AMC – Precogs and Ray Guns Have No Place In True SciFi

minority-report-560When I started writing these columns for AMC, the first thing I did was to define terms.  In particular, we talked about the difference between fantasy and science fiction.  While both types of films break the rules of our world, one explains it by magic, the other by science.  The only catch is that some science fiction uses science as if it were magic and breaks the laws of physics in ways that aren’t and will never be possible.  In literature, we’ll sometimes call this science fantasy.  Why? Because it looks like science fiction but is pure fantasy.

Today, I take a look at some common tropes of Science Fantasy films.  These are ideas that filmmakers use when they want to slide a little bit of magic into their films but pretend that they are still science based.

You can read it at AMC’s SciFi Scanner.

At the moment, I am amused because the very first comment was “Malarkey.”  I think someone is sad because I took his ray gun away.

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6 thoughts on “AMC – Precogs and Ray Guns Have No Place In True SciFi”

  1. Mary,

    Regarding my Evil Robot Monkey sign language oversight in your Precogs and Ray Guns column . . . my bad! (I’m posting here as well to make sure you read this 🙂 )

    When I listened to your reading of Evil Robot Monkey last week (from your website) I must have thought I heard that Vern “sighed” ‘You okay?’, not “signed”. And and when his “hands danced” in the next line, a subtle and beautiful image for sign language, since I thought he “sighed” I pictured him wringing his hands in some nervous way.

    Guess I should stick to READING good science fiction from now on!

    Your Hugo nomination is well deserved on this one. No need to change a thing! 🙂

    John Rea-Hedrick (aka not “Rhea-Hendricks” per your reply on the forum)

    Thanks again!

    1. Thanks, John. I’ve no idea where those extra letters came from in your name. You are still free to blame me for the error, and say that my enunciation was poor, but thank you for blaming yourself instead. That’s very kind of you. I’m glad you liked the story.

  2. I’m working on a first novel involving time travel. While time travel is significant to the story, it is not what the story is about. In light of your recent, very thoughtful, article on “True SciFi”, I am curious to know if you consider time travel, strictly speaking, to be an element of science fiction or of fantasy?

    I’ve never really considered the book I’m writing to be SF, but your article has pushed me to look closely at it so I can say for certain into which genre it falls.

    Can a story be both science fiction and fantasy?

    My story unfolds across two connected worlds involving time travel, but it is not about time travel at all. In my story, time travel is not a developed technology it is a natural aspect of one of the two worlds. Aside from this rather “magical” element, the rest of that world is quite ordinary, just very different. This new world also is not set in some distant future, but exists in a kind of “time out of time” yet it intersects with the world we inhabit in both its past and present.

    This may be more information than you need to answer my question, but I keep seeing my story as standing between the two genres and after reading your article I feel like I should know where to put it. I was hoping you might be able to help me push it one way or the other.


    1. Well… that’s a tough question, which is part of why I took so long to respond. My feeling on genres — which will sound at odds with what I was saying in the article — is that the labels are really only important because it allows you to talk about your work and thus market it successfully.

      That’s the reason I quoted Orson Scott Card, because his definition is the one that most people use. Trees = Fantasy, Rivets = SF.

      The problem is when someone ignores the rules of the world they are working in, whether that’s in Fantasy or SF. Take Time Travel. Time travel is theoretically possible, but involves a lot of advances that likely won’t occur in our lifetimes. Now, I completely ignored that “in our lifetimes” bit in a time travel story I wrote recently. For the story I wanted to tell, I needed it to be near future, so I looked at what would need to be invented between here and then and tried to keep my world focus narrow enough that you didn’t see all the loose ends. While, I made sure that it was tremendously expensive to do and implied that it took enormous power what I really did was rewrite the laws of physics for that world so that time travel wouldn’t take the power of an entire galaxy.

      That or someone had invented a Mr. Fusion…

      Does that help?

  3. Yes, thank you!

    I would definitely put my book in the Fantasy realm – no rivets! 😉 Furthermore, since the means of travel to different time periods in “our world” originates as a natural, organic phenomenon on another world, I can avoid the SF need to make it scientifically plausible. (Not that anyone should avoid a genre because it’s too hard to do right!) The believability of time travel in my story (hopefully) will come from the way I craft it within the world I am building.

    I first became enamored with time travel adventures as a kid when I read The Green Futures of Tycho by William Sleator. I’d love to read your new time travel story when you’re ready to share!

    Thanks again!

    John Rea-Hedrick

  4. Christopher Phoenix

    Hello, Mary Kowal- I have read your article titled, “Precogs and Ray Guns Have No Place in Science Fiction”, and while I agree that precognition and Godzilla defy the laws of physics, I disagree strongly that ray-guns, or directed energy weapons, have no place in real science fiction. The way ray-guns are depicted in film is rather misleading, but realistic directed energy weapons certainly belong in science fiction.

    The military has been pursuing directed energy weapons for a long time. Chemically powered lasers can produce beams with several megawatts of power, more than enough to take down a missile. Solid state lasers are pushing ever closer to 100 kilowatts of power, at which point they will be powerful enough to be “militarily useful”. Such lasers can shoot down UAV’s and planes, stop tanks by spot-welding things that shouldn’t be, and defend troops by destroying missiles and incoming mortar shells. Future lasers will be mounted on helicopters and aircraft, drawing power from the planes engines and frying targets with intense bursts of coherent light. In the far future, the “destructor beam” will definitely be in our army’s arsenal, even if many technical challenges remain- such as overcoming blooming, finding a stable lasing material, and storing enough power in a portable battery to carry around the battlefield. Ten kilowatts is already a lot of power, quite capable of cutting a person’s arm off.

    What about ray-guns and laser rifles? Surely those must be fantasy? No, a directed energy weapon can certainly be made on a scale a human can carry. It is far in the future, but someday advances in lasers and battery technology might enable the creation of laser rifles.

    Microwave, infrared, and visible light cause simple radiative heating. Longer frequency radio waves and microwaves cause thermal agitation and rotation of molecules, penetrating and heating the material exposed the the radiation from the inside out. Infrared and visible laser light directly heat the target. A narrow beam of such radiation can burn a hole through a human body using a only a few tens of kilojoules of energy. Contrary to popular opinion, lasers do not cauterize wounds- the beam boils water in human flesh, causing it to explode into steam and rip flesh apart. A hand-held microwave weapon can literally cook someone from the inside out, boiling their bodily fluids until they explode.

    Ironically, real DEWs are far more effective (and terrifying!!) than the energy weapons seen in most SF shows. Ionization, burning material in the air, and rayleigh scattering will cause slightly visible trails, but the flashes of plasma at a target and sunlight will make them a lot harder to see. Infrared lasers have invisible beams, other than any ionization in the air. Visible light lasers will glow slightly, making them visible at night- but probably not in full sunlight. Anyone hit by a ray-gun will die a very messy death. A continuous wave laser can be used like a long-range flamethrower to scorch skin, causing lethal burns. A tightly focused beam can burn straight through a human. A microwave weapon can explode a human form the inside out, or cook their insides until they roast. High levels of heating can break down proteins, so human flesh might simply liquify.

    Why isn’t someone working to create a handheld ray-gun? First off, no modern portable power source can supply enough energy fast enough to power a ray-gun blast. Second, modern day lasers are very inefficient, converting only a small fraction of the input energy to light- the rest shows up as heat, destroying the laser. To solve these issues, more efficient and stable lasers are needed- someday diode lasers might be sufficient. Modern day battery tech is a severe bottleneck. We can’t even store energy at the same density of TNT, let alone gasoline. Nano-batteries might solve this problem. Super-conducting coils are another concept. In the far future, excited atomic nuclei (like the hafnium bomb) might be used. Whoever invents a portable power pack that can store enough energy to power a ray-gun will be the next Edison- a whole host of technologies are limited by battery technology. The energy demands of a ray-gun are not as ridiculous as some would have you believe. A tank of gasoline or bowl of soup could power a lethal laser, if the energy could be extracted. Pulses of a few kilojoules will penetrate wood, metal, or flesh. By comparison, a rifle bullet carries about one or two kilojoules, driven by the deflagration of gunpowder containing six kilojoules or so.

    Bottom line is, realistic directed energy weapons belong in SF. Handheld ray-guns included. There is no law of physics that prohibits ray-guns, and in the next century, some form of handheld ray-gun might be invented. Time travel, on the other hand, opens up a whole new can of worms, and widespread time travel is a whole lot closer to fantasy than a ray-gun.

    I took it a bit personally- I recently got finished designing a semi-plausible laser rifle for a military SF story a friend of mine was writing named Empty Places, posted online at the blog Future War Stories.

    Here are some links to good web sites on hard science fiction laser weapons: This web site was created by an actual physicist, and is gradually filling up with crunchy hard SF goodness. There is some technical language on some pages, but this is a very usable resource designed to aid SF writers who want realistic energy weapons. The ever-useful Atomic Rockets web site posted Dr. John Schilling’s discussion of laser sidearms. Dr. John Schilling is another actual physicist, and he does not believe lasers are as far-fetched as most believe. He suggests a pulsed laser technique to create steam explosions and blast deep into a human body with about a kilojoule of energy or so.

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