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  • Extravagant Fiction Today...Cold Fact Tomorrow
Aug 2010
By Lynn Savage, Features Editor

In the oppressive heat of a summer's day in A.D. 2331, the tinkerer shuffled deliberately across the foyer of the long-abandoned museum he called home. The late-afternoon sun tried to push its way past the polyglass entrance, which had been blackened to obscure the presence of earlier dwellers, though to little avail. Only a dull yellow glow managed to seep around the edges, giving the modestly cavernous space a urine-soaked cast. Despite complaints from aching joints, the tinkerer moved toward the bench on which his latest project waited for completion: a late-22nd-century laser pistol once used in a forgotten war...

Science fiction, whose origins can be found in the carcass of Frankenstein's monster or perhaps as far back as the tales of Gilgamesh, Hercules and Thor, engages readers in all of the hopes and fears that technology may bring. Compared with the history of science fiction, the nonfictional laser devised by Ted Maiman and improved upon by scores of others is a young concept still. But despite fears that lasers would bring about the "death rays" envisioned by early science fiction authors (and some hawkish military contractors), lasers have instead led to a multitude of useful tools and devices.

Amazing Stories #28 featured E.E. "Doc" Smith's "The Skylark of Space" on the cover, but also the debut of Buck Rogers by Philip F. Nowlan.

Published science fiction existed before the 20th century — names like Mary Shelly and Herbert George Wells were well entrenched before the turn of that century. But a few scattered stories did not a genre make, and most casual readers were enamored instead by gothic romances, tales of Victorian excesses, or by stories of Wild West cowboys, Indians and frontiersmen and by crime-solving detectives, knuckle-dusting federal agents, and intrepid policemen.
"Radio has no future. Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible.
X-rays will prove to be a hoax." — William Thomson, Lord Kelvin

Buck, Flash and friends

By the 1920s, an important transition began to take place. New technologies were busting out all over. Automobiles were replacing horses, airplanes were filling the sky, tanks were rumbling across Europe, and telephones were replacing telegraphs. This rash of changes created what Alvin Toffler would later describe as "future shock." Some people adapted easily; others, far less so. But many began to be drawn to new story forms that imaginatively detailed the possible benefits and potential horrors implied by these new technologies and the ones that would surely follow.

The cover of Famous Funnies #4 shows space hero Buck Rogers in fine form, firing his ray gun.

With additional inspiration from the exciting astronomical discoveries of the time — including Edwin Hubble's observation of the expanding universe — pulp magazines and newspaper comics, among others, began showcasing science fiction tales featuring space-hopping heroes, mad scientists, evil emperors from other planets, lady scientists who, nonetheless, were often distressed, and dire monsters willing to detour towards Earth for a snack at the slightest whim.

In the August 1928 issue of the great pulp "Amazing Stories," the first in a wave of these space-happy adventurers appeared: Buck Rogers The Skylark of Space. (While it's true that Buck Rogers debuts in this very same issue, the cover belonged to the Skylark, created by E.E. "Doc" Smith.) One of the hallmarks of these popular spacemen — aside from form-fitting uniforms and helmets that aided aerodynamics rather than breathing — was a handy ray gun with which to thwart mad dictators and hungry monsters. No one really described these guns thoroughly. Most clearly shot projectiles, rather than rays; some were deemed to fire rays of radioactivity, which itself was still a fairly new concept. 

Call them ray guns, zap guns, heat guns, lightning guns, force beams, or even phasers, these visions of futuristic pistols caught the imagination of young readers in particular and, by the 1950s, wars between pint-sized cowboys and Indians in suburban America were taking place beside intergalactic battles that circled UFO-shaped barbecue grills. From the birth of Buck Rogers to Neil Armstrong's first steps on the moon, space adventurers had a solid hold on future-thinking kids everywhere, who pictured themselves to be the next Buck, Flash, Tom Corbett, Major Matt Mason, Adam Strange, Captain Comet, or Space Ranger.

"Science fiction like Star Trek is not only good fun,
but it also serves a serious purpose —
that of expanding the human imagination."
— Stephen Hawking
(foreword to "The Physics of Star Trek," by Lawrence M. Krauss)

Cinéma vérité it ain't

The real laser, as we know, only came around in 1960. Within a short time, Hollywood knew there might be something to the technology. Maybe it could be used for evil? In 1964, James Bond was nearly cleaved in two by a laser nefariously used in Goldfinger by its eponymous villain. That was the first time a functioning laser was seen on the silver screen, but it wasn't nearly the last. Unfortunately, finding even one television or film version of a laser that looks and works like a real one is like looking for a happy ending in a "Twilight Zone" episode. Not a good track record!

In the Star Trek universe, the standard-issue phaser was preceded by the laser pistol, such as the one here, used by Capt. Christopher Pike in "The Cage." (Courtesy of

The main problem with lasers is that you can't see them. They aren't very portable. And laser beams have the annoying tendency to reach their targets before they can blink, never mind move. In fact, lasers make for lousy movie weapons unless they are seriously altered first. Much like how Dorothy's slippers changed from silver to ruby-red to appear more dynamic in Technicolor, Hollywood has consistently lied about the truth of lasers. In the movies, no matter how well the plot holds up otherwise, laser beams tend to be seen, not heard. Heroes shot at by laser weapons have plenty of time to duck. Soldiers packing laser-based Lugers don't drag around massive power packs.


This commando squad from the first "Resident Evil" film needed to go to laser safety training before the mission. (NOTE: Not for the squeamish.)

Then again, given the cinematic experiences provided by "Star Trek," "Star Wars," "Independence Day," "Babylon 5," "Iron Man," Austin Powers and others, fans seem not to care overly much except to nod appreciatively on the rare occasion some filmmaker gets it right.

"There is no physical limit to the amount of raw energy
that can be crammed onto a light beam."
—Michio Kaku, "The Physics of the Impossible"

We come in peace...

With Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, Dr. Evil has put lasers into the thoughts of more moviegoers than anyone else.

Lasers aren't useful only for making unlikely weapons. They also can be used for peaceful activities, like making holograms. But can they make a Star Trek-like "holodeck" or be used to film the remake of Avalon in 20 years? They probably could, but they more likely would be supplanted by high-powered computers using powerful ray-tracing programs to flood a three-dimensional space with the intensity and phase information needed to form lifelike, mobile hologrammatic forms.

No one has claimed so yet, but someone eventually will make the case that the raylike tractor beams used ubiquitously in Star Trek is a form of optical tweezers — heavy duty laser power required, for sure.

As with all technologies, sometimes you just have to be patient.

When it comes to lasers, it seems that science fiction gives way to fantasy. Ultimately, the question becomes, "Were we entertained?" If the answer is yes, then we should forgive the inaccurate depictions and move on. Perhaps, instead, we should reflect on how reality diverges from fiction and use that contemplation as a launching point to new worlds of discovery.

Or, in the end, maybe lasers should be reserved for the next Spielbergian opus, "Metrology in Space"!

The tinkerer checked the power level of the laser pistol's fuel cells. Almost there, he noted, glad that he'd thought to set up a trickle charge that wouldn't be easily detectable by any eager commandant looking for unwarranted energy use in the sector. He adjusted the trigger mechanism and, with slow satisfaction, gave the ancient walnut grip a last polish.

"Sentimental old fool," he castigated himself, though with a boyish inward smile. Still, he knew he'd have to give the weapon up. He had a sale to complete, and no energy of his own to fight the new battle for the city raging now...

(Note: The title of this piece was the opening boast of "Amazing Stories" in April 1926. )

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