Making sure your “peaceful” explorers have enough firepower to survive the dangers of space is important. After all, if it’s one thing every science fiction story has shown us is that first contact always goes wrong so you want to be armed with only the latest in military technology. Lasers and shields still won’t ensure your survivability as well as being the protagonist, but it can’t hurt.
My Honest Thoughts on Science Fiction Weapons
When it comes to designing science fiction weapons, there is only one question a writer should ask themselves. Am I writing soft science fiction or hard science fiction? If a writer is creating soft sci-fi, then the best advice I can give is go nuts and make something crazy and creative. If you are writing hard sci-fi then odds are you already know way more about science fiction weapons than me anyway.
For those who don’t know what either of those are, softness and hardness in science fiction refers to how the story handles the science part. Soft science fiction is called that because the science is soft and undefined. Soft science fiction is usually more focused on the fiction rather than the science. Hard science fiction is more focused on the science than the fiction. For example, The Martian is an example of fairly hard science fiction since most of its tech is realistic. Star Wars is very soft science fiction since it uses space magic. Star Trek is more in the center. It uses a lot of technology that is plausible, but also has a lot of stuff that runs off contrivium. How much time spent explaining and justifying the technology really depends the ‘hardness’ of the story’s science part. In general, hard science fiction fans will expect a certain level of detail in regards to the tech. Likewise, soft science fiction fans will tend to fall asleep during long explanations of the inner workings of the starship’s hyperdrive.
So allow me to admit to my own personal bias and state that I personally find most hard science fiction to be dreadfully dull. Hard sci-fi fans, please don’t take offense and beat me to death with your PHDs. There is nothing wrong with liking hard science fiction, it just isn’t for me. Blame my humanities major. I find stories about people to be more interesting than accurate explanations about how the Terran Combine League of Overly Long Titles Alliance Force builds their hyper gauss array weapon. That said, even in soft science fiction, I always appreciate when an author thinks through their weapons.
It’s not just the science. I like it when authors find new ways to use weapons in their setting. Allow me to, yet again, offer Dune (yes I know. I am a Dune fanboy) as a good example of this. In Dune, personal deflector shields made ballistic weapons useless. Laser weapons made most combat vehicles useless as lasers could easily cut up armored vehicles. Laser weapons would chain react when used against shields and destroy both the shielded soldier and the laser armed soldier. This rendered lasers useless against shields other than a suicide attack. The only way to break the shield is the slow blade i.e. stabbing the enemy to death with a good old fashion knife. The shield could be impervious to blades too, but it would stop air and the shield user would suffocate. This interplay of relationships made the setting stand out.
Another thing to keep in mind is the evolution of weapons. Reading up on World War II is interesting because of the constant advancement of weapons technology during that time period. The weapons of war grew in complexity and power, sometimes in terrifying leaps. Springing a new weapon upon the protagonist is a great mid story shakeup. Arm races can make for a great background prop and can add to a story’s sense of progression.
Something else to consider is the old showing rather than telling trick. I know, every writer has heard that a thousand times, but I think a lot of hard science fiction writers could stand to take this into consideration during one of the early revision passes. Explaining how laser beats metal, but metal beats anti laser armor is not as fun as just showing it. Don’t just talk tactics, give the reader a taste of it. Let the characters feel the heat off the laser barrel. Have them burn their fingers trying to remove the plasma carriage to reload it. Describe the horror of watching another sapient creature explode into cauterized chunks. Make the smell linger. Contrast the sterile, academic knowledge of science fiction weapons with the brutal reality of warfare. Have it hit home. Most of all, I highly encourage writers of all media to not flinch when it comes to showing the horrible effect weapons have on humans. Try not revel in it like a slasher film, but show violence for what it is and the toll it demands in both blood and sorrow.