Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Hand-Held Thunder: The History of the Blaster [Guest Post]

It's always a pleasure when G.W. Thomas sends in a guest post, not only because I get to share it with you, but also because I always learn something new. Thanks again to G.W. for this history of ray guns and blasters in scifi literature and film. -- Michael

Martian Heat Ray
It made sense when Science Fiction went to the stars that the brave men and women who plumbed the depths of space would need weapons suited to their new environment. A firearm requiring oxygen or air pressure would not work in the vacuum of space, nor could an adventurer lost on a distant planet find ammunition for a conventional gun. As with so many of Science Fiction's standard props, it fell to H. G. Wells to arm the enemies of Man with such a weapon in The War of the Worlds (1898):
It is still a matter of wonder how the Martians are able to slay men so swiftly and so silently. Many think that in some way they are able to generate an intense heat in a chamber of practically absolute non-conductivity. This intense heat they project in a parallel beam against any object they choose, by means of a polished parabolic mirror of unknown composition, much as the parabolic mirror of a lighthouse projects a beam of light. But no one has absolutely proved these details. However it is done, it is certain that a beam of heat is the essence of the matter. Heat, and invisible, instead of visible, light. Whatever is combustible flashes into flame at its touch, lead runs like water, it softens iron, cracks and melts glass, and when it falls upon water, incontinently that explodes into steam.
Garrett P. Serviss can take credit for inventing "The Distintegrator" in his "Thomas Edison's Conquest of Mars" (1898), America's answer to H. G. Wells:
Another soft whirr in the instrument, a momentary flash of light close around it, and, behold, the crow had turned from black to white! 
"Its feathers are gone," said the inventor; "they have been dissipated into their constituent atoms. Now, we will finish the crow." 
Instantly there was another adjustment of the index, another outshooting of vibratory force, a rapid up and down motion of the index to include a certain range of vibrations, and the crow itself was gone—vanished in empty space! There was the bare twig on which a moment before it had stood. Behind, in the sky, was the white cloud against which its black form had been sharply outlined, but there was no more crow.
Barsoomian Radium Gun
While Serviss and Wells slugged it out in fiction, in the real world, Nikola Tesla was working on the idea of actual direct-energy weapons as early as 1900. In his The Art of Projecting Concentrated Non-dispersive Energy through the Natural Media he discourses on charged particle beams. Still, fiction was slow to follow.

The first big writer to consider what a personal sized space weapon might be was Edgar Rice Burroughs in his maiden flight as a writer, "Under the Moons of Mars" (All-Story, serialization beginning February 1912). ERB realized that Martians would not necessarily have the same weaponry as Earthmen and came up with the "Radium" rifle:
These rifles were of a white metal stocked with wood, which I learned later was a very light and intensely hard growth much prized on Mars, and entirely unknown to us denizens of Earth. The metal of the barrel is an alloy composed principally of aluminum and steel which they have learned to temper to a hardness far exceeding that of the steel with which we are familiar. The weight of these rifles is comparatively little, and with the small caliber, explosive, radium projectiles which they use, and the great length of the barrel, they are deadly in the extreme and at ranges which would be unthinkable on Earth. The theoretic effective radius of this rifle is three hundred miles, but the best they can do in actual service when equipped with their wireless finders and sighters is but a trifle over two hundred miles.
Despite the range, most of the fighting on Mars takes place with swords. So much for logic. Still, it paved the way for other writers to think outside the box.

Buck Rogers
The term "blaster" was coined in April 1925 in Weird Tales (Amazing Stories and Astounding did not yet exist!) in "When the Green Star Waned" by the obscure Nictzin Dyalhis:
"Well, it was for me that, in obedience to Hul Jok's imperative command, I was holding my Blastor pointing ahead of me..." 
Another Weird Tales alumnus was Edmond Hamilton who wrote most the SF in the magazine. He had the Blue Ray of Death in "Across Space" (Weird Tales, September 1926) and the Cold Ray in "The Atomic Conquerors" (Weird Tales, February 1927) and the De-Atomizing Ray in "Crashing Suns" (Weird Tales, August 1928).

Buck Rogers, who was still Anthony Rogers when he appeared in "Armageddon 2419" (Amazing Stories, August 1928) by Philip Francis Nowlan, found the future Americans at war with invading Asians and using rocket launchers called Rocket guns and the following:
I took the weapon from his grasp and examined it hurriedly. It was not unlike the automatic pistol to which I was accustomed, except that it apparently fired with a button instead of a trigger. I inserted several fresh rounds of ammunition into its magazine from my companion's belt, as rapidly as I could, for I soon heard, near us, the suppressed conversation of his pursuers.
In the same issue, in an equally monumental tale, The Skylark of Space by E. E. Doc Smith and Lee Hawkins Garby goes back to the Burroughs' method:
They found that the X-plosive came fully up to expectations. The smallest charge they had prepared, fired by Crane at a great stump a full hundred yards away from the bare, flat-topped knoll that had afforded them a landing-place, tore it bodily from the ground and reduced it to splinters, while the force of the explosion made the two men stagger...The pistol cracked, and when the bullet reached its destination the great stone was obliterated in a vast ball of flame.
"The Girl from Mars"
Hugo Gernsback published "The Girl From Mars" by Jack Williamson and Miles J. Breuer in a pamphlet in 1929. This was the one thing he published in between owning Amazing Stories and his new set of magazines which included Wonder Stories. This tale features three Martians raised on Earth, children sent in capsules like Superman would be in the comics four years later. The two males fight a super-hero proportioned battle for the female using an array of weird weaponry most the size of a coin:
The ultramundane man thrust a hand into his pocket and pulled out one of Worrell's little instruments. I did not see the shape of the thing, but as he clasped it in his hand, a vague green fire flowed out of it and flashed across to Fred. What that force was, I do not know - some form of electric energy, or of ions, perhaps. The green radiance condensed about my son. His brave advance was abruptly checked. An expression of agony came over his face. He tottered and began a scream that ended in a rattling sob. For a moment his body was outlined sharply in the curdling green incandescence. Mason relaxed his grip of the tiny device and calmly returned it to his pocket as my son, burned and distorted, fell heavily to the floor.
"The Crystal Ray" by Raymond Z. Gallun (Air Wonder Stories, November 1929) features another racist war between America and the Yellow Menace. America survives with a final desperate weapon, the Blue Ray:
From the bow of one of America's ships a faint beam of bluish light stabbed out and struck an enemy craft, sweeping it from stem to stern! It passed through the vessel as though she had been made of glass, instead of thousands of tons of metal. Immediately the dreadnaught began to blunder oddly as though completely out of control. What had happened to her occupants? A grim smile passed over Pelton's lips, for he knew!
Brigands of the Moon
In Amazing Stories, November 1930, it was John W. Campbell, still writer, not yet all-important editor, who really figured out how such a weapon would actually work in "Solarite":
“Imagine what would happen if we directed this against the side of a mountain—the entire mass of rock would at once fly off at unimaginable speed, crashing ahead with terrific power, as all the molecules suddenly moved in the same direction. Nothing in all the Universe could hold together against it! It's a disintegration ray of a sort—a ray that will tear, or crush, for we can either make one half move away from the other—or we can reverse the power, and make one half drive toward the other with all the terrific power of its molecules! It is omnipotent—hmmm—” Arcot paused, narrowing his eyes in thought. It has one limitation. Will it reach far in the air? In vacuum it should have an infinite range—in the atmosphere all the molecules of the air will be affected, and it will cause a terrific blast of icy wind, a gale at temperatures far below zero! This will be even more effective here on Venus!
1931 seems to be an important year for ray guns. At Teck's Amazing Stories, April 1931 Nat Schachner and Arthur Leo Zagat came up with the Disruptor in "The Emperor of the Stars". That same month in Hugo Gernsback's Wonder Stories, The Annihilation Beam appeared in Leslie F. Stone's in "The Conquest of Gola," and Clark Ashton Smith had his Zero Ray in "An Adventure in Futurity". Jack Williamson offers another form of weapon, the Matter Annihilation Ray in "Twelve Hours to Live" (Wonder Stories, August 1931).

In wasn't any different over at the Clayton Astounding. Ray Cummings must have had Wells in mind when he created the pencil heat ray in Brigands of the Moon (Astounding, March 1931) :
My pencil ray was in my hand and I pressed its switch. The tiny heat ray stabbed through the air, but I missed. The figure stumbled but did not fall. I saw a bare gray arm come from the cloak, flung up to maintain its balance. Or perhaps my pencil ray had seared his arm...
Flash. Ah-ahhh.
Of all the spacemen to appear in the Clayton Astounding, Hawk Carse was certainly the most famous. In "Hawk Carse" (Astounding, November 1931) he is described as "... Hawk Carse the adventurer, he of the spitting ray-gun and the phenomenal draw, of the reckless space ship maneuverings..." In the story there is little or no explanation of how a ray gun works for by this time none was necessary. The Hawk Carse stories were modeled on the Western and how the gun worked was no longer important, only that the hero was lightning fast. The ray gun had arrived.

C. L. Moore's Northwest Smith in his first appearance "Shambleau" (Weird Tales, November 1933) shows he knows his way around a weapon in the opening scene:
"Smith, lounging negligently against the wall, arms folded and gun-hand draped over his left forearm, looked incapable of swift motion, but at the leader’s first forward step the pistol swept in a practiced half-circle and the dazzle of blue-white heat leaping from its muzzle seared an arc in the slag pavement at his feet..."
By 1934 in Triplanetary (Amazing Stories, January-April 1934), E. E. Doc Smith replaced his X-Plosive with the "Standish", a beam weapon of immense power. Smith would later coined the word "Super-Weapon" in "What a Course!" (Thrilling Wonder Stories, June 1939:
Going up to a blank wall, he manipulated an almost invisible dial set flush with it surface, swung a heavy door aside, and lifted out the Standish - a fearsome weapon. Squat, huge, and heavy, it resembled somewhat an overgrown machine rifle, but one possessing a thick, short telescope, with several opaque condensing lenses and parabolic reflectors...He set his peculiar weapon down, unfolded its three massive legs, crouched down behind it, and threw in a switch. Dull red beams of frightful intensity shot from the reflectors and sparks, almost of lightening proportions, leaped from the shielding screen under their impact.
Pew! Pew!
Disappointing as Buck Roger's initial weaponry in the Pulps, he didn't really get going until he became a comic strip character in January 1929, leaving Earth for outer space. Once out there, Buck's futuristic weapon inspired the generations that followed. The XZ-31 Rocket Pistol appeared at the February 1934 American Toy Fair and sold for 50 cents.

And of course, right on Buck's tracks came Flash Gordon in January 7, 1934. With Buster Crabbe playing him in the serials in 1936, everyone now knew what a space gun was supposed to look like.

The events of 1945 and the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki mark the end of fun, futuristic weapons. The real thing had arrived and they weren't so fun. For a while Science Fiction focused on bombardments as everyone worried that the Russians would fill the skies with death. But TV gave us new men in silver underwear and the ray gun became the province of Children's entertainment or the stuff of jokes such as Chuck Jones's brilliant "Duck Dodgers in the 24 and 1/2 century" (Warner Bros., 1953). Daffy whips out his Disintegrator Pistol and pulls the trigger. The gun, of course, disintegrates. But eventually TV shows like Lost in Space, Star Trek, Space 1999, and of course Star Wars would bring these glittering hand-held weapons back into our consciousness. Call it a ray gun, call it a blaster, it doesn't matter. As Han Solo says, perhaps erroneously: "Hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster at your side, kid."

Additional resources:
Kurogawa's Virtual Ray Gun Exhibition
Technovelgy's Weapons in Science Fiction

 G. W. Thomas has appeared in over 400 different books, magazines and ezines including The Writer, Writer's Digest, Black October Magazine and Contact. His website is gwthomas.org. He is editor of Dark Worlds magazine.

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