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This is not a list of the most iconic guns in science fiction. I will neither dissect the feasibility of plasma bullets nor review the vast range of guns throughout history. This article is not the place for discussions about gun control or vivid descriptions of the physical carnage a bullet wound can cause, lives ended more quickly than the echo of a gunshot.

This article ends in questions.

But first, it begins with a joke from Black Panther (2018).

Here’s the setup: our heroes—the new king T’Challa; Okoye, head of T’Challa’s elite guards and my favorite character of the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe; superspy Nakia; and the great inventor Shuri, who more or less Skypes into an action scene (yeeeeeah!)—confront Ulysses Klaue and his henchmen in Busan.

We first meet Ulysses[1], a black market arms dealer, during an early scene in which he playfully shoots a fleeing museum worker in the back of the head. Although his prosthetic arm also functions as a hardcore sonic cannon, Ulysses favors handguns throughout the movie, especially for murder[2]. The scene in Busan is no different. To escape capture by T’Challa, Okoye, Nakia, and (remotely) Shuri, Ulysses, his henchmen, and his henchmen’s portable armory of guns hop into a bunch of black SUVs and kick off a car chase through the busy city streets. The group splits at a fork in the road; T’Challa and Shuri chase two SUVs to the left, while Okoye and Nakia chase the other SUVs to the right.

Okoye from Black Panther

Before long, mid-chase, the henchmen whip out a machine gun and spray Okoye and Nakia’s Vibranium-enforced car with bullets. However, mere bullets cannot so much as scratch the paint on Wakandan tech. With the expression of somebody who has never been less impressed in her life, Okoye says:

“Guns … how primitive.”

She then destroys the SUV with one throw of her Vibranium spear.

I watched Black Panther with friends, and Okoye’s line made us all chuckle, which is quite the feat, since my friends are goths. Like many good jokes, hers works on multiple levels. It’s amusing enough that an over-armed squad of murderers lashed out with their best and did less damage than a sneeze. But go a little deeper, and the joke taps into—and defies—centuries of stereotypes. In a colonial context, the word “primitive” is often weaponized against indigenous peoples globally to denigrate their cultures and technologies and suggest that they are stagnant in time (the Latin root, primus, means “first”). Guns, although known by many adjectives, are seldom called primitive. Rather, guns have been championed as symbols of progress and juxtaposed against “primitive” weapons such as spears.

Spirit of the Frontier

Take, for example, what is arguably the most famous image of Manifest Destiny: a painting called Spirit of the Frontier created by John Gast (1872) as an homage to the westward colonization of the United States, an invasion that displaced and slaughtered millions. In Spirit of the Frontier, a giant woman with white skin and yellow hair marches across a grassy field, draped in a diaphanous toga and smiling serenely. Behind her, to the east, the sky is bright and clear; according to Gant, she heralds the spread of technology and civilization across an otherwise dark country. The giant woman plants telegraph lines in the ground, and a railway sprouts from her footsteps.[3] However, she does not lead the thrust of “progress”; she dutifully follows a man with a shotgun.[4] Before him, cloaked in shadows and fleeing Lady Columbia, are the wild animals—bears, bison—and a family of cowering Natives. The Natives carry weapons, too: a bow and arrow and an ax. But they seem to be no match against the gun.

Perhaps this conflation of certain weapons with progress is why guns seem ubiquitous in so many works of science fiction, stories that often occur in worlds that are distant from ours in time and space. In particular, guns play prominent roles in fictions that consider space to be—in the words of Star Trek—the final frontier. Many of these works are categorized as “space westerns,” which apply common themes from American westerns to futuristic adventures.

A pulse pistol

For example, in the TV series Farscape (1999-2003), astronaut John Crichton zips through a wormhole and crashes a tangle of alien conflicts in the far side of the galaxy. The primary weapons in Farscape are handguns and rifles, and John eventually adopts a futuristic pulse pistol of his own, and by “adopts,” I mean he names the gun “Winona” and probably actually loves it.

Entering solid space western territory, the phasers used by Star Trek’s Federation heroes are energy weapons that take various shapes but generally resemble handguns or rifles. They can kill, stun, and dematerialize targets, and in Star Trek: The Original Series (1966-1969), every phaser fight resembles a light show. As evidenced by the “final frontier” line, Star Trek—which comprises several TV series, movies, comics, and books—is influenced by westerns; Gene Roddenberry initially described the concept as a “Wagon Train to the stars,”[5] referring to a popular western TV series from the fifties and sixties.

Outland (1982), a movie about justice on a mining colony orbiting Jupiter, does not glam up its guns with energy beams. The heroic Marshal O'Niel and the hitman who attempt to kill him all use shotguns. This type of weapon is especially dangerous on Io, where the integrity of the mining base is essential to protect hundreds of people from the moon’s atmosphere (and by that, I mean lack thereof); the movie uses this risk to great effect, at one point demonstrating the fatal results of a stray bullet through a greenhouse wall. Outland is among the most explicitly western space westerns on this list, which is no coincidence. As the director Peter Hyams explained, “I wanted to do a Western. Everybody said, ‘You can’t do a Western; Westerns are dead; nobody will do a Western’. I remember thinking it was weird that this genre that had endured for so long was just gone. But then I woke up and came to the conclusion—obviously after other people—that it was actually alive and well, but in outer space. I wanted to make a film about the frontier.”[6]

And then there’s Firefly (2002-2003), a one-season television show (with an early cancellation often lamented by fans) that was continued in the movie Serenity (2005). Everything from the music to the plots and characters of Firefly/Serenity are influenced by western themes and tropes. The protagonists, who are crew and/or passengers of a transport ship named Serenity, live in a universe where space and distant planets are stand-ins for the American west, and “settlers” are terrorized by “savages.” Serenity’s captain, a former soldier named Mal, is a master marksman who can (and does) shoot a villain between the eyes from across a cargo bay. Unsurprisingly, guns are the primary weapons of most of Serenity’s crew. In fact, the tough-guy mercenary Jayne names his Callahan full-borne auto-lock Vera, and, in an eyebrow-raising exchange with Captain Mal, compares the weapon to a woman—nay—something better than a woman. It is, according to Jayne, “The best damn gun made by man.”[7] However, the good guys aren’t the only groups with guns in the Firefly/Serenity universe. Mal and his pals get into gunfights with bandits and are threatened by gun-wielding law enforcers of the powerful Union of Allied Planets (the Alliance) and Alliance sympathizers. However, there is one group of Firefly/Serenity baddies that virtually never uses guns: the Reavers.

The Serenity poster, with its contrasting weapons

During a panel discussion about Serenity, Joss Whedon was asked about the Reavers. In response, he said, “Every story needs a monster. In the stories of the old west it was the Apaches.”[8] Known as “savages” in Firefly, Reavers are personifications of the most brutal Apache stereotypes (but in space), despite Whedon’s assertion in the same panel discussion that he avoided the racist comparison by making it possible for anyone to potentially be a Reaver. Contrary to Whedon’s belief, the Apache stereotype-inspired depiction of one-dimensional murderous rapist cannibals is racist. If anything, making it possible for anyone to potentially be a Reaver just increases the similarities between the antagonists and Apache peoples, as we traditionally accepted outsiders into our culture. Furthermore, the original Reavers were not “anybody”; they were from one population on an outer planet. Considered too aggressive by the Alliance, the population was drugged. Ninety percent of the victims lapsed into fatal complacency, and the other ten percent transformed into monsters.

Whedon could have depicted Reavers as nuanced humans who were forced to master guns and other tools of death in order to defend their families and culture against the real monsters of the west. Instead, Serenity and Firefly episodes like “Bushwhacked” simply confirm that Reavers are as violent and cruel as their reputation suggests[9].

At one point in Serenity, River Tam, a passenger of Serenity who is both a genius and incredible fighter, takes on a room full of armed Reavers; driven by bloodlust, they charge her with all manner of blades and spears. By the end of the fight, River stands triumphant among a pile of dead “savages,” holding two of their blood-dripping weapons: a sword and a tomahawk.

To be clear, Firefly/Serenity is not the only fandom to make distinctions between “civilized” or “advanced” and “uncivilized” or “primitive” peoples with weapons.

In the intro scene of Star Trek: Into Darkness (2013), Captain Kirk and Doc Bones steal a sacred scroll from a temple on the Class M planet Niburu in order to draw the “Indigenous lifeforms,” as Spock calls them, away from an erupting volcano. The Niburan people wear loincloths and face paint; their temple resembles a Mesoamerican pyramid; they are a tribal people conceived to seem “primitive.” In fact, in an interview, the movie’s costume designer noted, “We tried lots of different things to come up with the right feeling for the natives, and in the end it was draped and dyed fabric. We wanted something that was not too sophisticated, so that it would be very recognizable as a primitive race.”[10] Notably, the “primitive” Niburan people are armed with spears. Whooping, they throw them at Kirk and Bones during the chase scene.

Somehow, the encounter ends with the Niburan people worshiping the starship Enterprise.

Perhaps the most notable “primitive” people in Star Wars are the Ewoks, teddy-bear-looking aliens who also wield spears. Also like the Niburans, the Ewoks tend to worship random protagonists as gods.

According to George Lucas, Ewoks were partially inspired by real people indigenous to California. As Lucas explained in a lawsuit about Ewoks (yes, this happened; in Peston v. 20th Century Fox Canada Ltd., a writer asserted that Lucas had copied the Ewok concept from his script), “… I said it phonetically, it sounded like Ewok, which is very similar to Miwok, which is the Indians that sort of inhabited the area where I live and where my studio is. Matter of fact, there was a Miwok village just outside my office. So I thought that was a nice, nice sort of reverberation of the idea and eventually took the 'I' and one of the 'Os' out and it was Ewok.”

Wicket the Ewok

In the judgment of the great Ewok lawsuit, Judge Mackay notes, “Thus, the general concept of a primitive species, furry creatures with some human characteristics, living in a forest and with primitive weapons including spears and bows and arrows is traceable to the original script.” [11] Notably, the lawsuit was in part decided in Lucas’s favor because many of the allegedly copyrighted Ewok characteristics are so widely considered symbolic of primitive groups, it is possible that two writers could independently apply them to a primitive alien species.

Considering that space westerns are inspired by a historical period of violent colonization, it is no wonder that many are influenced by colonial prejudices, especially those regarding race and culture. It also seems natural that Black Panther, a movie that uses the term “colonist” as a put-down (and rightfully so), highlights how entertaining and creative fight scenes can be when writers think beyond the gun-shaped box (holster?).

That said, Black Panther isn’t the first movie with inventive, futuristic non-gun weapons. There are many. However, the movie demonstrates a clear dichotomy between the advanced non-gun weapons of the protagonists and the primitive guns used by Ulysses and his henchmen, and this dichotomy is exceedingly rare. It shouldn’t be.

This isn’t an argument against the use of guns in fiction. I’d also like to note that I watched every television series and movie discussed in this article[12], which means I enjoyed them (don’t @ me); we are allowed to be critical of media we love. However, this essay is a call for mindfulness. Guns—and all their consequences—are our reality now; if humankind indeed has a long path ahead of us (and I hope we do), guns are primitivus, i.e., of our early history. Is there really no future where we move beyond them? For that matter, why is space travel so often a prerequisite for the use of guns on alien planets? How often do unconscious biases influence the weapon choices in our fiction?

There is also the reality that guns have been and are currently being used as tools to terrorize and slaughter marginalized peoples globally. For example, in the United States, Black and Native American people are killed by police (usually by guns) far more often than white people. This is an extension of the use of guns in early American history to maintain systems of slavery and genocide. Yet depictions of gun violence in space westerns and other science fiction works often do not acknowledge this history or worse. For example, in Firefly/Serenity, mowing down groups of space Apaches with bullets is entirely justified because Reavers are actually irredeemable, torture-loving, murderous cannibal savages.

So what do guns really symbolize?

Certainly not the light.

By challenging the assumption that guns are progress, great things can happen. After all, when Obi-Wan Kenobi said, “An elegant weapon for a more civilized age,” he wasn’t referring to a blaster.

He was talking about a lightsaber.

That said, simply replacing guns with different types of advanced weaponry does not challenge all the lies of colonialism. In Spirit of the Frontier, if the shotgun-wielding settler had been carrying a sword (or energy sword) instead of a gun, the underlying message—that progress is the death of Indigenous peoples by the weapons of Manifest Destiny soldiers—would be unchanged. I look forward to reading more works of science fiction, especially space westerns, that can envision a future where tools of death, regardless of their shape or function, are not considered indicative of the “advanced” state of a culture. Where the concept that technology can be “primitive” or “civilized” is portrayed realistically, that is, as a potential ideological weapon used to characterize groups of people as lesser.

Because that kind of characterization? How colonial.

[1] Technically, Ulysses appeared in previous Marvel movies, but—to the credit of Black Panther—you don’t have to be familiar with the whole Marvel cinematic universe to appreciate his role.

[2] Poetically, Ulysses is killed by a gun.

[3] She also holds a book that’s simply titled School Book.

[4] This painting is also a fine reflection of the gender politics of guns in Western/colonial contexts.

[5] Nichols, Nichelle. Beyond Uhura: Star Trek and Other Memories, New York, Putnam. 1994.

[6] https://www.empireonline.com/movies/features/peter-hyams-film-film/

[7] From the episode "Our Mrs. Reynolds."

[8] As reported by Sam Arroyo, https://www.cbr.com/joss-whedon-panel-wondercon-full-report/.

[9] In Firefly, Reavers are introduced by Serenity’s first mate Zoë in a frequently quoted line: “If they take the ship, they'll rape us to death, eat our flesh, and sew our skins into their clothing. And if we're very, very lucky, they'll do it in that order." Indeed, the episode “Bushwhacked” shows that this is exactly how the Reavers treat innocent, space-settling families.

[10] https://www.theguardian.com/film/2013/may/11/star-trek-into-darkness-insiders-guide

[11] https://h2o.law.harvard.edu/collages/41425

[12] This is also why I do not discuss the recent space westerns Westworld (2016-ongoing) and Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018). I haven’t watched them.



Darcie Little Badger is a Lipan Apache scientist and writer. After studying gene expression in toxin-producing phytoplankton, she received a PhD from Texas A&M University. Her short fiction has appeared in several publications, including Fantasy Magazine, Mythic Delirium, and Love Beyond Body, Space, and Time. She also contributed to Moonshot: The Indigenous Comics Collection Volume 2. Darcie tweets as @ShiningComic. For her complete bibliography, visit darcielittlebadger.wordpress.com/my-short-stories.
One comment on “Guns. How Primitive.”
Jana Jansen

Obi-Wan Kenobi's line about "an elegant weapon for a more civilised age" always makes me uncomfortable. Killing people isn't civilised, and invoking elegance seems frivolous in this context. I like Star Trek phasers. They can be used to stun people, and they don't look like guns, they can only be inserted into a casing that makes them look like guns - small, unobtrusive ones which aren't well suited for macho power fantasies.

I never realised that the Reavers are space savages. Ugh. I disliked the whole idea before, but this makes it worse.

 

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