Visions of future weapons

We’ve passed Back to the Future Day, the point in time at which Marty McFly is supposed to have journeyed from 1985.  Science fiction loves the themes of time travel and predicting the future with varying degrees of perceptiveness, but it’s fun to speculate about what could be possible.

Weapons illustrate what I’m talking about here.  While the guns of the Back to the Future franchise were contemporary to 1985—or left over from 1885—in a lot of space opera or dystopian futures, we’re treated to gussied up weapons called blasters, phasers, or the like.  Even when the story is long ago, such as the Star Wars films or the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica series, the guns are familiar.  Han Solo’s weapon may be more reliable than mysticism, but it likely derives its admirable qualities from its ancestor (or descendant—long ago, remember), the Mauser C96.

Speculative fiction of all types often disguises present-day concerns in the garb of another time and place.  One minor example of this takes place in an episode of Star Trek:  Deep Space Nine.  In “Return to Grace,” Major Kira explains the differences between a Federation phaser rifle and a Cardassian disruptor.  Substitute AR-15 and AK-47 in there, and the whole thing sounds like the debate heard around gun shops and Internet discussion boards.

Consider Star Trek generally.  The hand weapons went through a variety of forms from the pepper-box pistol of the first pilot to the dust busters of The Next Generation and the slimmer versions that followed.  But none of them have sights, and they’re typically fired from the hip.

This should come as no surprise.  Gene Roddenberry got his start in westerns and cop shows of the 50s and 60s, and his science fiction universe was pitched as Wagon Train to the Stars.  The sheriff in the yellow shirt rides in to clean up the town, either by punching the villain or taking shots with his sidearm that never miss, leaving truth, justice, and the Federation way restored in the end.  Another variation of this theme is found in the series, Firefly, bringing in the good guy who stands up to the evil cattle baron—excuse me, the Alliance.

Is there a point to this nerdfest?  The stories we tell are a window into what we care about in our lives and what we’re limited to or reaching for in our thinking.  Steven Pinker argues in The Better Angels of our Nature that violence is on the decline due to the influence of government and education, but at the same time, we’re reminded in the dystopias of 1984 and Brave New World that these influences can turn to the dark side.

The key point of these stories is to explore what humanity means in a variety of contexts.  Will we still value liberty in the centuries to come?  Will we find ourselves locked into rigid systems that determine our lives for us?

The laser blaster, the phaser, and the modified weapons from our own day express our desire to remain free, to retain control over our own destinies.  They represent our wish to put up a stop sign to forces of conformity and obedience.  As long as we tell stories, this theme will endure.

The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the position of

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