Hurrah for deco-punk ray guns: when imagination outstrips reality

When I was growing up, a ‘ray gun’ was a weapon that zapped somebody and turned them into a petrol attendant named Ray.

OK, that joke’s actually from The Tick. That aside, ‘rays’ were a staple of deco-era sci-fi, especially Edward Elmer ‘Doc’ Smith’s space operettas, where ‘rays’ – meaning an undefined something that either pulled (‘tractor beam’) or blew things up (‘ray’ or ‘beam’). The latter were often described by Smith as ‘ravening’.

The evil Hexan super-scientists of Jupiter attack the Earth (‘Tellurian’) ship Arcturus with their ravening rays in this scene from “Spacehounds of IPC”. Public domain, via Project Gutenberg.

Here’s a sentence from Spacehounds of IPC, which he completed in 1930. The hero, ‘Steve’ Stevens, is rescuing the people of Saturn’s icy moon Titan by destroying the base of the evil Sedlor: ‘As the raging beam ate deeper and deeper into the base of the cliff, the mountain itself began to disintegrate; block after gigantic block breaking off and crashing down into the flaming, boiling, seething cauldron which was the apex of that ravening beam.’

Later, Stevens and his girlfriend Nadia, flying a gimcrack spaceship that Stevens repaired by rebuilding Earth technology from scratch by himself (yes, really), are attacked by the evil Hexan super-scientists of Jupiter. Stevens counter-attacks with Titanian torpedoes fitted with pentavalent nitrogen warheads. Smith, whose PhD was in chemistry and not literature, described this with another extended sentence that, inevitably, had to include the magic word: ‘contemptuous of material projectiles, the spheres made no attempt to dodge, but merely lashed out upon them with their ravening rays.’ Of course the torpedoes got through and ‘the pent-up internal energy of solid pentavalent nitrogen was instantaneously released’. Yup. They went boom, with a very satisfying – er – boom, except there isn’t any sound in space.

At least the torpedoes weren’t ravening, unlike the rays. It’s possible, as somebody once remarked, that Smith kept using that word because it did not mean what he thought it meant. ‘Ravening’ derives from ‘ravenous’ and actually means ‘hungry’, with the implication of ‘hunting’ for food. But then again, it’s possible this is what Smith intended by it. Perhaps his rays were sentient.

Anyhow, the point is that Smith – particularly – popularised the whole idea of ‘rays’, but neither he nor his many imitators defined what they actually were. In Spacehounds, Smith implied that they operated at discrete frequencies, like electromagnetic radiation; and that ‘ray defences’ could be raised against them by matching those frequencies with the same energy in the opposite phase. This is easily possible in the real world; it’s how radio jamming works, for instance. The concept was considerably more plausible, indeed, than the nebulous ‘force fields’ of later writers (see what I did there?) But Smith never explicitly stated that his rays and counter-rays were electromagnetic.

Smith’s other beams – including ‘tractor beams’, which acted as a kind of tow-rope and didn’t require ferrous material to work – were hand-waved. Still, he described Spacehounds as ‘scientific fiction’, more so than his earlier ‘Skylark’ series.

Later authors took up the notion of ‘rays’, ‘tractor beams’, ‘force fields’, and so on, as a default. Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series of a decade later, for instance, used hand guns known as ‘blasters’. He never defined how they worked, although much later in the 1980s he ret-conned the concept; they emitted a massive pulse of microwaves and had energy sufficient for just a few shots before reloading. This was plausible although I suspect the energy needed to explode a target comprising 60 percent water, in an instant, with microwaves (as he described) is ridiculously huge and the gun might melt first, purely from transfer losses. I’m sure Asimov knew that very well, too, but hey… science fiction only has to be plausible. Asimov’s blasters could also be turned down to emit a low-power beam. There’s a scene in one of his later novels where a character uses a ‘blaster’ on low as an emergency heat source to clean down the space-suits of a returning crew contaminated by mould spores.

These days we have ‘rays’ in the form of lasers and various microwave emitters – and they simply don’t do what the 1930s dream supposed. A laser doesn’t even look like a gun – it’s closer to a camera, and for good reason, as predicted in 1958 by Robert A. Heinlein, whose description of alien blue-light guns in Have Spacesuit, Will Travel was precisely that – a camera with a funny looking lens. But I guess the issue with ‘ray guns’ being a homologue of projectile weapons is true of most science-fiction.

The Pomson 6000, seen here at a Weta Workshop exhibition in downtown Wellington, some time in 2013. Photo: Mentis Fugit.

What’s actually happened, of course, is that our real-life world of ‘rays’ these days is nothing like the one envisaged in the 1930s. And to me that’s a pity. You see, I miss that golden age of deco-punk. It was wonderful in its style, its fearlessness, its messages of faith in human creativity and endeavour, and in the use of the word ‘ravening’. And I live in the very same city where Weta Workshop produce their Dr Grordbort ray guns. Last time I was in their shop – the ‘Weta Cave’ – I spotted a Pomson 6000, a snap at $4000 or some such figure. Gorgeous piece of kit, magnificently constructed and a wonderful piece of deco-punk design, easily worthy of a Smithian story.

What stopped me buying it was that that if I’m going to pay $4000 for a ray gun, I want one that actually works…

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2020

12 thoughts on “Hurrah for deco-punk ray guns: when imagination outstrips reality

    1. Me neither. I particularly can’t understand the way vacuum cleaners have gone. Back in the 1930s, home vacuuming of the future was going to be done by a humanoid robot servant that walked around pushing the vacuum cleaner. What we actually ended up with was a thing the size and shape of a dinner plate that rolls around the floor aimlessly, getting stuck in corners and making pathetic ‘peep peep’ noises when it does so. Such a let-down.

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      1. You need one of those Roomba robot vacuum cleaners. Problem solved. Sort of. I remember writing a post ages ago about a passive-aggressive Roomba that left notes about its human’s home. Chastising them for being lazy. That’s AI for you.

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    1. Hah! I should have added that it’s a ‘ray machine gun’. Have you caught up with all the Dr Grordbort stuff? Spiffing rip on a certain mind-set from about a century ago, by jove. Brainchild of a local guy, here in Wellington, named Greg Broadmore. They’ve since been working with Valve, apparently some of the ray guns are now available in Team Fortress 2 (which I don’t play).

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  1. I haven’t read enough enough ‘Doc’ Smith books to know in what context he used the word ‘ravening’ (my dad was a big fan. I tried to read them as a teenager but can’t remember what put me off), but from the extract above I love how it’s used. I can see that hungry ray eating through that base. Did he use it in contexts where it was obviously not correct?

    Also while I’m here, is there supposed to be a ‘like’ button at the end of everyone’s comments? I can’t see one and I’d like to show my appreciation for some of them.

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    1. I must admit, Smith’s stuff is an acquired taste sometimes – I enjoyed ‘Spacehounds’ but struggled with some of the other material. For me the problem with his use of the word was purely that, by implication, ‘ravening’ is an emotive word implying feeling on the part of whoever is ravening, which he applied to inanimate objects.

      I had a look into the missing like button. I hadn’t turned it on! Thanks for pointing that out, it should work now (I hope!).

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  2. “Doc” Smith’s works are perfect examples of how a story doesn’t need perfect prose to be engaging. Same with H.P. Lovecraft. Not that I’m advocating purple prose, but setting up a situation where the reader has to know what happens next and how things turn out almost makes up for it. (As per my latest post, which you read.) And “plausible” covers a lot of ground. Now I’m thinking that readers who know science have to consciously ignore a lot of stuff to enjoy some science fiction.

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    1. I certainly think storytelling doesn’t need perfect prose as long as the meaning is clear and the reader drawn into it. That said, I think Smith’s books actually need that purple style – or they wouldn’t be as charming or captivating. His ideas were so often overblown that they needed that stylistic extra; an essential element of the whole. Harry Harrison nevertheless had a lot of fun lampooning it in ‘Star Smashers of the Galaxy Rangers’!

      The sci-fi vs science calculation has always fascinated me – I think sci-fi books need enough science to be plausible, but if they slavishly followed real science in every detail they would also become boring because real science doesn’t allow a lot of what authors can imagine to make their story sci fi, as opposed to ‘real world’. The trick is getting the right balance – finding enough to make ‘real’ that the sense of plausibility is created, allowing the writer to then suspend disbelief in the reader for some of the rest. One of the better ones at it, as far as I am concerned, was Robert A Heinlein – he presented absolutely hard-edged science and built a story around it, but would then throw in some (usually quite plausible) extension of that science that made his stories interesting.

      One of my favourites along those lines is his ‘torch’ space-drive, which involved total matter-to-energy transformation at about a 70 percent efficiency. The plausible bit is that Einstein’s E = MC 2 explicitly describes the process. Cool. Heinlein’s extension was that he envisaged a machine known as a ‘mass converter’ that could do it at will, which is impossible. Even an atomic bomb produces only about a 2 percent transformation. Oh, and if you DID do it, you’d blow up your machine because no material substance could withstand the energies released. Of course Heinlein knew that. But hey… And that was the thing – a totally plausible scenario built on real physics, given a bit of a twist at the end for story purposes.

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    1. Ah yes – were Kinnison’s go-to sidearms also as I recall! 🙂 Have to say I keep visualising a ray gun that science actually permits as something like a 35mm camera with a funny lens on it, from which run multiple very thick cables and tubes back to an 18-wheeler laden with refrigeration plant and generator. Oh, and the operator has to wear goggles and a fireproof suit…

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      1. Yes, alas. To begin with I suppose you’d need something with the power output of a small star you could still hold in your hand. Not to mention conductors and insulators. Some way to focus all that (ravening!) energy. And anything remotely like this would be so far in the future one could hope we wouldn’t have to study war no more.

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