Podcast

304 – Scifi Weapons

The Mythcreant Podcast
Pew pew, laser beams! Oh no, they were blocked by an energy shield, zooooorrp! This week we’re talking about scifi weapons, because sometimes we have to come down from the writing-craft mountain and do some good old-fashioned nerding out. We talk about what these weapons add to stories, how they can go wrong, and why you probably shouldn’t try to directly copy the ones from movies and TV. Plus, what even is plasma? Oren investigates!

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Opening and closing theme: The Princess Who Saved Herself by Jonathan Coulton. Used with permission.

Show Notes:

Lightsabers

Thor

Doctor Strange

The Expanse

Blasters

The War of the Worlds

Plasma Grenades

Plasma Weapons

Chem4kids

Real Lightsaber!

Phasers

The Quantum Thief

Battlestar Galactica Guns

Firefly Guns

Dune

Proton Packs

Beskar Steel

Doc Oock

The Culture

Knights of the Old Republic

Pacific Rim Rocket Punch

Fifth Element Gun

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Transcript

Generously transcribed by Bellis. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.

CHRIS: You’re listening to the Mythcreants Podcast with your hosts Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock and Chris Winkle. [Intro Music]

OREN: And welcome everyone to another episode of the Mythcreants Podcast. I’m Oren, with me today is…

WES: Wes

OREN: and…

CHRIS: Chris.

OREN: And today we got– Oh no, look out! Pew pew! pew pew pew pew! Pew pew! They’re shooting at us with lasers! Pew pew!

WES: It’s okay, I’ve got a laser shield. Bvrr!

OREN: Oh, thank goodness, a laser shield. I’m sure that makes perfect scientific sense and absolutely works.

CHRIS: And I have a lightsaber and I just deflect them with my lightsaber. Yeah.

OREN: Oh no.

[laughter]

WES: You went there immediately.

OREN: Just immediately go to the lightsaber. Oh no.

[laughter]

OREN: Yeah. So today we’re talking about scifi weapons. Which tend to be kind of distinct from fantasy weapons, even though a lot of the time high-tech and magic can be kind of interchangeable. In this case, most fantasy stories tend to give people more historical weapons or at least historical-ish weapons and the magic is reserved for spells and what have you, whereas in scifi the weapons themselves are typically more advanced because there’s all this technology and it can create some cool opportunities, but also some unique problems. So I thought we could talk about that today a little bit and what role these weapons play.

Also, I’m a huge nerd, so I love talking about scifi weapons.

WES: [laughs] Where do you land on the whole “Our technology is so advanced, you think of it as magic”?

OREN: Ugh, I mean, technically true, but often very overused.

WES: I think about that in the first Thor movie, which is a bad movie, but…

OREN: You can say this is– It’s weird because they’re like, “We call it science” and it’s like, no you don’t. You call it magic all the time. [laughter] And if you’re going to say that, if you’re going to say, “okay, this is sufficiently advanced technology that’s indistinguishable from magic”, it’s like, okay, you can do that, but you have to be aware that that also puts you on much tighter restrictions. Because technology does work differently than magic. It’s easier to put limitations on magic than it is on technology.

I just generally am not a huge fan of creating these incredibly advanced effects and then saying, “Oh, well, we have technology that does that.” Cause then it’s like, well, hang on, is that repeatable? Can we use it in other instances? Whereas, if it’s magic, it’s easier to say, well, that’s just how the spell works. It can only do this one thing.

WES: And this of course is an overextended universe that already has magic. So… [laughs]

OREN: It’s not like the Asgardians are tech, and then Dr. Strange is magic, right? They talk about Odin using dark magic to get Thor to earth. I’m sorry, is that “dark technology” that he’s using? How does that work? I have questions.

WES: [laughs] Dormammu, I have brought you a Thor.

[laughter]

CHRIS: I think the issue with that is, is this story aesthetically consistent? Because in a lot of these situations, the setting doesn’t seem like a setting where that thing fits in. It’s like we have a space setting with a lot of high tech and then suddenly there’s a thing that looks magical. And we could be like, “Oh, well, it’s just advanced tech”, but it’s not an aesthetic match for the rest of the setting.

Whereas if you had a setting where all of the tech looked magical and it felt like that was part of the theme of the setting then I would be like, sure. We have a space magic setting where our explanation is “this is all really technology that’s super advanced” and it’s consistent and it doesn’t violate our expectations, and that’s fine, but that’s not usually how it’s happening. It’s usually in, for instance, like Marvel, these settings that are super eclectic and don’t have good theming.

OREN: Even within the Thor movies alone, if you don’t consider any of the other ones, it’s still kind of a strange thing.

But aesthetics are probably the most important thing to consider when you’re looking at various scifi weapons, because it can be fun to try to imagine how these actually work and to come up with technical explanations. But most of us are probably not going to be able to do that, especially not for anything particularly advanced. A hard scifi is hard, like it says, and it puts a lot of limitations on you.

And in most cases even series that seem a bit hard-ish, like the Expanse, use a lot of aesthetics to get you to just ignore the parts that don’t make sense if you think about them for more than a few minutes. So, be consistent on your aesthetics, but also use your aesthetics for good.

One of the things that I actually really like about the new Star Wars films is that they make blasters seem cool. Cause blasters in the previous films, they seem like flashlights. It’s like, “Ah, we shoot a blast.” And they don’t really seem to do a whole lot.

Whereas in the new films they’re crackly and loud and they cause explosions and it’s like, yeah, okay, that looks like a space gun! As opposed to just a regular gun that shoots a very slow moving tracer round.

Wes, earlier you mentioned that you wanted to ask me about plasma. I’m curious what your question was about that.

WES: I was looking into some notable science-fiction weapons and kind of when things started, and ray weapons, like heat rays and sonic rays, that kind of stuff, we have HG Wells to thank for, the War of the Worlds, with the Tripods using heat ray weapons and stuff like that. But that was around the time when we were learning about nuclear stuff.

But then I was like, okay, well then who thought of a plasma gun? Where did that come from and why? Because we already have lasers and is plasma different from lasers? Or did everybody really like plasma grenades in Halo? And so they’re like, “Let’s do plasma everything.” Cause even, don’t the Fallout games have just normal guns and then laser rifles, but then also alien tech? Is just plasma code for alien?

OREN: I mean, sometimes. Fallout actually has alien weapons and plasma weapons, which are different.

WES: Oh no. [laughs]

OREN: And plasma weapons are bad because the bolt moves very slowly and has a travel time, so it’s really hard to hit anything with them.

But that aside, I think that plasma– I didn’t actually know what plasma was earlier. I knew it was a fourth stage of matter, but I didn’t know what that meant. And so I looked it up and it turns out that plasma is what happens when you take gas and you do something to it that starts stripping electrons off of atoms, so you end up with a bunch of free floating electrons and atoms with the wrong number of electrons, which are called ions. They either have too many or not enough. And this usually happens with super heating. Although there are apparently some other ways to do it.

So right off the bat, you can see why that’s attractive. Because it’s super heated stuff.

CHRIS: [laughs] It sounds science fiction-y.

[laughter]

OREN: Right. And plasma has a very science fiction-y thought. In real life, there are a number of interesting applications for plasma. So it’s not just a completely bogus idea that you could use it for these things. I mean, anything that contains a high amount of energy in a small space has weapon potential. In the age of sail, they would actually pour molten iron into cannon balls and fire that at enemy ships. And then the cannon ball would break open and there’d be molten iron everywhere. And there was just so much energy in the molten iron that it would just burn everything. And that’s the similar principle with plasma.

And then of course, you can do some fun things with magnetic fields. That’s how Star Wars explains lightsabers, is that lightsabers are a column of plasma inside a magnetic field. And it’s like, okay. I mean that doesn’t come close to explaining how they actually work, but there are some very cool videos on YouTube of this maker’s group that made a quote lightsaber unquote, which is basically a plasma welder with an extremely long arc. And yeah, it looks like a lightsaber and it burns through things pretty well. I mean, you can’t sword fight with it because it’s not solid, but otherwise it looks like a lightsaber.

So, plasma is just very science-y sounding and it has a lot of applications, so you can use it for a lot of different things. I suspect it’s something of a buzz word. And lasers are, I dunno, maybe they just don’t sound as advanced anymore. Maybe there’s just too much awareness of what a laser actually is. So if you want your gun to shoot a visible bolt that doesn’t move at the speed of light, you can be like, “Oh, well it’s not a laser gun, it’s a plasma gun!”

WES: [sarcastic] Far more realistic, yes! [laughs]

OREN: [sarcastic] Yeah. So much more realistic. Speaking of realism, the biggest issue that I’ve run into when it comes to scifi weapons is how to make them cool without breaking the story, because, for example, the Star Trek phaser is kind of a neat weapon. It has all these different things it can do and it’s directed energy. That’s neat. But when you stop to think about it, the only way that Star Trek firefights actually work is that nobody can hit anything. And that’s how it works in a lot of movies too, but it’s more obvious in Star Trek because you can see the beams go from the phaser to where they hit and it’s like, how are you not… He’s right there! How are you not hitting him?

WES: [laughs] Maybe because he’s basically shooting a remote control.

OREN: There’s definitely some ergonomics problems with a lot of these phasers, right? My favorite is in the new Discovery season, we run into some guys who have a phaser that’s basically an oven mitt that they put on over their hand. And it looks so hard to aim. They basically have to point their entire arm at whatever they want to hit. And it’s like, oh, that’s so awkward. You can’t put it up over a piece of cover, you have to stand and hold your whole arm out. That’s very bad. I don’t like that design.

[laughter]

OREN: One thing you can try to do, if you want to make your weapons just seem more advanced, is you can actually go beyond the limits that we see in film and TV, because Star Trek has a limited budget. They can only show so much. So that’s why they tend to use phasers the same way that an action movies uses guns, but there’s no reason that your book has to be like that.

So in your book, you can have things like, everyone has personal energy shields, or you could go more advanced than that. There was one book that I read called the Quantum Thief, I think is what it was called, and it was very hard to follow and it had a bad plot, but I did really like the way that combat worked in that setting, was that everyone basically had their own swarm of nanites and just used them to make whatever they needed at the moment. And that was just a cool way to read fight scenes, right?

It would be really hard to do that in TV, although in the MCU Ironman comes pretty close. It was a way of showing how you can use the fact that you don’t have to actually show this on TV and you don’t have to worry about your budget, to do something more interesting.

WES: I like the nanite clouds actually, I’m just thinking of all the– I imagine the descriptions of that were really cool. Cause it’s actually not too hard to imagine how that would look, ish. You know, I can kind of conceptualize them moving as a cloud and doing other things. So that’s cool. Never heard of that.

OREN: Yeah. It’s just a neat idea. And I just think that a lot of authors are kind of constrained by the things that we see on TV and so it can be harder to imagine something more out there. Although by the same token you can have, if you use the right aesthetics, a setting that’s just low tech enough that everyone is still just using handguns, right? Like that’s your Battlestar Galacticas and your Fireflies and all of that stuff. It’s like, yeah, in that aesthetic, sure. The gun is a pretty effective weapon, you know, hot take. [laughter] So it’s not unreasonable that even if we had spaceships, we would still be using those.

WES: I like how in Firefly though, Chris brought up aesthetics being important, the guns still don’t sound like 19th century revolvers.

OREN: They don’t. And, oh man, there was– Back in the day when I was first starting with the Firefly RPG and it had its original forums, there was a thread of people trying to explain why the guns in Firefly make those sounds.

WES: Oh no. [laughs]

OREN: It went on for pages and pages, and there was just no explanation. There’s just no reason for them to make that sound.

WES: I kind of liked that because it wasn’t a huge thing, no one ever drew attention to it. And even on episodes where they just were on a planet the whole time with no real tech around, it was a good reminder that they’re space cowboys, even though it, I don’t know, it didn’t impact anything. It’s just like, oh, they shoot normal bullets that sound like space bullets.

OREN: They also used it as a way to basically have the effect of a pump action shotgun for every gun. Because in movies, it’s very useful for a weapon to make a sound when it is ready to fire and in real life with most handguns, that’s not really a thing. Like you could pull the hammer back if you want, but that doesn’t make the gun any more ready to fire than it was before, unless you’re dealing with a very old type of revolver. So there’s no reason to do that. But if you’re doing scifi weapons, you can be like, yeah, the character holds up their gun and it makes like a “bzzz” sound. And you’re like, oh man, that character’s prepared to do violence.

[laughter]

CHRIS: Personally I think one of the biggest problems with weapons in scifi settings is just how effective guns are, because I just don’t think they’re good for stories or storytelling. I mean, not that they can’t work, but they’re just too easy to use and you don’t even have to be in the same room with the person you’re shooting at, cause they’re so long range, and they’re just really good at killing things. And it just makes it really hard to have an actual conflict with guns.

And with a lot of scifi weapons, yes, you can do something different than a gun that makes it more interesting. But if it’s intended to hurt somebody, you always have to measure it against the gun because otherwise, why aren’t they using a gun instead? Like if you have a weapon that just does this freeze ray and that freeze ray takes a few seconds– or you could just shoot them. [laughs]

OREN: Yeah. But can your freeze ray [sings:] stop the world?

[laughter]

OREN: Yes, it can. That’s the point of the freeze ray.

CHRIS: I almost think there’s more opportunity for interesting things if the goal is not to actually injure or kill people. I think the most interesting thing about the phaser is the fact that it has a stun setting, which unlike a real life tazer, always manages to stun somebody without actually hurting them.

OREN: Yeah. Although that does create its own problem, which is that if all your weapons have a safe and effective stun setting, the bar for violence is much lower because you can employ the strategy of “stun them all and let god sort it out”. And this is the problem I run into in my Star Trek RPGs, where the players are like, okay, there’s like some shady people and they’re doing something that might be bad. And we could put ourselves in danger to try to see what they’re up to, or we could just stun them all and then ask later and no harm, no foul.

[laughter]

WES: That’s only marginally better from “kill them all and cast speak with the dead”.

[laughter]

OREN: The biggest issue with guns in my experience in fiction is that if you get the drop on someone and you have a gun, that’s almost an auto win, assuming you know how to use it properly and aren’t in a very unusual situation. And action movies have this problem all the time, where some guy will ambush the protagonist and take a shot and miss. And it’s like, is that guy just a bad shot? That’s not a hard shot, if you’re a trained sniper. Or the snipers will politely let you know they’re about to shoot you by shining a little red dot on your chest. They don’t do that in real life. [laughs]

CHRIS: Yeah, the outcome is almost entirely determined by how the conflict is set up in the first place, who is where and who gets the drop on who and all those other things. And then if you don’t immediately defeat the other person, it’s just like, okay, I guess that character is incompetent. This is really hard to use in storytelling.

OREN: Yeah. Which is why I’m a big fan of trying to expand things farther into the weird scifi stuff, as opposed to just like, “What if everyone had a gun, but it was a better gun”. I think there’s a reason why, for example, Battlestar Galactica focuses more on space fights than it does on ground fights. Just because I think the space fights are more interesting and are easier to make interesting.

It’s not like you couldn’t have a groundwar against Cylons be interesting, but one of the few times where they actually showed an extended firefight against Cylons, it was just kind of ridiculous. It’s like, “All right, so we’re going to go and hang out in this ditch and wait for the Cylons to come and shoot at us from either side of the ditch” and this just seems ridiculous. It seems like you should all be dead. [laughter]

Whereas the space fights were much easier because you can show how the ships are avoiding the shots and they’re dodging around and that’s just not a thing that human bodies can do. So with scifi you can go beyond the whole like, well, we’re having laser pistols at dawn. And that’s when you can get into cool stuff, like battle suits or those nanotech clouds I was talking about earlier, or space ships. That’s a legitimate thing to do instead.

CHRIS: Yeah. I think you can probably get into, again, more interesting weapons if it’s not just a point and shoot, isn’t the goal, right? If you have an area effect, you want something that will just, for instance, destabilize technology in a one mile radius or something like that. You [have] an EMP. Or something that will take somebody down without injuring them or do something else besides just pointing and killing somebody.

WES: [laughs] What is it, Oren, maybe you can speak to this a bit, what is it with “Okay, we have such advanced tech and our weaponry is great, but it’s to the point now where–“ I’m going to talk about Dune. It’s like we got all these great guns and everything. Oh, but everybody has a personal laser shield. And the only thing that gets through that is a knife. So your gun is useless. And so everything has to be melee knife combat.

CHRIS: That’s because knives are way more interesting than guns.

[laughter]

OREN: I mean, Chris isn’t wrong, okay…

WES: Yeah, Chris is very right. [laughs]

OREN: There’s a reason why so many scifi stories try to bring swords to a gunfight in various ways. And as far as Dune goes, that explanation is about as good as it’s ever going to get. The whole like, “Well, we have personal shields and a gun is, you know, the bullet’s too fast, but a sword moves slowly enough that you can get through the shield.” Now this raises other questions, like, well, if that’s the thing, why don’t people start wearing old timey armor to protect against swords? It raises a lot of questions, but for the most part, it is a good enough explanation that your audience will buy it.

Now, Dune then goes ahead and shoots itself in the foot by being like, “Yeah, but actually, the really cool desert warrior fighters who are the best at everything, they don’t even use shields.” And it’s like, well, why don’t they just get shot? The whole explanation for why there are swords instead of guns is that everyone has shields. And we still have guns. They just don’t get used all that often. I’m so confused.

Dune also had this incredibly unnecessary thing where if you ever shoot a shield with a lasgun, both of them explode and it’s like a nuclear bomb. And it was like, why is that in there? That just creates so many implications and the story never uses it for anything except one time when they use it to set a trap. And it’s like, we could have just set some regular explosives and that would have done the job just fine. But instead we had this whole mutually assured destruction scenario and it’s like, ugh, that creates so many plot problems! Why did you do that?

WES: Don’t cross the streams, Oren! [laughs]

OREN: Don’t cross– Oh man, I’d love don’t cross the streams. The proton packs are pretty cool advanced scifi weapons.

WES: Yes, cause they catch ghosts. [laughs]

OREN: Because they do catch ghosts and you can’t shoot a ghost with a gun. If a ghost shows up who you gonna call? It’s not going to be the gun people, it’s going to be the Ghostbusters. But I mean, that’s obviously mixing with fantasy, speaking of crossing the streams. That’s just an example of how you can create the combat in your scifi worlds to work differently than a world war II battlefield.

Or, in Star Wars, the latest version that they’ve done to try to spice this up is in the Mandalorian where they gave Mando some armor that’s at least moderately blaster resistant. So that forces characters to do more interesting things than just sit behind cover and shoot at each other with blasters. And they gave Mando this weapon that is very powerful, but has a really long reload time so that influences how he uses it and that creates some cool conflict.

WES: The power suit weaponry is also very in right now, it seems. Thanks, Tony. [laughs] You know what I like more? Speaking of scifi stuff, like okay, power suits, whatever. I am a big fan of Dr. Otto Octavius, because it’s like, okay sure, it’s like a power-ish suit, but it’s more scifi-y to me because I like that he’s– It fundamentally changes the user of that tech in a way that, we know how to move our two legs and our two arms, but Doc Ock suddenly has got more limbs to control. And I like the foreignness of that. It seems just more scifi to me than Tony Stark being in a high-tech suit with his normal number of arms and legs.

And I guess I just appreciate that difference more. I think it’s cooler what Doc Ock has, it’s more novel because there’s a cerebral component. It would be the equivalent of a mage turning into a swarm of bees. How does your brain do that, you know?

OREN: Well, and Doc Ock’s stuff, his arms definitely have more interesting limitations than Tony’s suit. One of the problems with Tony’s suits is, they can kind of do anything. And that creates some consistency issues where it’s like, “Well, in this story, in this movie, Tony’s suit had an anti-human-shield gun” and suddenly he doesn’t have that anymore, even though it’s incredible useful and, you know, yada, yada yada. But Tony’s suit basically just represents having super powers and it can be almost any of them.

Whereas Doc Ock, he has a very specific set of powers that he has to use for things. And they can include enhanced mobility or hitting you from an angle you weren’t expecting. You can see what you can do with them. And his options are limited enough that they can be interesting.

It’s actually sort of similar to Spiderman’s webs. That’s why Spiderman’s webs are much more interesting as a power than his super strength, which is just kind of boring. It’s like, I guess he’s also super strong, whatever. Give me the webs! [laughter]

Although Doc Ock does present another issue, where this is generally okay in superhero films, because people will suspend their disbelief, but one of the problems with his suit is that it doesn’t really protect him. So if he gets punched by Spiderman who has super strength, he should just be out of the fight immediately.

And if you were writing this as a novel, and this is actually one of the biggest problems I’ve run into with superhero novels, is you just realize how many things you’re accepting as a conceit of the genre when you watch a superhero movie, and then you try to read it in a novel, when you suddenly don’t have a huge budget to entertain you. And it’s like, oh. This feels very silly all of a sudden. It’s like, “My power is flight”. And it’s like, okay, what are you going to do when you get there? And it’s like, “I don’t know. I’ll be there.”

[laughter]

OREN: It’s like, “My power is I can shoot an ice bolt out of my hand”. It’s like, okay, that’s cool. What are you going to do if they bring a pistol? You know, it’s stuff like that, right. It just gets kind of weird when you read that in novel form and you have time to think about it.

One thing that I will definitely recommend is if you do want to have your scifi stories where combat happens more or less the way it happens in real life with regular firearms, I would say, just go the low tech route. One of the things that really bothered me about some of the Culture books is that they have all these really advanced weapons, but it doesn’t seem to change how they fight at all.

It’s like this definitely just reads like a generic firefight scene, even though they’re using lasers and micro howitzers. And that seems like that should change the way they’re fighting somewhat. And it wouldn’t have bothered me if they were all just using regular guns, right?

CHRIS: Yeah. I would say, especially if you’re narrating a work, if your work is written, then it’s definitely not enough to be like, “It’s like a gun, but it’s a laser gun and it looks cool”. And then if it basically behaves just like a gun, if it’s used just like a gun throughout the rest of the story, they’re not even going to remember that opening description. It’s not going to feel any different than a gun. So it has to behave different in some way or do something different than a gun does.

OREN: Yeah. That is such a problem in Star Wars and Star Trek tie-in novels, where it’s just like, [sarcastically] “Aw yeah, I guess more blasters. Whoo.” [laughter] They’re just not very interesting. At least in the movie they make a cool sound and shoot a cool looking red bolt.

WES: It was cool in Knights of the Old Republic to go the Jedi route, but just do the full caster route and then just use blasters and just walk into a room, stun everybody and blast ‘em. It’s like, that’s right, Jedi can use blasters too! Way better than any of you. [laughs]

OREN: That’s another problem with the scifi novels, is that in the movie you’re like, “Yeah, okay, the Jedi don’t use blasters because it’s an uncivilized weapon” or whatever. And then in the book, it’s just really hard to suspend that disbelief because, again, everything just takes longer in novels. It’s harder to get swept away in the pretty action scenes than it is in a movie.

WES: I like the scifi of Fallout. I like the aesthetic of it. I also like that what I guess you could call scifi tech is mostly just somebody experimenting in a garage. I’m thinking about the shish kebab from Fallout III and I guess other ones, but it’s like, “Well, I got a sword and I’ve got a gas tank, so I’m going to light my sword on fire!” [laughs]

OREN: There were so many debates about that weapon when it first showed up in Fallout III, because people were like, how does it stay lit? It’s not connected to the gas tank in any way. And it was pretty clearly just a reskin of the oblivion flaming sword. But I agree. I love it. It’s a fun weapon.

WES: Yep! The other one that I– Well, I guess they’re kind of the same weapon. There’s the power gauntlet and then there’s also the super sledge, and the tech for those was supposed to be that at the moment of contact it would drill forward, the pieces that were hanging out at the back for additional force. And I always thought that that was actually kind of cool, because it seems like we’re almost there ish, like that it could probably exist. I don’t know how, but…

It was also just a melee weapon. It’s like, well, we got all these guns and stuff and then somebody is like, “Well, I’m real strong when I wear this power suit so I can pick up this here hammer, and maybe we could make this here hammer real good at smashing things”. It’s like, what, for demolition? No, no, no. Like giant ants or something. [laughs]

OREN: Yeah. And that’s an interesting example of why you should definitely, if you’re going to go that route, if you’re going to have melee weapons in settings where they probably shouldn’t exist because they have guns or whatever, at least make them interesting.

In Pacific Rim, the rocket punch? Super cool. Extremely silly, would never work, but very cool: rocket punch. And then later it’s like,”Oh, also a sword”. And it’s like, what? A sword, just like a sword? That’s it, it’s not a rocket sword or an electric sword? No, it’s just a sword. And that’s so boring.

WES: That’s so boring. They really should have kept it up and done rocket punch, rocket kick, rocket headbutt! [laughs]

OREN: Right. Or just like the time when they pick up a boat and use it as a baseball bat, that’s very silly, it doesn’t make any sense, but it’s at least kind of cool looking, right? Whereas the sword doesn’t make any sense either. And it’s also boring.

CHRIS: I have to say my favorite scifi guns are guns that act like normal technology in that they fail in weird ways. Like I’ve already talked about the gun in Firefly that just runs out of battery mid scene. But there’s also a gun that’s really silly but it still feels kind of real in The Fifth Element. There’s these mercenaries that the big bad– well, not the big big bad, but Zorg gives them a bunch of guns that have just like way too many features and functions on them. So they’re just not very usable.

[laughter]

CHRIS: And this is what I was talking about actually with the freezing, I wasn’t actually thinking about Dr. Horrible, cause they have a freeze function, but it’s just like, “Yeah, I guess you could do that, but why would you do that instead of just shooting somebody?” and they shoot nets and do all of these things. And when he leaves, he’s actually planning on finishing off these mercenaries. He just doesn’t explain the red button, which apparently is a self-destruct button. [laughter] And so a lot of them end up dying because they don’t understand one feature on their way too many, feature rich unusable guns.

OREN: Yeah, just extremely bad UI there. [laughter] That one’s also just great for movie nerds because that’s the prop that does most of the things it actually does in the movie. Like it doesn’t shoot bullets, but it has a flame thrower in it and it shoots the net and the freeze spray is basically like a fire extinguisher. And this is a very cool practical prop that gets featured in a lot of prop shows.

All right. Well, I think that’ll just about do it for this episode. Thank you everyone for talking with me about scifi weapons. I just like to nerd out about stuff like that sometimes.

Also, in your setting, I’m not going to say lightsabers can’t work, but they’re just very done right now. Star Wars has permeated everything. It’s going to be very hard to make people think that your lightsabers are cool and different. So just keep that in mind.

But for now, if anything we said piqued your interest you can leave a comment on the website at mythcreants.com. Before we go, I want to thank a few of our patrons. First we have Kathy Ferguson, who is a professor of political theory in Star Trek. Next we have Ayman Jaber, he is an urban fantasy writer and a connoisseur of Marvel. And finally we have Danita Rambo, she lives at therambogeeks.com.

We’ll talk to you next week.

If you like what we do, send a few dollars our way through our patreon. Every cent goes into the hoard of gold we lounge on like dragons. just go to patreon.com/mythcreants. [Outro Music]

 

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Comments

  1. Cay Reet

    I just want to point out one thing about ‘bringing a sword to a gunfight’: Guns are ranged weapons for a reason – if the enemy gets too close without being spotted, they’re useless, unless you turn them around and use the butt of the gun to hit someone with. So in a certain setting (a cave where you can’t see far ahead, a space station with tightly-wound corridors), they’re pretty useless. They’re also useless when your hero is in the middle of a group of enemies, because then the chances are higher they’ll shoot each other when trying to shoot the hero.
    It’s all in the way you set the fights up. On the open battlefield and everywhere you have a decent chance to aim before the enemy has you within sword range, they’re more efficient than a sword, of course. Even a lightsaber (there, I said it). If you have a place where there’s simply not enough space to shoot someone before they reach you or when your hero is surrounded by henchmen, guns won’t do any good and the hero’s sword can be very efficient. Not to mention sneaky heroes who get the drop on the enemy with the gun from above or behind…

    • Jeppsson

      How do you mean? Why couldn’t you shoot someone with a gun if that person is like half a meter away from you? They’ll still die…

      • Cay Reet

        You can’t properly aim a gun and get off a shot before someone reaches you if they’re too close by the time you can start the process. If the person stands half a meter from you, you can, of course shoot them, provided they don’t do anything while you aim for them. You can try a lucky shot, but the chances that it’ll kill them is low – unless you hit the head or an important organ, death by gun is rarely immediate, you rather die from the blood loss, so an injured enemy can still maul you with the knife or sword..

        • Jeppsson

          Really? If someone is really close by and I randomly fire a shot at them, chances are it will hit somewhere in the torso area. And even though it will take time for the person to actually DIE, I think it’s pretty unrealistic that they wouldn’t just drop down, but rather keep on fighting and “mauling me with a knife or sword” because they got hit in, say, the liver rather than the heart.

          This isn’t relevant for any story I’ve written, btw. So this isn’t me defending my writing. What you’re saying just sounds unrealistic.

          • Cay Reet

            It depends on what they wear (do they wear body armour?) and how much they are focused on killing you. If the torso is protected, it doesn’t matter whether you fire from afar or from close up, but that’s moving the goalposts. If they can be injured, then the following is true:

            There are some areas in the outskirts of the torso, which you might hit when just generally aiming (especially since other people tend to move) which will not kill immediately and, depending on the amount of adrenaline in the body, people might not even realize they’ve been shot (it happens in real life, too – sometimes people are so high on adrenaline and other chemicals in their body that they don’t realize they’re injured, up to having a knife in their back). A shot wound might not be that big, depending on the kind of tissue it hits, so there might not be severe bleeding. People can continue to live with a bullet in their body for a surprisingly long time. There are even cases of people who have lived for years or even decades after a battle with a bullet lodged somewhere in the torso that wasn’t an organ.

          • Guest

            look up discussions (oh, there’s plenty of them) about ‘stopping power’ in regard to firearms. the basic point relevant here is that simply shooting someone may or may not stop them from continuing to act – which may well mean ‘harming the shooter’. it’s very much a major concern in real life.

          • J-68

            You’re both kind of right: it can take quite a while for someone to die or be incapacitated by a gunshot wound, or a serious knife wound for that matter. Which is why in real life, trained shooters (military and SWAT teams and the like) never shoot an attacker just once, especially at extreme close quarters. They shoot them as many times as it takes for their opponent to fall down and stay down.

  2. Kit

    Surprised there aren’t more bayonets in spec fic, if I’m honest. I’m no weapons expert, so maybe there’s some obvious flaw to them I can’t see, but I’m obsessed with how someone thought to combine the best of both worlds just by tacking a knife onto a gun.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Plus then you can have a character yell “Fix bayonets!” which is one of the most badass phrases in English.

    • Cay Reet

      Bayonets are definitely underrated. Besides, a high-tech gun could equip a bayonet at the press of a button.

      • SunlessNick

        Maybe Finn can have a blastersaber.

        • Bellis

          I’m loving this so much!

    • J-68

      Bayonets were invented when muskets were still inaccurate as hell and took forever to reload, so a soldier needed something to fight with when the enemy inevitably charged their lines and everything turned to melee-combat chaos. But when artillery and rifles became accurate enough to kill beyond a few dozen meters, and quicker to reload, bayonets were rendered obsolete. By the time of the Crimean War and the American Civil War, where tactics were still all about massing your men against the enemy lines specifically to engage in melee combat, artillery fire was so intense that it made accomplishing that task suicidal. The last Confederate charge at the Battle of Gettysburg saw an entire infantry division annihilated by artillery because they were trying to march across open ground for a traditional bayonet charge, and that’s just the most famous example (it happened over and over again). The two World Wars only drove that point home further.

      Bayonets are still issued by some militaries today though, despite being tactically irrelevant, because a bayonet is really just a big knife, which is a useful thing for a soldier to have handy anyway, and it costs literally nothing to manufacture the lug that attaches it to the muzzle of a rifle, so why not?

      • Cay Reet

        I guess in a sci-fi setting with beings that are not human and might not react to a bullet the way humans do, a bayonet might still make a lot of sense – as an additional weapon, as you pointed out, it even still makes sense for modern-day earth.

      • Kit

        Ah, that’s interesting! Though it sounds like the ‘traditional charge’ part was the issue at Gettysburg, not the bayonet itself.

        Wondering now if you could make a penknife/dagger sized bayonet to slap onto a pistol. No clue if the recoil would be an issue, or if it’d be impossible for some other reason – I just wanna see heroes duct tape knives to their guns.

        • J-68

          Yeah, the whole “let’s just march our men straight through an artillery barrage to stab the enemy with knives” idea didn’t help, but the core point is technology changed to make the bayonet too inefficient a weapon to be viable. After WWI, direct charges were led by tanks, not men, and mechanized warfare took over. Body armor was also important in rendering bayonets obsolete, especially given how much more efficient firearms became at the turn of the 20th century.

          For spec-fic purposes though, one could create any number of reasons the sword or bayonet could still be in use: maybe the enemy has a weakness that’s best attacked using such a weapon, a weak spot too small to be hit by a bullet from far away. Or in a sci-fi setting, maybe troops fight with blades because they don’t want gunfire punching holes in walls and causing explosive decompression…explosive decompression is real bad.

    • Bellis

      I don’t remember seeing actual bayonets in scifi but some variation of “sword-gun” seems to be popular. D’Argo in Farscape has a sword that can also shoot, and Mon Calamari in Star Wars have blaster-spears. Not sure if they would stand the test of practicality, but they sure are cool! And they definitely fit with the theme of the respective cultures, similar to the Klingons’ Bat’leths in Star Trek (that are just blades and don’t shoot).

      One advantage of a blade over (regular or scifi) guns is that they can’t run out of ammo or battery, they can’t be incapacitated by an energy dampening field/EMP and possibly not detected by weapons scanners (depending on how you set those up). They also can’t be hacked, which is a concern in some settings, like the RPG FAITH, although the same goes for regular guns as well. But if you’re in a whacky setting where all guns are susceptible to getting hacked, it would be easier to make a bladed weapon than to make a non-hackable gun.

  3. Bunny

    The talk of unwieldy weapons reminds me of an MST3k movie called Laserblast, which, obviously, is about a sci-fi laser blaster that can explode things with lasers and I guess was accidentally left on Earth by these naked stop-motion shell-less turtle aliens (?). It’s just awful weapon design, even by B-movie standards. To use the blaster you have to stick your right arm up to the elbow into a massive tube which has the blasting part on the other end. And I don’t think putting your arm into it actually makes it work, since to fire it you have to pull a lever thing on the outside with your left hand. There’s also no way to adjust the tube, so if you have shorter arms, I guess you’re not able to bend your elbow when you’re wearing it as well as being unable to bend your wrist. And if you have thicker arms, well, I guess you’re just either stuck in the tube or unable to get your arm into it in the first place.

    If you want to aim the laser blaster, you have to hoist it up to eye level while it’s stuck onto your forearm, not to mention how giant and bulky and heavy-looking the actual laser-firing mechanism is. You can’t support the bulky, heavy-looking laser blasting mechanism with your other hand, either, since you need that free to fire the thing. Great design, it makes my arm tired just thinking about it.

    But wait, there’s more! The laser blaster actually has two parts! It won’t fire unless you’re also wearing… a special necklace that looks like a tiny green Dalek on a chain. And that also implants a piece of metal into your chest if it touches your skin for some reason. And it turns you into a zombie. Did I mention that? You turn into a zombie with green skin and pointy teeth and run around blowing up Star Wars billboards (yes, that happened in the movie).

    Anyway, the turtle aliens just use normal gun-looking things that also shoot lasers, so I don’t know what the point even was with the laser blaster in the first place.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      It sounds like the most useful application of this “blaster” as a weapon would be to club someone with it.

    • Alverant

      My interpertation of the weapon is that the handle on the left side is to help when aiming. Remember when he first gets it and it’s only when he’s holding the power stone amulet in his left hand does it fire. Mike says, “Those monkies that stack boxes to get to the bananas, way smarter than this guy.” The tube could be there to keep it from getting snatched out of your hand or to dissipate the recoil. I figured the turtle aliens had their own soldiers and the tech just reacted badly with human beings.

      • Bunny

        You might be right, actually. I just rewatched the scene, and it’s actually kind of ambiguous how it fires, but since it does fire when he hasn’t got his hand on the handle, maybe the trigger is in the tube. When he was dancing around the desert, there was something making a “chunk” sound, and I assumed that was the handle sliding back and forth. Now that I’m watching carefully I don’t actually think it’s moving, although it does look like Billy is making a motion to pull back. It doesn’t help that it’s usually on the opposite side of the blaster from the camera (and it cuts before he fires the thing so they don’t have to animate a bolt coming out).

        Granted, this is also the scene where the Dalek necklace jumps back and forth from being around his neck to in his hand, so who even knows. Certainly doesn’t make the weapon less unwieldy.

  4. Star of Hope

    I find it often annoying that futuristic weapons are often in many science fiction stories Pre-industrial weapons but use energy or better metal, like Powerswords and whatever the weapon the Klingon use, but would suck in most close combat situations.

    The problem is that it would be hard to figure out how a Sci-fi weapon would realistically look like, maybe they would use robots as weapons, or we have created personal shields. It could also be a weapon we never ever thought of conceiving like how people would have never thought of creating guns back then.

    Personally, I would love to see something more compact and more powerful like super Nanintes that can create shields around your body and heal all of your wounds, treat sickness, and even shoot lasers and even connect to the ship’s computer, so basically, you are living tech.

    • E. H.

      That’s very imaginative. I like it! Another idea I’ve run into in old pulp scifi (forget the particular works) is that a proper beam weapon should work more like a flashlight that damages everything the light touches than a gun that fires quick little bursts of energy instead of bullets.

      If the futuristic weapons are only a small improvement over sticking with physical projectiles (i.e. more advanced versions of plain old guns and bombs) the future society probably wouldn’t go to the trouble of manufacturing them.

  5. Alverant

    I’ve just started listening and I thought the line from the MCU was “Odin used every bit of dark matter to bring you here.” not “dark magic”.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      The line is apparently:

      “Oh, you should thank me. With the Bifrost gone how much dark energy did the Allfather have to muster to conjure you here?”

      So make of that what you will.

      • Alverant

        That’s right. Dark energy. The name science has given to the as-yet-not-understood force that is driving universial expansion and the go-to excuse as a power source (replacing zero-point and quantum).

        • SunlessNick

          Hank and Bill still use quantum, but I suppose that’s why Asgard is more advanced.

          (Actually, one thing I do like on that front: visually, the energy shield the linked up Xandarian fighters make in Guardians of the Galaxy does have the right look for a more primitive version of Asgardian forcefields).

  6. Star of Hope

    Regarding Ghostbusters, a franchise idiots insist has been destroyed by Girl power, had in the TV series an Episode with a rich business owner use a weapon that can “kill” ghost. However, our smart guy, Spengler, said that this weapon can’t really kill Ghost as the laws of physics demand that Ghosts are non-corporal entities and can’t be destroyed. This is proven true, as all these Ghosts (including slimer) returned in the form of a Spectral mass and the REAL Ghostbusters ended that menace like REAL Ghostbusters.

    That could be an interesting topic for a Podcast: Non-Corporal entities in spec fic

  7. Dave L

    >anything that contains a high amount of energy in a small space has weapon potential

    So you want to weaponize toddlers? Cool!

  8. Adam Reynolds

    One idea I’ve thought about lately is using guided missiles at the personal level. This would essentially be similar to what aerial fighters have done over the last few decades in which guns have become useless due to the difficulty of hitting an enemy. If this were combined with significantly better armor for soldiers, it would also make sense in that regular bullets would have a hard time hitting both in terms of the actual difficulty of hitting as well as in actually punching through armor once you land a hit.

    • Cay Reet

      I think for a while people would enhance the calibre before they went on and made guided missiles. A bigger calibre can punch through armour a smaller one will not help with. Perhaps, in the end, you will end up with a weapon with an explosive head (which is what a missile is), but it will take a while. Plus, missiles have a heat signature and can be spotted, bullets can’t.

  9. Bellis

    If the direction to make weapons more scifi is to go towards difference in scale (rather than just putting “laser” or “plasma” in front of gun/sword etc), I have two thoughts on that.
    First off, area effects like you talked about are a gread direction to go. Just killing ever more people with one press of a button isn’t, from a storytelling perspective. The real world has already reached levels of mass destruction that go beyond our understanding, so exaggerating that won’t really do anything. In a story the difference between wiping out a village, a city, a planet or a galaxy becomes irrelevant. We only care about the characters we knew or the relationships of characters we knew, so the main character’s village being destroyed might matter because their siblings were all killed. But if the whole galaxy was destroyed it would not really matter more – the emotional impact is about the siblings or characters we knew dying. Of course we know that more people died and a villain who would kill more people indiscriminately is worse, and you might describe more loss and destruction, but after the level of destruction reaches a point that is hard to grasp (say entire cities or continents obliterated), just increasing the size of the bomb won’t really raise the stakes.

    Tbh I barely noticed that Starkiller Base was supposed to be worse than the Death Star because it killed a whole solar system instead of “just” a planet. Especially since we never got to know the different inhabited planets and felt no connection to them before they got threatened. It just felt like another Death Star, yawn. (Unless this is just my bad memory)

    And in Star Wars I’m pretty sure the lack of emotional attachment to all the people who were killed was intentional. It’s not intended to make everyone sob and grieve, it’s a kid-friendly action franchise that’s ultimately supposed to be fun. And not /showing/ individuals suffer, die or grieve too much is a good way to soften the emotional impact of violence. I would just question whether you want that for your story and in what circumstances it’s appropriate (as has been said in other podcasts, it’s inappropriate to make war look like a fun adventure).

    The other direction it could go is smaller, as with nanotech. Using nanotech to invade enemies’ bodies and hurt them from the inside out, like the Borg nanites is definitely a villain thing though, super creepy! Your heroes could have to defend themselves against that and/or explore the moral lines between different uses of nanotech as defense or weapon and why to draw a line where.

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