 1951) concludes with the smashing of an enemy world by a "nutcracker" comprising two dirigible planets on opposing courses, Second-Stage Lensmen (November 1941-February 1942 Astounding; 1953) sees Earth attacked via Hyperspace by a colossal force including seven armed planets, and Children of the Lens (November 1947-February 1948 Astounding; 1954) features the destruction of a further hostile world – and its sun – by Faster-than-Light planets transferred from another Dimension. Smith's contemporaries were hardly less prolific. John W Campbell Jr's "Space Rays" (December 1932 Wonder Stories) was so extravagant that Hugo Gernsback thought he must be joking and billed the story as a "burlesque", apparently offending Campbell sufficiently to deter him from submitting to Wonder Stories again. In an era when fictional large-scale destruction could be achieved at the flick of a switch, an amazing example of restraint can be found in Thomas P Kelley's Space Opera "A Million Years in the Future" (January-July 1940 Weird Tales), which features Spaceships armed with gigantic crossbows mounted on their prows; another retro example is Isaac Asimov's "Black Friar of the Flame" (Spring 1942 Planet Stories), where space warships are fitted with ramming spikes in conscious echo of ancient Greek naval tactics (see History in SF). At the opposite extreme, Jack Williamson's The Legion of Space (April-September 1934 Astounding; rev 1947) features the super-weapon AKKA, which obliterates whole space fleets at the push of a button, and Edmond Hamilton was fond of disposing of worlds and stars with a similar casual flourish.
After this there perhaps seemed no further extreme available – it was left to Stephen Baxter in Ring (1994) to escalate such military gigantism to the hurling of entire galaxies – and innovation thereafter tended followed more modest paths. Two standard types of personal weaponry became Clichés, the stun-gun (see Stunner) and the Blaster or Disintegrator; modern space-opera heroes and heroines often carry modifiable pistols usable in either way, after the fashion of Star Trek's "phasers" (see Ray Gun). Later twentieth-century developments contributed only minor inspiration: T H Maiman's discovery of the laser effect in 1960 merely "confirmed" what sf writers had always known about Death Rays, just as Hiroshima had "confirmed" what they already knew about atom bombs. Also in the 1960s, Monomolecular Wire (which see) was introduced as an sf weapon with attractions for both assassins and terrorists.
World War Two renewed fears about the destructive potential of war, but there was little room left for imaginative innovation, although mention must be made of the "doomsday weapon": an ultimate deterrent which, if triggered in response to attack, will annihilate life on Earth. Alfred Noyes's The Last Man (1940; vt No Other Man 1940) invokes such a weapon but leaves the destruction conveniently incomplete. US Genre SF now began to reproduce the hysteria of earlier UK Scientific Romances in lamenting Man's propensity to make and use terrible weapons; superweapons were more often treated as ultimate horrors than as fancy toys. Notable examples of the new attitude are Bernard Wolfe's bitter black comedy on the theme of "disarmament", Limbo (1952; vt Limbo '90 1953), and James Blish's story about nasty-minded ways and means of guiding missiles, "Tomb Tapper" (July 1956 Astounding). Such stories initiated a tradition which extends through Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1963) to such works as Marc Laidlaw's Dad's Nuke (1985). The post-World War Two years also saw the growth of a macabre interest in the subtleties of "psychological warfare", which sparked off many thrillers about "brainwashing"; the tradition is gruesomely extrapolated in Gregory Benford's Deeper than the Darkness (1970; rev vt as The Stars in Shroud 1978).
This anxiety interrupted but never killed off either the more romanticized varieties of futuristic swashbuckling or the fantasies inspired by threats to the US citizen's constitutional right to bear weapons, whether or not as part of a "well regulated militia". A E van Vogt's Weapon Shops series of the 1940s made much of the slogan "the right to buy weapons is the right to be free". The intimacy of the relationship between Heroes and their weapons is related to the kind of simplistic power fantasy which underlies much Sword and Sorcery and much sf on the Fantasy borderline, but some writers, notably Charles L Harness in Flight into Yesterday (May 1949 Startling; exp 1953; vt The Paradox Men 1955 dos; rev 1984), have been ingenious in inventing technological reasons (typically, as in this case, that Force Fields are less opaque to slow-moving objects) for the survival in advanced societies of swordplay à la Edgar Rice Burroughs; Frank Herbert's Dune (fixup 1965) has a closely similar justification for knife-fighting. Such power fantasies are, of course, reflected in the Psychology of the actual arms race which obsessed the USA and the USSR for nearly half a century after 1945; this is parodied in Philip K Dick's The Zap Gun (1967). Arms-race psychology reached a real-world climax in the 1980s with the science-fictional SDI project, aptly dubbed "Star Wars" by those cynical about its practicability; the most respectful treatment it received may have been in David A Drake's Alternate-History story Fortress (1987), but this text features an orbital launch facility protected by point defense weapons, which do not much resemble SDI proposals. The history of the US fascination with the idea of superweapons is detailed in H Bruce Franklin's War Stars: The Superweapon and the American Imagination (1988; exp rev 2008).
Power fantasies involving "intimate weaponry" have made rapid progress in recent times. The futuristic suits of Powered Armour (see Mecha) worn in Robert A Heinlein's Starship Troopers (October-November 1959 F&SF as "Starship Soldier"; 1959) and the AI-equipped supertanks of Keith Laumer's interesting Dinochrome Brigade series, collected as Bolo (coll of linked stories 1976; exp vt The Compleat Bolo 1990) are modest inventions compared to the more dramatic kinds of Cyborgization featured in Poul Anderson's "Kings who Die" (March 1962 If), Laumer's own A Plague of Demons (1965) and Gordon R Dickson's The Forever Man (1986). The relatively modest enhancements featured in the television series The Six Million Dollar Man are easily adaptable to routine power fantasy, but adaptations as intrusive as that featured in Anderson's "The Pugilist" (November 1973 F&SF) – which brings a new perspective to the phallic symbolism of weaponry – belong in a different category.
Manipulation of "natural" forces to apocalyptic effect has long been popular. Antagonists of humanity in Karel Čapek's Vàlka s Mloky (1935 Lidove noviny; 1936; trans M and R Weatherall as War with the Newts 1937) and John Wyndham's The Kraken Wakes (1952-1953 Everybody's as "The Things from the Deep"; 1953; cut vt Out of the Deeps 1953) raise sea-levels to drown our inconvenient civilization. Earthquakes are artificially triggered in Arthur Train's and Robert Williams Wood's The Man Who Rocked the Earth (14-28 November 1914 Saturday Evening Post; 1915), Marie Corelli's The Secret Power: A Romance of the Present (1921) and William J Makin's Murder at Full Moon (1937), whose lunar machine can also produce tidal waves; the hive-humans of Frank Herbert's Hellstrom's Hive (November 1972-March 1973 Galaxy as "Project 40"; 1973) develop a remote earthquake-stimulator (the Project 40 of the magazine version) as a blackmail tool to ensure their survival. Similarly, one of Wonder Woman's television foes is a Mad Scientist who can create volcanoes (see Wonder Woman Film/TV). In Peter F Hamilton's Judas Unchained (2005), an elaborate Weather Control scheme conjures up a super-storm that topples a nasty Alien's seemingly invincible Spaceship.
Modern sf has discovered various more subtle ways to fight wars. The dependence of modern society on sophisticated technologies opens up new opportunities for ingenious sabotage, as explored in Mack Reynolds's Computer War (1967) and Frederik Pohl's The Cool War (1981); Eric Frank Russell's Wasp (1957; exp 1958) deals with similar themes on an alien world (World War Two Japan in disguise), where effective weapons of urban terrorism include not only bombs but graffiti, wall-stickers and counterfeit money. The ultimate defensive Stasis-Field technology featured in Vernor Vinge's The Peace War (1984) turns out, however, to bring only temporary respite from more destructive conflict. Laser warfare, as described in Light Raid (1989) by Connie Willis and Cynthia Felice, also turns out to be less clinical and coherent than might have been hoped, and the day of fabulously macho weapons, like the one featured in Roger McBride Allen's Farside Cannon (1988), is clearly by no means done. The eponym of Colin Kapp's The Chaos Weapon (May 1977 Vortex [part 1 only]; 1977) is so gigantic as to comprise a grandiose Macrostructure, being fed by an ammunition belt of suns and focused by a ring of ten Black Holes: somewhat anticlimactically, the hero and his Spaceship survive a hit from this device because it was only a glancing blow. The same year saw the film debut of another gigantic weapon, the planet-killing Death Star of Star Wars (1977).
Kinetic-energy (KE) weapons more plausible than E E Smith's planet-scale juggernauts have been much explored in sf. The best known example is Robert A Heinlein's The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress (December 1965-April 1966 If; 1966), in which the Moon's war of independence is fought by simply "throwing rocks" at Earth with a mass-driver "catapult" – taking advantage of Earth's deep Gravity well to lend mini-nuke impact energies to non-explosive payloads (although Heinlein's mathematics in this area does not bear close scrutiny). Impact from a dirigible Asteroid is threatened in Greg Bear's "The Wind from a Burning Woman" (October 1978 Analog). The case for orbital deployment of "smart rock" kinetic-energy weaponry is fervently argued by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle in Footfall (1985), where the invading Aliens in orbit have the advantage of position and can make KE strikes at will, from precision targeting of US army units to a Disaster-producing asteroid impact. Likewise, the Parallel Worlds-traversing Spaceship of Neal Stephenson's Anathem (2008) wreaks much destruction with KE "rods". Kim Stanley Robinson offers an ingenious space-terrorism variant in 2312 (2012), with a swarm or "smart mob" of pebbles – each individually below the normal detection threshold – launched along differing Computer-planned trajectories to coincide devastatingly at any target lacking a protective atmosphere like Earth's.
One competent though long superseded "insider" survey of the science-fictional armoury of its time is David Langford's War in 2080: The Future of Military Technology (1979), some of whose research was redeployed in the novel The Space Eater (1982), a then-state-of-the-art account of weapons technology which cheerfully ranges from the most gruesomely intimate to the most hugely destructive. [BS/DRL]
see also: Prehistoric SF.
- David Langford. War in 2080: The Future of Military Technology (Newton Abbot, Devon: Westbridge Books, 1979) [nonfiction: hb/Andrew Farmer]
- H Bruce Franklin. War Stars: The Superweapon and the American Imagination (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988) [nonfiction: hb/Ben Santora]
- H Bruce Franklin. War Stars: The Superweapon and the American Imagination (Amherst, Massachusetts: University of Massachusetts Press, 2008) [nonfiction: exp rev of the above: pb/]
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