“The Gun Without a Bang” by Robert Sheckley
from Science Fact/Fiction, eds. Farrell, Gage, Pfordresher, Rodrigues
Scott, Foresman and Company, 1974
Originally published in the pages of Galaxy Science Fiction, June 1958
Price I paid: $6.56
Hey so this book doesn’t have any jacket copy! Wild! It kind of makes sense, though, for reasons I’ll get into shortly.
This book of short fiction and nonfiction was recommended by my friend Logan, who is especially fond of it. I decided to take the plunge for lazy Sundays like this one.
(Fact is, I had a novel picked out and half-read for today, but circumstances intervened and I spent a respectable fraction of my projected reading time sitting on the side of the highway in a van without some kind of belt that it needs to work, so here we are.)
Something that turned out to be especially interesting—and Logan probably mentioned it and I forgot—is that this is a textbook, the sort you’d use for a literature class. My copy even has that stamped front page that lists the names of the students to whom the book was issued. For the school year of ’88-’89 this copy belonged to Cynthia Anderson. The next year it was issued to a Lisa Anderson. The trail runs cold after that, but now it’s come down, thirty-one years later, to another Anderson. I can’t help but be delighted by that, even though I have no idea who these people are.
I don’t know what school these folks belonged to, as that information was never filled in. Kind of a drag.
But this book also has DISCUSSION QUESTIONS! I won’t lie, I’m kind of tempted to answer them as part of the review. We’ll see how it goes.
The collection starts with an introduction by Ray Bradbury, and I skipped it this time but I’ll probably come back around and read it later. It appears to be his personal history of the science fiction genre, which is probably interesting, but I was in a hurry.
Rest of the texts are divided into eight sections by theme, the first of which is entitled
INPUT +-×÷ OUTPUT
and between that and some of the stories listed, I’m pretty sure the theme here should be robots and computers and stuff, except that this very first story defies that prediction. It’s a story that’s a bit more broadly about technology, so I reckon I should just expand that theme outward into the realm of techy devices, but whatever, I’m getting pedantic and tedious.
We’re met first with the story “The Gun Without a Bang,” by Robert Sheckley. This is my second Sheckley story, after reviewing “Fool’s Mate” back in 2017. A look back reminds me that I really enjoyed that story, which is nice, because I also really enjoyed today’s story. Enough that I should probably start looking into some novels? Yeah, probably. Recs are welcome!
Hold up, it looks like he wrote a Star Trek: Deep Space Nine tie-in, so I’ve got to grab that one for sure.
This story is one that starts pretty funny and then gets better.
We start off by meeting our main character, Alfred Dixon, and the weapon he’s carrying. The weapon is in fact simply called The Weapon, and it is “the ultimate in personal armament.” Dixon has got opinions on the subject of personal armament. He cites a few examples of European colonial power and believes absolutely that it all boils down to, say, rifles winning out over bows and arrows, which is more than a little reductive and probably at least a little racist, but I get the feeling that Sheckley is taking the piss a little bit and does not believe what this character believes. The feeling intensifies as the story goes on, culminating at last in shouting it from the rooftops.
But now, Dixon has the ultimate handgun. It is, in fact, a disintregator gun. It is perfect in that regard. Dixon is wandering around in a forest on an alien planet, just looking for excuses to use it. He’s attacked by doglike creatures, which he disintegrates instantly, along with big chunks of the forest itself.
The story makes a point of establishing early on that the form factor of the Weapon leaves a bit to be desired. It’s heavy, and it balances poorly. I only mention this because it would be unfair not to.
One of the other problems that he begins to see in the weapon is that it is perhaps too effective. He spends a good deal of the story fighting off wild animals, especially the dog-like creatures and some arboreal annoyances, but the gun merely kills them. As the title says, it doesn’t have a bang, so the other animals never learn that it’s dangerous. It doesn’t scare away dangerous creatures, so they just keep coming.
And that’s what they do! The bulk of the story, which is very short, consists of him vaporizing creatures that just keep coming at him while he makes his way back to the ship. Then he gets back to the ship and accidentally traps one of the dogs in there with him. He disintegrates it but passes out from the exertion of the day, only to awaken to discover that his perfect disintegrator ray has burned a hole right through his spaceship.
In fact, it turns out that while he was out in the forest shooting around at alien dogs and alien monkeys, he was also hitting his own ship, carving it into pieces.
The story then cuts to a year later as a crew comes to investigate why they never received any kind of signal from Dixon. They figure he’s probably dead, a suspicion seemingly confirmed when they discover the neatly-sliced remains of his spaceship. It certainly what I was expecting, a sardonic little ending like that, but lo and behold, there’s a twist! Dixon is still alive!
The crew discovers that he’s built a shelter for himself, as well as a nice stock of bows and arrows, that he credits with effectively keeping the horrible dogs away. But what of the Weapon?
Dixon exclaims that he certainly couldn’t have survived without it, and then pulls it out and begins to use it as a hammer. The end!
The fact that the casual mention of the gun’s weight and heft turned out to be a Chekov’s Gun and also it was about an actual gun is pretty great.
Okay I took a look at the discussion questions for this story and honestly I feel like I already answered them, so I’m gonna skip that idea this time.
I came into the story thinking that Sheckley was going to have something to say about guns, and while the main thing in the story is in fact a gun, I don’t think the story is actually about that. It’s a plot device, standing in for technology, or at least for the concept of technological progress. And it turns out to be a failure! But it’s not really a failure of design so much as its a failure due to unintended consequences, and I think that’s an excellent thing to talk about.
This story is from 1958, and while it’s a bit reductive to say so, I think that the fifties were still pretty solidly in the “whiz bang, technology is great” camp, and the stories that weren’t were typically of the “oh no we lost control of the robot so now we need a different technology to take care of that problem.” Again, reductively speaking, the two science fictions were tales of things working exactly the way they’re supposed to (which is good), or things working the wrong way (which is bad.)
But this is the story of something working exactly the way it’s supposed to, and it’s bad! And more to the point, it’s a device that works the way it was designed to, and it was designed poorly. The story makes it clear that it’s a prototype and that further design changes are needed down the road, but maybe some of those bugs should have been squashed before releasing the gun into the wild? Like, do they not have test ranges?
“Notes for gun design 1.2: add noises.”
It turns out that there’s a real life analogue to this story! Electric cars. Manufacturers have started adding artificial noises to them because they’re too quiet. No engine noises! This is a problem for people who typically rely on engine noises to know that a car is coming like cyclists, pedestrians, and even animals. And it’s probably worth noting that folks were probably really positive about the silent car aspect at first. I don’t know that for sure, to be honest, but I know that if somebody had suggested to me that electric cars would cut down on all the noise in the world, I would have seen that as a positive thing. But it seems I’d be wrong!
And so that’s part of this story too. It’s a device that is dangerous not out of malevolence (although making it a gun does add a sort of tinge to it) or even that much out of incompetence. A silent gun with a huge range and instantaneous effects sure sounds great to me! Unsolvable murders, heck yeah!
I hope that comes across as sarcastic.
But it’s worth hammering home (haha) how important these unintended consequences are. After all, there’s another real life analogue to this story worth investigating, and it’s Global Climate Catastrophe. In fact, if this story had been written in the past twenty years or so, I’d probably have straight up said it’s a story about climate change. It would be missing the part where the creators of the Weapon knew all about all the design flaws and deliberately suppressed anybody from knowing about them, but hey, there’s no perfect allegory, right?
But in the end, and a bit more ambiguosly when it comes to any kind of moral lesson, it’s an unintended consequence in the design that save’s Dixon’s life. In fact, it’s the first design flaw that we learn about, the one that he hopes will be corrected in later iterations of the Weapon. I think that’s what makes it an especially good twist. I didn’t think of that originally, but only now as I’m putting it into words, but yeah, I’m sticking with it. Good job, Mr. Sheckley. This is a story that’s both fun to read in a light-hearted Twilight Zone kind of way, but also has a lot of layers worth examining.
A textbook example of good science fiction.
I’m really looking forward to the rest of this collection! It’s got some science fact stuff in there as well, as you can probably tell from the title, and I’m not sure what I’m going to do about those. I might just skip them. I’m not really schooled in the art of criticizing science fact. To be completely truthful, I nearly failed my college freshman physics class. It was rough.
Anyway, thanks for coming by and hanging out, and I’ll see you next time! Take care.