Hello and welcome back for another round of my hopefully informative and necessarily wordy editions of Science Fiction Problems! This week I’ll be taking a look at something that most science fiction stories will include to some degree, if only in passing, but often take the short cut on: firearms (or more specifically, small arms). Many writers will inevitably rely on clichés and under-thought contrivances that don’t bear out the scrutiny of most readers, which can severely hamper the believability of your world depending on how the threat and drama of combat plays into the story. If used correctly, the kind of weapons your characters use can add to the flavor of their given culture, help the reader understand relatively how much the technology has advanced beyond what they would expect (or make them question why it hasn’t), and add a lot of cool-factor to your sci-fi universe.
What I will be focusing on today are the sort of light weapons carried by soldiers, police, mercenaries, and generally anyone lookin’ for a shootout in your story, which would include pistols, sub-machine guns, assault rifles, and various other such weapons that can be carried..
Balancing Believability with Fantasy: From Blasters to Black Powder
I am reasonably sure that all of you have at least heard of Star Wars, and that most of you probably know what blasters are. If you don’t, there’s a picture for you. They’re carried by practically everyone in Lucas’ universe, and there seem to be different kinds, from the little pistols to the giant guns on battleships- but what do these things actually shoot? Well- that’s kind of just glossed over. Some sources explain it as a “super-excited bolt of gas”, but that’s more or less fan fiction. Unfortunately, Lucas’ inexplicable blasters seem to have caught on. Think for a moment: how many science fiction movies or shows have you seen where the guns go “PEW!” and shoot a bright little line of light that burns stuff like a laser? Far too many, if you ask me. I am all for coolness factor, but there’s a certain point when the over-the-top light show just makes the audience scratch their collective heads in bewildered frustration. Or at least it would, if they didn’t take it for granted due to its sad overuse.
Well, like I’ve said before, there’s a big difference between what you can get away with on the screen and on
the page, and in your story you will have to at least sound like you know how things work, even if you never go through the details with your reader.
Unless your story has an anachronistic feel (like steampunk, or something like Firefly), or is very nearly current-day (which has all its own problems), it’s difficult to use modern weapons in a science fiction story while still cultivating a feeling of wonder and a futuristic atmosphere. So, what is a hapless writer to do? Well, let’s take a look at one of the (legitimate) technologies you might base your guns on.
Lasers: the Problematic Fallback Plan
So you can’t just throw explosions and raybeams at your reader like the folks down in the CGI department can in the movies, leaving only the option of figuring out how your weapons could work, and what sort of progressions seem reasonable, depending on what directions today’s technology looks to be heading in. Laser-like weapons are pretty popular in science fiction, so let’s start there.
Lasers clearly don’t work like the blasters we see in Star Wars as I’ve already discussed here, as anyone who’s ever played with a laser pointer knows, but lasers could still be used as small arms weapons, right? Well, yes and no. While shows like Star Trek do a little better job of making laser weapons act like real lasers, as I explained in my this post, in both cases, the real problem is in where the energy comes from. Lasers powerful enough to cut metal and burn through targets (especially if they want to do these things quickly) require an enormous amount of energy, enough that those light weapons could quickly become much heavier. You could get around this problem (like Star Trek did) by inventing some high-energy material that acts as a battery, but you have to be careful about how much technology you make up to have your weapons make sense. Here are some pros and cons of using laser small arms in your story:
- Instant travel time: Lasers (not blasters) operate at the speed of light, making them effectively instant in their effect. This can be a big advantage depending on the situation because the laser weapon could “outrun” other weapons, like shooting down a rocket, or killing a sniper before he can pull the trigger of his conventional firearm.
- No Ammunition: Lasers don’t use bullets or shells in their firing operation, so there’s no ammunition to load (unless your power source is loaded and used in self-contained charges), and this could potentially cut down on weight and bulkiness (again depending on how you handle energy for the weapon).
- “Cutting” Ability: No matter what the movies may tell you, you can’t “cut” down anything with bullets, but with a laser’s continuous beam, you can slice material like a knife if you have enough energy. Obviously this has limits, but it opens up many new options.
- Energy: As previously mentioned, lasers require a lot of energy to operate. Even with advancements that make them more efficient (as per the US Navy’s Free Electron Lasers), if you want portable, hand-held lasers for your soldiers and mercenary heroes, you’ll need some pretty hefty batteries to power them. Miniature nuclear power packs or batteries worn on the back flamethrower-style would work, or else you could reasonably come up with a Star Trek-esque power solution- just be careful not to overdo it.
- Cost: Like it or not, these weapons would be expensive to mass-produce, considering the complexity of the mechanisms involved and the expense of the energy source. It would be plausible to add laser weapons as support to conventional weapons, but this could be hard to justify with the feel of your story. Either way, it will seem unrealistic if such devices are easily available on the cheap, unless the civilization is extraordinarily advanced.
So, some good benefits, but some hefty problems to deal with too. It is certainly possible to use lasers assmall arms in your story, but it will be difficult to explain away the drawbacks without creating some problems for the rest of your world- if you make an easy power supply for your lasers, then the civilization should be using that technology everywhere else as well, and that could change everything about your story world. If lasers are widely used, then there would be other technologies in the world to account for them, defenses developed against them, and heavier and lighter versions in military and civilian use. Some of these considerations would be the same for other technologies, but if your world uses lasers primarily, it’ll take a lot of thinking to work out all the implications.