We Will Use Lasers in the Future
Much of classic, and occasionally modern
, sci-fi is obsessed with the concept that in the future, the predominant weapon will be some form of Ray Gun
. Even if the work is set mere Twenty Minutes into the Future
, laser weapons will be invented or introduced by aliens, scientists, spies or supervillains.
The reasons for this may be manifold.
- In universes set on the softer scale of the Mohs Scale of Science Fiction Hardness, a Hand Wave often explains energy based EVERYTHING is superior to everything older by default, or at least believed to be so until Rock Beats Laser.
- Energy beams technically may pack very high energies. Improving a laser is mostly a matter of finding an adequately powerful -and- compact energy source, the lack of which is the primary obstacle to developing laser weapons in Real Life, while kinetic weapons are far harder to scale up. If such a source is found, laser weapons may simply outclass the impact of a kinetic one.
- From a practical standpoint, energy weapons running off a battery or a reactor have Bottomless Magazines, or, at least, may be recharged expediently in the field between firefights.
- Focused light travels at the speed of light, and even more exotic particle bursts are significantly faster than an actual projectile, eliminating the need for leading the target, wind correction, any form of ballistics and recoil compensation. In Real Life, the US Navy is already working on laser point defence because normal bullet-based CIWS can't track antiship missiles reliably. Now imagine the difficulties doing so at realistic space fighting ranges... (The energy beam is still likely to be an easily dodgeable, Painfully Slow Projectile when portrayed on screen, though.)
- Deflector Shields may exist in the setting that render the target immune to conventional firearms but not energy weapons (The opposite may occur just as often, however, depending on the setting).
- Energy weapons are Family-Friendly Firearms even when in universe they are more generally deadly than kinetic weapons. As such, they may be freely portrayed in children-oriented shows because they either can be set to stun the target or, at the very least, don't leave a messy corpse behind.
This trope has two variants (note that these are not mutually exclusive):
- Ubiquitous Lasers: Ray Guns are everywhere. They may not be the only type of weapon, and kinetic weapons might even still exist, but they are hardly used.
- Overpowered Lasers: Ray Guns may not be ubiquitous, but they trump every other kind of weapon. Perhaps only the rich can afford them, or only the government has the technology. Whatever the case, all other weapon types are considered inferior.
Typical portrayals include Frickin' Laser Beams
and Wave Motion Gun
Contrast Kinetic Weapons Are Just Better
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- In Star Wars, virtually all projectile weapons are some sort of Ray Gun. Lightsabers are also a main focus of the universe. Ancillary materials such as the visual dictionaries explain that this is partly because commonplace body armor works beautifully against kinetic penetrators like bullets (turns out stormtrooper armor isn't completely useless after all). Kinetic weapons do exist (they are referred to as slugthrowers) and they are mostly seen as primitive, but they do have a few advantages over blasters in some situations.
- When the T-800 does some weapon shopping in the first Terminator film, he has to settle for a Uzi nine millimeter instead of the "phased plasma rifle in the 40-watt range" he would have wanted. In the future where he comes from even all the humans seem to use only energy weapons.
- In Dune, the predominant ranged weapons are lasguns. But due to personal deflector shields that generate a fusion reaction when hit with lasers, most soldiers use swords.
- The nature of shields has also made all forms of projectile weapon completely useless, as the shield is tunable to effectively block anything over a specified speed penetrating it. Except on Arrakis, because sandworms really don't like shields.
- Played straight and subverted in Enders Game. The zero-gravity training fights in Battle School require the students to use guns that shoot a beam at other students that freezes their armor in place. the warships at first seem to use a Ray Gun, but the weapon turns out to actually be a laser that on contact propagates a field, decomposing all the matter it touches. This weapon allows Ender to destroy the formic homeworld, by creating such a reaction that consumes the planet.
- The aliens in The Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy generally have ray guns of some type.
- In Slaughterhouse-Five, Billy is killed in 1976 (which, at the time of the book's writing, was the future) by an assassin with a laser gun.
- Lasers are the only types of personal weapons mentioned in Veniss Underground. There might be kinetic weapons in one side-story, but it was really vague.
- Partly averted in The History of the Galaxy. Lasers are used on par with Magnetic Weapons by Mini-Mecha and warships. Handheld weapons, however, are either Magnetic Weapons or old-fashioned guns. Except by Insects, whose drones carry heavy handheld laser emitters. The most common use is on the LDL-55 autonomous walkers, whose primary (and only) weapon is a 200-megawatt laser.
- Battlestar Galactica: Played straight in the original, where both Colonials and Cylons used lasers. Averted in the remake, where nukes and traditional firearms that utilize bullets are used instead.
- Averted in Firefly with characters using traditional firearms, and ship-to-ship combat often involving grappling and boarding. A few laser weapons exist (see Awesome but Impractical) but are a pain to maintain.
- Played with in the Stargate Verse. Most advanced offworld cultures use energy weapons of some form or another, in contrast to the firearms preferred by the SGC. While the latter are usually superior as weapons of war, the Tau'ri did develop a fondness for the versatility of the Goa'uld zat'nik'tel, a weapon that reliably stuns on the first shot and kills on the second. By later episodes it largely replaced the Beretta M9 as their sidearm of choice.
- Energy weapons are also shown to be superior in space combat: the railguns initially used on Tau'ri vessels are good for point defense but prove to be of little use against Wraith capital ships and have no effect whatsoever against Ori motherships, whereas Ori Wave Motion Guns can one-shot a fully shielded Ha'tak and destroy a Daedalus-class with two hits. The Asgard plasma beams fitted to the Odyssey in SG-1: "Unending" are similarly effective against Ori ships and are equally useful against Asuran vessels.
- In Star Trek, both handheld weapons that shoot a beam and large phasers that fire from the ships are used. You can probably count the number of kinetic weapons seen throughout the franchise on one hand. Of course, this is primarily because Star Trek's phasers function both as tools and weapons, being able to heat up objects or cut materials with a relatively high level of precision, and can range from giving a mild stun to completely vaporizing an enemy, and can even be set up as an emergency explosive, all things firearms are incapable of doing.
- Kinetic weapons are very common, and generally seen in use in all lower-tech-level cultures shown. These are at least as likely to be bows and arrows as firearms, however, but there were lots of firearms as well.
- Warhammer 40,000:
- The Imperial Guard is primarily armed with lasguns. The reasoning being that they are very low maintenance seeing as they have no moving parts and the power packs can be recharged practically anywhere (The Imperial Infantryman's Uplifting Primer specifically recommends charging them by leaving them out in the sun instead of sticking them in your campfire: the latter charges them faster but reduces the battery life). It should be noted that the Imperial Guard's lasguns are pretty much the weakest weapon in the setting (hence their fanon slogan of "Defending the galaxy with T-shirts and flashlights"), despite being able to dismember an unarmored human. The more powerful hellguns are harder to come by and usually reserved for stormtrooper units. Lascannons on the other hand, are extremely effective anti-vehicle weapons.
Note that lasguns' weakness is more of a demonstration of how powerful the standard military forces out there are by comparison to rank-and-file guardsmen. In a sub-setting like Necromunda, which concerns itself with urban combat between gangs in a Wretched Hive, the armor and lasguns of the Imperial Guard are extremely powerful compared to the common "stubbers" (conventional firearms). Just the bad luck of the Badass Normals in the Guard to be born into a universe where Bio-Augmentation and Powered Armor are de rigeur and where the basic weapon of at least three other armies (Space Marines, Chaos Space Marines, and Orks) is a full-auto miniature rocket launcher.
- The Tau Empire also arms its basic infantry with energy weapons, but unlike the Imperial Guard they have arguably the deadliest infantry weapons in the setting. The weakest Tau guns fire droplets of superheated plasma that are very accurate at long range and capable of taking out light armored vehicles. Meanwhile, Necron gauss flayers also seem to be energy weapons, and can take out tanks.
- Eldar also use energy based weapons, bright lances are laser weapons which can pierce through the toughest armor, and starcannons which fire plasma.
- Laser weapons in Traveller do greater damage and have more ammunition than slugthrowers, but are considerably more expensive and bulkier. The power packs are usually backpack or at least belt-mounted.
- Eclipse Phase has "laser pulsers", which have a "stun" mode that acts like a flashbang on the target.
- In Paranoia, Troubleshooters are routinely armed with laser pistols, while "slugthrowers" require higher security clearance. (Most citizens aren't cleared for real weapons at all, though some have realized that soft drinks that explode when shaken hard enough are sort of like grenades.)
- BattleTech energy weapons are commonly weapons used by many mechs, they usually come as either Lasers or Particle Projector Cannons. They are very powerful and can blast holes through mechs, but they require cool downs otherwise they would overheat and explode.
- Interestingly, lasers don't deal a tremendous amount of damage compared to other weapon types. Large-caliber autocannon and gauss rifles, in particular, pack a bigger punch than even the biggest lasers, shot for shot, and they generate less heat. However, they have a limited stock of ammunition, and once it's depleted, a gun or missile launcher is worthless. Lasers or PPCs, though, will keep on running throughout a battle.
- Car Wars uses lasers that are relatively expensive and limited in ammunition by requiring "laser batteries"; they tend to be more accurate than ballistic weapons but otherwise unremarkable in terms of weight/size/damage output ratios. Early remarks in the rules regarding lasers being abandoned by the military as ineffective against armor were later justified in that, versus military grade metal armor, standard vehicle mounted lasers are useless - being unable to penetrate a typical tank even after several maximum damage hits. Tanks themselves tend to use large bore kinetic weapons and missiles to engage each other.
- Averted until relatively recently in Halo. 26th century humanity still use bullet weapons, while the Covenant has ship-mounted pulse lasers and arm their ground forces with various plasma weapons. Forerunner Sentinels used smaller lasers. It wasn't until Halo 3 that a human-built handheld laser weapon was introduced: the Spartan Laser, which is Awesome but Impractical since it only has five shots, is difficult to aim, and is tremendously expensive to build.
- The X-Universe series has particle beams of one form or another as by far the most prevalent weapon in the setting, possibly because they're cheaper to operate since you don't have to stock ammunition. The few kinetic weapons are no less effective, however.
- Mass Effect:
- The series is an example of the "overpowered lasers" subtype. Though the vast majority of the weapons in the setting work by using mass effect fields to accelerate slugs to small fractions of the speed of light, warships also carry GARDIAN lasers that are primarily used for point-defense against fighters and missiles. At knife-fight range they also get used to great effect against other warships since they pass right through kinetic barriers. Tacticians in-universe have theorized that a mass-produced directed-energy weapon would force a massive shift in military doctrine since all current defense technology is designed to fend of kinetic weaponsnote .
- The Precursors, Protheans, have such a beam weapon you can use in Mass Effect 3, but it was developed to avoid logistics issues, similar to the Warhammer 40,000 example above. Said weapon relies on Overheating instead of ammo, but while it is very good against armor, it technically doesn't ignore shields, the same as the Collector Assassin heavy weapon based on it seen in Mass Effect 2 (mostly a case of Gameplay and Story Segregation for the sake of Competitive Balance). Both are particle beams, rather than true lasers.
- Though not a true laser, the "magneto-hydrodynamic" weapons (also known as "Thanix" cannons) fire a bright red coherent beam that slices through just about anything in seconds. A perfect example of "overpowered lasers", since they're originally a Reaper technology, and even when they are reverse-engineered by turian and human forces in the second and third games they're fairly rare. A single frigate-grade Thanix Cannon is one of the most costly upgrades in Mass Effect 2 and acts as the Normandy's Infinity+1 Sword, while in Mass Effect 3 a single ship with Thanix munitions can add as much as 20% to a fleet's War Assets rating. Thanix weapons are hybrid energy-kinetic weapons, firing a stream of molten metal that does part of its damage by kinetic force and the other part by thermal action.
- XCOM: Enemy Unknown arms the aliens with plasma weapons to deadly effect. XCOM scientists are eventually able to reverse-engineer the weapons to arm your soldiers, but the intermediary step between ballistic weapons and plasma is lasers, which represent a vast improvement over projectile weapons.
- In the original game, lasers can be research immediately at the beginning, without acquiring a single alien artifact. In a slight subversion, while they are more powerful, more accurate and have better ammunition reserves (i.e. infinite) over projectile weapons, they are also subject to overengineering: the Heavy Laser is universally terrible, compared to the laser rifle (lower accuracy, higher weight, insignificant damage improvement, longer time to shoot, etc).
- Played with somewhat in the expansion XCOM Enemy Within, where MEC units always rely on kinetic weapons in place of the standard laser or plasma weapons. (the Railgun and Particle Cannon respectively)
- Subverted in Fallout: lasers are one of the many weapons the player can acquire, but the Brotherhood of Steel wants to confiscate them as they deem the rest of the world unworthy of using high tech weapons. They're also the subject of significant penalties compared to many other weapon types: in Fallout 1 and 2 they deal good damage but most high end types of armors are extremely resistant to laser damage compared to other weapons of similar damage level. In Fallout 3 and New Vegas, most laser weapons are just pretty weak compared to other weapons.
- In the games, lasers fire very fast, but don't do very much damage, while plasma weapons fire slower (and have a slower projectile speed in 3 and New Vegas), but hit much harder.
- In the Command & Conquer: Tiberian Series, the Brotherhood of Nod have plenty of laser weapons in their arsenal. GDI mostly have the Ion Cannon as a superweapon, and the Scrin have plenty of laser weapons that are a near match to Nod.