Judging by the summer blockbuster movies, people love intense action and big explosions. Sometimes, though, you want something a little more interesting than just a slightly bigger gun or a moderately louder explosion. You want something different.
Science fiction explores the realm of the possible, so it should be no surprise that, aside from the typical Earth-shattering kabooms, there are plenty of interesting (and dangerous) weapons to be found within the science fiction genre.
Be warned — this list includes spoilers. So if you’re the type (like me) who still has a significant reading list backlogged from to the Golden Age of Science Fiction, continue with caution.
#5. Powered Armor
Robert Heinlein “Starship Troopers” and Joe Haldeman “The Forever War”
Although Heinlein didn’t invent the concept of powered armor, Starship Troopers is one of its most famous occurrences. Powered armor is a form of mecha, protecting the wearer and enhancing his or her physical abilities. You punch, and the powered armor punches, harder. You jump, and the powered armor jumps, higher.
Be careful not to scratch your nose — you might remove your face.
In Starship Troopers, powered armor is the reason for the “mobile” in Mobile Infantry.
A suit isn’t a space suit–although it can serve as one. It is not primarily armor–although the Knights of the Round Table were not armored as well as we are. It isn’t a tank–but a single M.I. private could take on a squadron of those things and knock them off unassisted if anybody was silly enough to put tanks against M.I. A suit is not a ship but it can fly, a little […]
There are a dozen different ways of delivering destruction in impersonal wholesale, via ships and missiles of one sort or another, catastrophes so widespread, so unselective, that the war is over because that nation or planet has ceased to exist. What we do is entirely different. We make war as personal as a punch in the nose.
“Starship Troopers”, Robert Heinlein
A suit of powered armor mimics all your movements, and its sensors enhance all of your natural senses. It must be very natural to move in, right?
On the other hand, in The Forever War, Haldeman gives a more negative take on the concept. People aren’t used to having that kind of strength, and while the powered armor might be nigh-indestructable, human bodies are just as frail and squishy as ever.
During military training on Charon (an inhospitable “collapsar planet” twice as far from the Sun as Pluto), Captain Stott warns his troops:
Now, you didn’t get much in-suit training Earthside. We didn’t want you to get used to using the thing in a friendly environment. The fighting suit is the deadliest personal weapon ever built, and with no weapon it is easier for the user to kill himself through carelessness […]
Remember, semi-logarithmic response: two pounds’ pressure exerts five pounds’ force; three pounds’ gives ten; four pounds’, twenty-three; five pounds’, forty-seven. Most of you can muster up a grip of well over a hundred pounds. Theoretically, you could rip a steel girder in two with that, amplified. Actually, you’d destroy the material of your gloves and, at least on Charon, die very quickly. It’d be a race between decompression and flash-freezing. You’d die no matter which won.
The leg waldos are also dangerous, even though the amplification is less extreme. Until you’re skilled, don’t try to run, or jump. You’re likely to trip, and that means you’re likely to die.
“The Forever War”, Joe Haldeman
Although powered armor technology might find usage in the civilian sector (particularly as replacements for forklifts, cranes, and other heavy machinery), its sci-fi appearances are usually limited to combat. It makes a formidable weapon, so it should be no surprise that the US Army has even researched the possibility of powered exoskeletons.
Stephen Baxter “Ring”
In Stephen Baxter’s novels, the Xeelee are undisputed masters of space, time, gravity, and baryonic matter. Even at the height of human civilization — when humankind exterminated other races in the Milky Way with xenophobic zeal — we were a mere nuisance to the Xeelee.
So what could threaten a race whose reach includes all of space and time, and all normal matter?
How about a race of dark matter aliens?
In Stephen Baxter’s Ring, the Xeelee foresee their defeat and ultimate extinction at the hands of dark matter lifeforms known as the Photino Birds. The Xeelee defy fate by building the most massive structure in the universe — a vast spinning ring of cosmic strings — in order to create an escape hatch into another universe, where the Photino Birds (hopefully) will not follow.
To disrupt the Xeelee plans, the Photino Birds retaliate by hurling entire galaxies at the Ring.
“It seems crazy,” Morrow said. “Who would dare use a thousand-light-year loop of cosmic string as a weapon of war?”
Uvarov grunted. “Isn’t that obvious? The very entities we have come all this way to seek, from whom we hope to obtain shelter — the Xeelee, Morrow; the baryonic lords.”
“But why?” Mark asked. “Why destroy a galaxy like this?”
“In defense,” Uvarov snapped.
“Isn’t that clear too? The Xeelee were masters of the manipulation of spacetime. Their weaponry consisted of these immense structures of spacetime flaws. And the flaws have been used against the weapons of their enemies — like this galaxy.”
There was silence for a moment. Then Morrow said, “Are you insane, Uvarov? You’re saying that this galaxy has been hurled like some rock — deliberately?”
“Why not?” Uvarov replied calmly. “The photino birds are creatures of dark matter — which attracts baryonic matter gravitationally. We can easily imagine some immense dark chariot hauling at this fragile galaxy, hurling it hard through space…
“Think of it. The photino birds must have begun to engineer the deflection of this galaxy’s path many millions of years ago–perhaps they were intent on launching this huge missile at the Ring long before men walked on the Earth. And the Xeelee must have been preparing their encounter, this loop of string, over almost as great a timescale.”
“Ring”, Stephen Baxter
The two great powers of the universe, hurling entire galaxies and gigantic loops of cosmic string at each other. To quote Babylon 5, “giants in the playground”, indeed.
Incidentally, the Ring that the Xeelee built was known to humans as the Great Attractor. In reality, the Great Attractor is a phenomenon so massive that its gravitational effects can be seen on galaxies hundreds of millions of light-years away.
#3. Heptapod B
Ted Chiang “Story of Your Life”
Could the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis be a weapon of mass destruction? In Chiang’s short story, the protagonist is a linguist whose job is to learn the written language of the Heptapods, a mysterious alien species who have come to Earth. Over time, Dr. Banks learns that the Heptapods’ worldview is very different from ours.
The heptapods didn’t write a sentence one semagram at a time; they built it out of strokes irrespective of the individual semagrams. I had seen a similarly high degree of integration before in calligraphic designs, particularly those employing the Arabic alphabet. But those designs had required careful planning by expert calligraphers. No one could lay out such an intricate design at the speed needed for holding a conversation. At least, no human could.
“Story of Your Life”, Ted Chiang
Unlike humans, the Heptapods do not perceive time as sequential. To them, the universe is deterministic — past and future are completely known to them. As a result, they have complete knowledge of the future — but no free will to change the future. Free will is a consequence of the human, sequential view of the universe.
Once the protagonist understands the Heptapod worldview, she is suddenly able to see the universe the same way — she is able to see the future, but at the price of losing her own free will.
How could this be a weapon? In a way, it seems to be the ultimate in “winning hearts and minds.” One might even think it was a diabolical plot by the Heptapods to fundamentally transform the human race — except that it only worked on one person. Besides, the Heptapods had no free will in the matter.
#2. The Little Doctor
Orson Scott Card “Ender’s Game”
Maybe it’s an urban legend, but in the past I’ve heard that when the Manhattan Project prepared for the first test of a nuclear weapon, some of the scientists and engineers wagered on whether the atomic explosion would burn away the Earth’s atmosphere.
In Ender’s Game, humankind has developed a terrifying extrapolation of nuclear weaponry. The Molecular Disruption Device, also known as the MD Device or sometimes just as the Little Doctor, is a weapon that disrupts molecular bonds.
Fire the Little Doctor at an enemy spacecraft, and all of the atoms making up that spacecraft briefly become unbonded. When the field created by the Little Doctor goes away, normal chemistry resumes — but by then, the atoms probably won’t be shaped like an enemy spacecraft anymore.
Armor and shielding are useless — the presence of any matter simply enhances the Little Doctor‘s field and continues the chain reaction. And when the titular Ender Wiggin asks his commanding officer what would happen if it were aimed at a planet… *shudder*
A story with strong Cold War parallels — but a bomb shelter in the backyard won’t save you from the Little Doctor.
Talking Bomb – Robert Heinlein “Starship Troopers”
Near the beginning of the novel, the Terran Federation orders an attack on an alien race known as the Skinnies, who have been providing support to the Federation’s enemies. During the attack, Mobile Infantry trooper Juan Rico inadvertently stumbles into a crowded building. He reacts by tossing the first bomb he can find.
By sheer chance I had done the right thing. This was a special bomb […] [t]he squawking I heard as I threw it was the bomb shouting in skinny talk (free translation): “I’m a thirty-second bomb! I’m a thirty-second bomb! Twenty-nine! … twenty-eight! … twenty-seven!”
It was supposed to frazzle their nerves. Maybe it did; it certainly frazzled mine. Kinder to shoot a man.
“Starship Troopers”, Robert Heinlein
A psychological warfare device that inflicts no (direct) casualties, the unnamed bomb is nonetheless unnerving.
The Billiard Ball – Isaac Asimov “The Billiard Ball”
Physicist James Priss develops a theory for an antigravity field — only to see rival inventor Edward Bloom take the credit. Bloom demonstrates a prototype to a crowd gathered around a billiard table — I’ll call it a pool table. Just to rub it in, Bloom includes Priss in the demonstration, prodding the physicist to toss a billiard ball into the center of the glowing antigravity field. Bloom predicts that the billiard ball will slowly rise against Earth’s gravity.
So what happens? Priss tosses the billiard ball… and Bloom dies instantly from a billiard-ball-sized hole in his chest.
The spectators eventually figure out that within the antigravity field, mass disappears. Anything massless must move at the speed of light, so the harmless billiard ball lobbed into the field instantly became an unstoppable lightspeed projectile.
The antigravity field isn’t just a physics-breaking perpetual motion machine — it’s also a pretty terrifying weapon.
Phasers – Gene Roddenberry “Star Trek”
Conceived more as a tool than a weapon, phasers in Star Trek seem to be the ultimate multitool. They can be set to stun or to kill, modified to fire a wide beam to stun an entire room, overloaded to become a bomb, heat rocks for warmth on an ice planet… and more!
In the later series, it seemed phasers could do anything but order pizza. Thankfully, the rebooted Star Trek movies seem to have reverted to a simple stun/kill weapon.
No word on whether the “vaporize a person so completely that no trace remains, not even a cloud of rapidly expanding plasma” setting was retained.
1. The Tasp – Larry Niven, “Ringworld”
Comedian George Carlin said, “Of all the things you can do, giving someone an orgasm is hardly the worst thing in the world.” Based on the tasp, a device from Niven’s Known Space universe, Carlin might have been wrong.
In the story, a Pierson’s Puppeteer named Nessus is attacked by a Kzin known as Speaker-to-Animals. When Nessus uses the tasp, Speaker-to-Animals is immediately reduced to a mewling kitten of himself.
The puppeteer addressed himself to Speaker-To-Animals. “You understand that I will use the tasp every time you force me to. I will use it if you make me uneasy. If you attempt violence too often, or if you startle me too often, you will soon become dependent on the tasp. Since the tasp is a surgically implanted part of me, you would have to kill me to possess it. And you would still be ignobly bound by the tasp itself.”
“Very astute,” said Speaker. “Brilliantly unorthodox tactics. I will trouble you no more.”
“Tanj! Will somebody tell me what a tasp is?”
Louis’s ignorance seemed to surprise everybody. It was Teela who answered. “It jolts the pleasure center of the brain.”
“From a distance?” Louis hadn’t known that that was even theoretically possible.
“Sure. It does for you just what a touch of current does for a wirehead; but you don’t need to drop a wire into your brain. Usually a tasp is just small enough to aim with one hand.”
“Ringworld”, Larry Niven
The effect of the tasp is highly addictive. Repeated use of the tasp on someone will effectively turn that person into a slave, dependent on the tasp for pleasure in the same way that a drug addict needs the drug. Wireheads are people who have tasp-like implants inserted into their brains. Wireheads may neglect their own bodily needs in favor of the stimulating effect of the tasp.
Who would have thought that pleasure could be a weapon?
There you have it — several slightly out-of-the-ordinary science fiction weapons. What fictional weaponry do you find interesting — or terrifying?