Humanity has a knack for storytelling. Even before the invention of the written word, oral traditions, often passed down from parent to child, told stories about historical events of the past, or shaped narratives around important lessons to impart. With the advent of written language, these stories had the opportunity to grow in complexity and detail, and eventually, in scope. As our understanding of the world around us grew to encompass the vast expanses of mysterious potential above our heads, so too did our story telling, as parable evolved into fiction, and fiction gave birth to science fiction.
Today, science fiction is such a commonly accepted form of storytelling that we all have a fundamental understanding of how our society perceives our own future: and almost universally, that future involves conflict. Whether you’re watching a low-budget YouTube series or a $200 million summer blockbuster, if it takes place forward in time, we’ve all come to expect either a dystopian wasteland, spaceships traversing the galaxy, or both.
And in nearly every situation, our protagonists had better be armed.
The need for conflict, and the character’s ability to manage it through violence, isn’t necessarily a reflection of how we believe our species will advance, but may be a reflection of who we see ourselves now. A story requires conflict in order to keep your attention, and while there may be loads of people in the Star Wars universe that lead long, dull lives toiling away in the celestial dust bowl that seems to be most of the planets in their galaxy, our narrative scope follows the Skywalker family – because that’s where the interesting stuff happens.
The inclusion of violence through conflict is not, in itself, a commentary on humanity (other than to say we like watching it), but the weapons our heroes use often can be. Prop designers spent countless hours toiling over the weapons we see in the hands of movie protagonists and villains, often producing countless replicas of the same weapon with varying degree of function and detail, in order to ensure the props themselves tell a story. Weathering and color patterns on the materials are meant to give you a sense of realism and time spent – as a grizzled space pirate likely wouldn’t spend much time polishing his pistol, but a prestigious starship captain might.
It’s because of this attention to oft-overlooked detail that many of the weapons employed by iconic heroes deserve a second look, and perhaps a bit of analysis into what those weapons say about the worlds they come from, and how that can be seen as a commentary on the one we live in today.
Han Solo’s BlasTech DL-44 Heavy Blaster
The signature handgun of everyone’s favorite smuggler was actually based off of a Mauser C96 pistol that the prop department just slapped some shiny doodads on, along with things like the Hensoldt Wetzlar Ziel Dialyt Scope plucked from a German K98 sniper rifle. In Star Wars cannon, the pistol packs a powerful punch, and Solo’s decision to remove the barrel-sights to allow him a faster draw is considered an “illegal modification” by the Empire.
The DL-44 is very much the pistol of choice for space cowboys born a long time ago and in a galaxy far, far away – but the empire’s restrictions on modifying the gun adds another important plot point: Han Solo is such a rebel, that even his pistol is breaking the law. Pop culture in the United States had already shifted away from supporting large, powerful governments by the time Star Wars hit theaters, and Solo’s pistol perfectly embodied the rebel mindset Star Wars touted. It screamed outlaw by its very presence, and we Americans do love ourselves an outlaw.
Note: Malcom Reynold’s pistol in “Firefly” is (in this writer’s opinion) a cooler weapon of the same sort, but it clearly drew its inspiration from Solo’s blaster.
Federation Type 1 and Type 2 Phasers
Although commonly compared, the Star Trek and Star Wars universes depict dramatically different views of humanity in space, and that distinction is perhaps best demonstrated through a comparison of the two universe’s “hero” weapons. Unlike Solo, Starfleet captains like Picard and Janeway didn’t have specialized side arms, but instead carried general issue phasers indistinguishable from any others. The Federation in Star Trek is a more organized military organization than the Rebel Alliance in Star Wars, but their choice in weapon actually says more than that.
The Type 1 phaser is small and compact, intended for concealment, while the Type 2 is larger and more powerful – and like the blasters in the Star Wars universe, they are directed energy weapons, but Star Trek devotes a fair amount of exposition over the years to their phaser’s settings – allowing for a number of non-lethal responses to threats before having to increase the power into lethal ranges. This inclusion speaks to a decidedly more optimistic outlook on humanity, government, and human potential: Solo and Picard may both “shoot first” from time to time, but Picard will only stun you if he can.
Just about everything from Starship Troopers
The movie “Starship Troopers,” adapted from a Robert Heinlein novel of the same name, had a monumental prop budget intended to outfit an Earth army with armor and futuristic rifles that could stand up to a giant alien insect threat, but that’s not the end of the story for their gear. Those same rifles, helmets, and body armor components would go on to see use in “Power Rangers,” “Firefly,” and “Planet of the Apes,” to name a few – and that isn’t just because the studios wanted to save money on props.
The armor and weapons employed by props departments in each of these movies and TV shows are intended to show a form of futuristic standardization – whether that’s for the military in Starship Troopers or the soldiers from Firefly’s Alliance. Even long after the Earth “is used up,” our people will still have the need for a large, uniformly trained and equipped military that is capable of taking on threats from giant bugs and handsome cowboy types alike – not unlike the phasers in Star Trek or the Storm Troopers in Star Wars.
So maybe science fiction truly is a way to look toward the future through the scope of our own present beliefs, fears, and passions – as we are unable to find a way to imagine life without the need for a powerful military, or the James Bond/Han Solo types that operate outside of them.
Maybe we can’t imagine such a future, because we’re not capable of creating one. Or maybe these guns are just neat. I suppose we’ll find out sometime in the future.
Feature image courtesy of YouTube