Ray Guns Forever

The third edition of the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, still in progress, has grown by well over half a million words since the 1995 CD-ROM. As I struggle to untangle the maze of cross-references – today there are 62,385 internal hyperlinks – I keep finding suggestions for new theme entries. RAYS and DEATH RAYS, for example, are much in demand, and so I'd better write something about them ...

The heat ray used by H G Wells's Martians in The War of the Worlds spawned all too many imaginary energy weapons. E E "Doc" Smith's Lensman space operas are full of garish and irresistible rays bouncing off immovable force screens. His most grandiose ray-gun of all is the sunbeam, using a vast system of grids and deflectors scattered through our solar system (this, remember, was the era of vacuum-tube electronics) to focus the entire output of the sun on a colossal invasion force whose seven massively armed planets soon become heaps of slag. Those were the days. It was almost anticlimactic when science came up with the laser in 1960 and SF writers feebly chorused "We told you so!"

Few authors, and even fewer film-makers, bothered with the fussy technicality that such rays wouldn't be visible in space. Arthur C Clarke finally came up with a cunning workaround in Earthlight, where a dazzling beam weapon turns out to be a magnetically accelerated stream of white-hot molten iron that punches clean through spaceships. Another nasty matter beam appears in Colin Kapp's Transfinite Man, where literal "sodium lamps" project sodium ions that penetrate your skin and catch fire. Sunblock is no help.

Subtler death rays have been around for ages. In Professor A M Low's 1937 Adrift in the Stratosphere, space-travellers attacked by radium rays from Mars develop symptoms which today would force them outdoors: blue flames and smoke spouting from their mouths. Luckily their ship's instruction manual describes in great detail how to switch on the anti-radium ray. (Meanwhile, passing through a "belt of X-rays", they find their own bodies becoming transparent. Fancy that.) Captain W E Johns of Biggles fame gave us The Death Rays of Ardilla (1959), whose terror weapons are a conveniently slow-moving form of radiation – like sunlight on Discworld – which can be outrun by simply flooring your spaceship's accelerator.

Maybe Ardilla was using rays from the new electro-gravitic and magneto-gravitic spectra suggested in Robert A Heinlein's Sixth Column. Here the very horrible "PanAsians" (see SF Encyclopedia entry for YELLOW PERIL) have conquered the USA, which fights back with ray technology that can be tuned by race – killing slant-eyed invaders instantly, their proteins coagulated like a boiled egg, while red-blooded US patriots caught in friendly fire from the same weapon are unharmed. Apparently Heinlein himself wasn't too keen on this racist scenario, but got persuaded into it by magazine editor John W Campbell.

Electric or sonic stun-guns have been a standard SF prop since the 1940s: Star Trek ("Set phasers to 'fall over unconvincingly'") was a latecomer. Other rays attacking the nervous system include paralysers, pain-inducers like Isaac Asimov's neuronic whip, and a particularly nasty one in Sixth Column that causes bone-breaking epileptic spasms. Fred Saberhagen's "Berserker" killing machines, implacable foes of organic life, came up with a beam whose effect on the human brain makes logical thought impossible. Yes, there are an awful lot of scientifically dodgy SF weapons that deserve to be called the Stupid Ray.

Not that I'd point the finger at Barrington J Bayley, whose The Zen Gun explains tongue-in-cheek that the title's carved, wooden hand-weapon is designed to make galactic empires impossible by detonating suns from a safe distance. Likewise, in Stephen Baxter's galaxy-busting "Xeelee" saga, the starbreaker is a modest handgun which can destabilise stars. Its red output ray is visible in space too, because (er) it consists of gravity waves. As Mr Baxter once explained to me in a rare confession of working methods, "In Case Of Emergency, Break Laws Of Physics."

But the death ray in Lloyd Biggle's Silence Is Deadly is a red herring. There's general bafflement about how a particularly backward planet seems to have produced such an advanced weapon – until it turns out be a local predator's natural ultrasonic attack, totally inaudible even as it kills you. Speaking as a hearing-challenged person who might even be immune, I think of this as the Deaf Ray.

David Langford is writing an SF story about the Manta Ray, which projects a deadly stream of coherent, high-energy fish.

[I had to substitute the above for my initial, editorially unacceptable joke reference to a rival magazine ...]

David Langford has heard rumours of a magazine called Death Rays, but the SFX editor scoffs at such foolish superstition.

Later: Mr Baxter himself sent tolerant email in response to this column. "A very minor historical correction ... I may have repeated that line about breaking the laws of physics at some boozathon or other, but the source, so to speak, is my novel Timelike Infinity, where it's delivered by some character as some unlikely scheme is proposed. So it was really a self-deprecating in-joke rather than an admission of cheating! It was however put on lapel badges by somebody at some long-ago con.... I did 'justify' the g-wave handgun somewhere. You need inertial anchoring to avoid a rather monumental recoil, and the optical effects would come from spacetime stresses, since it creates a sort of skinny wormhole which in turn creates a particle shower. However it was meant more for fun than as a physics lesson so it's a fair cop!"