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Space the Nation: Why are guns so rare in genre fiction?

Contributed by
Mar 6, 2018

The headlines:

Gun control is a fantasy. Start a realistic conversation about preventing school massacres
From FANTASY to DECISION TIME for White House on guns
The president's Trumpinator fantasy
Hard To Imagine How Armed Teachers Might Change Schools

The Trope: There is an actual genre trope known to fans as “Fantasy Gun Control.” At first glance, it would seem to have little to do with the kind of gun control the Parkland activists are pushing. Among critics, “Fantasy Gun Control” describes the conceit that knights-'n-ladies fantasy worlds have swords and magic, but not guns. Pedants note that guns existed side by side with swords and spears for centuries, and so many theorize that guns play a bit part in fantasy because swords and such are more dramatic — they involve fighting at close range and the outcome of a non-firearm duel can often be something less than death — an important consideration for authors who like to keep their characters around longer than George Martin does.

Even in futuristic science fiction, however, a strain of “Fantasy Gun Control” is at work: One of the most prevalent innovations in fighting weapons of sci-fi is that they are non-lethal. Sure, there are tasers in our world, but they are both cumbersome and not as reliably harmless or graceful as simply “setting phasers to stun.”

Where to find it: Let’s set aside books in which there is simply no such thing as guns or weapons — both epic fantasy and those utopias and alien worlds that have fundamentally different cultures than the one we grapple with now. And though it's interesting for historical reasons, the Comics Code Authority restriction on weapons is artifice, not artistry. I’m thinking of societies where guns theoretically exist but the absence of guns is a conscious choice — at least on the part of the author, if not the fictional citizens. Societies as foreign and strange to Americans as… Australia. 

Fictionally speaking, there are genre books and series that address their lack of firepower head-on. At point-blank range, you might say. Frank Herbert’s "Holtzman shields” are so powerful that lasers and other blasters would be more dangerous for the user than the target — “lasguns” are rather pointedly considered weapons of the past. Guns are vanishingly rare in Harry Potter’s universe, where they’re described as "a kind of metal wand that Muggles use to kill each other."

Terry Pratchett tweaks the convention in Men at Arms, which introduces Discworld’s only “gonne,” only to destroy and bury it by the book’s end. In Pratchett’s telling, the gonne has almost mystical powers as well as physical ones, bewitching those who hold it: “But the gonne gave you power from outside. You didn’t use it, it used you.” Roland Deschain might agree — his quasi-magical set of pistols in The Dark Tower series set him apart and set him to his fate as Eld’s “last gunslinger.” In Midworld, the guns give Deschain unique power — literally no one else has trained as he has; as portrayed in the movie, he is somewhat surprised to find that our universe is practically run over with the same kind of weapons. (Roland Deschain: Do they have guns? And bullets in your world? Jake Chambers: You’re going to like Earth. A lot.)

The Star Trek episode “A Taste of Armageddon” is largely presumed to be an allegory about nuclear war, but its depiction of an idealized war — in which citizens line up to be disintegrated if a computer simulation says they’ve been “hit” — plays with some of the same notions that undergird the genre of “Fantasy Gun Control” as a whole: There is something dehumanizing, or maybe just gauche, about weapons that allow you to kill someone without getting blood on yourself. That’s the stated purpose for “The Compact's” restriction on weaponry in Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover books.

Even discounting purely utopian visions, an absence of guns is largely depicted as a good thing — a sign of civilizational advance. In Malka Older’s near-future Infomocracy, the gun-disabling “Lumper” device helps set the stage for the hyper-evolution of at-will micro-democracies (voting has more power and appeal when it’s not competing with brute force). The Star Trek episode “Errand of Mercy” (there is always a Star Trek episode!) has the Enterprise crew thinking that the placid culture they’re dealing with is inherently technologically backward—until they find out the planet’s inhabitants are so evolved they don’t even need bodies.

There’s a surprisingly strong tradition of genre predicting that a dearth of guns may well lead to dystopian outcomes, or at least presuming that not having guns is a kind of dystopia itself. Dies the Fire is about a post-apocalyptic society in which neither guns nor most other forms of technology work. The Lord Ruler in Brian Sanderson’s Mistborn series actively suppresses knowledge of gunpowder because he sees it as too equalizing: “The more training-dependent military technology was, the less likely it was that the peasant population would be able to rise up and resist him.” Gun enthusiasts have adopted AMC's martial-arts adventure Into the Badlands as proof of a similar hypothesis, that "without firearms, the world is controlled by the strong." Most depressing of all: A whole subgenre of white nationalist science fiction deals with what would happen if the dreaded government were to possess all the guns — white people would have to rebel and start a race war, of course. That’s the plot of The Turner Diaries (the book that inspired Timothy McVeigh), as well as many NRA ads.

I Give Up: One of the prevailing theories about the lack of guns in medieval-ish fantasy is that guns aren’t “magical” enough for the environment — or that guns are far too close to our own reality to facilitate the suspension of disbelief that genre fiction requires. Indeed, guns are so real to us that “Fantasy Gun Control” also describes the very political moment we’re in. Gun rights extremists argue against a cabal of liberal gun-grabbers whose existence is as illusory as any magician’s conjuring. As for the idea that Trump would have “run in there even if [he] didn't have a weapon”? Pure fan fiction. Then there’s the notion that arming teachers would prevent mass shootings… it’s a dystopian vision whose violent outcome I don’t actually think you need a Nebula Award to imagine.

On the other side, gun control advocates are left to invent a vision of America with fewer guns that feels as distant and delicate as the stars. Or, you know, Canada. 

Thanks to those who answered my Twitter call for help with this column: Quinta Jurecic, scobe, John Scalzi, Mike Boaz, Adam Rogers, Dave Shramek, swolecialist, Greg Jao, and HistorySmith.