Science and Swordplay

Bringing a Sword to a Blaster Fight

Since advanced weapons are available in much science fiction—the famous “ray gun” is iconic—it’s surprising how often a fight comes down to the humble, and archaic, sword.

You’d think this would be a classic case of “brings a knife to a gunfight.”  Why doesn’t the blade-wielding attacker get wiped out immediately by an opponent with, say, advanced automatic weapons?  How does a science fiction setting justify the continued usefulness of swords—and why?

Let’s look at some examples.

Swordsmen of Mars

A Princess of Mars coverEdgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom stories are full of noble heroes engaging in swashbuckling swordfights with the foul villains.  (Those who haven’t read the books may have seen the flawed, but underrated, movie adaptation “John Carter [of Mars]” a few years ago.)  This is despite the fact that most of these warriors are also equipped with guns firing explosive radium bullets.  Why don’t they use their guns?

As the Wikipedia article points out, on Barsoom (Mars) “it is considered unchivalrous to defend with any weapon but the one used in an attack (or a lesser one).”  This allows the good guys to stick to their swords, and also let the bad guys show their unchivalrous villainy by trying to use more advanced weapons.  Since Burroughs’ characters do tend to behave in ways that reflect what we think of as an archaic code of honor, there’s some plausibility to this explanation.  (The first book was published in 1912; there’s been a lot of cultural water under the bridge since then.)

Glory Road

Glory Road coverIn Robert A. Heinlein’s tongue-in-cheek Glory Road (1963), a recently-discharged veteran, whose expertise happens to include fencing, is recruited by “the most beautiful woman in any world” for a mission in one of the “Twenty Universes.”  In that particular universe, the laws of nature are different:  firearms and explosives don’t work.  But blades do.  This gives us a traditional sword-swinging hero (whom Heinlein can then merrily deconstruct throughout the story).

Heinlein also makes the point that a blade can be useful, no matter how advanced your technology, in close-quarters combat; which is (I assume) why today’s soldiers still occasionally use bayonets.

A similar gunpowder-won’t-work-in-this-universe situation is set up by Roger Zelazny in his Chronicles of Amber, where Zelazny’s immortal hero, Corwin, is among other things a master swordsman.  However, in The Guns of Avalon, Corwin solves the problem by finding a universe where there’s a gunpowder analogue that does work where regular firearms do not.  Both Glory Road and Amber make it hard to decide whether we’re reading science fiction or fantasy—which is par for the course where SF swordplay is involved.


Dune coverThe climax of Frank Herbert’s classic Dune (1965)—after atomic explosions, an attack by immense sandworms, and a clash of unbeatable armies—comes down to, you guessed it, a one-on-one fight with blades.  Herbert gives us a combination of reasons to work with.  His characters learn fencing because their personal force shields stop fast-moving projectiles, such as bullets, but are less effective against relatively slower attacks, such as a sword thrust.  This is a clever science-fictional reason to preserve the swordfighting trope.  Cultural factors also enter in.  The final duel specifically occurs because, as in Burroughs, there are formal rules of vendetta or kanly that allow for such single combat.

You can see the Dune swordfights in video adaptations:  the 1984 movie by David Lynch, or a 2000 mini-series on the Sci-Fi (now Syfy) Channel.

Star Wars

Luke and Vader, lightsabers crossedOf course the case with which most of us are familiar is the famous Jedi Knight “lightsaber” in the Star Wars stories.  Knights, of course, have to carry swords, and Lucas has made the lightsaber an iconic emblem of his universe.  What makes a sword-like weapon useful here is that the Jedi Knights can actually use them to deflect, or even redirect, gunfire (“blaster” bolts).  Personally, I’ve always felt that the only way this could possibly work is that precognition allows the Jedi a moment’s unconscious awareness of where and when the next bolt will come.  No one’s reflexes or muscles could possibly be fast enough to intercept something that fast without foreknowledge.

The Attractions of Swordplay

We’ve seen several ways to justify the use of swords in a high-tech science fiction environment.  It’s a separate question why authors and readers enjoy such scenes.

I think one reason is that sword-to-sword combat allows for a personal engagement more effectively than a gun duel.  Much has been said about the depersonalization inherent in the use of long-distance weapons.  In a genuine battle, we may pragmatically seek the most effective means to prevail, whether personal or impersonal.  But in a story, individual characters, and the drama of their interactions, are at the fore.  A person-to-person duel between hero and villain is more viscerally satisfying than wiping out the opponent at a distance.

The sword also has a long history of symbolic and evocative significance.  We noted above, for example, that the use of sword can call up in a reader’s or viewer’s mind a whole chivalric or feudal milieu.  This is merely one of the deliberately archaic tropes Lucas brought back in the original “Star Wars.”

Using a sword also requires more physical skill, strength, and endurance than using a gun. It’s been pointed out that one of the ways the development of firearms changed the nature of war was by enabling lightly-trained recruits to fight competently, without the lifetime’s training needed to make a good swordsman.  If a story wants to show off the physical excellence and expertise of the combatants, a swordfight will do this better than a gunfight.

Of course, pure bare-handed martial-arts combat, or fighting with other melee weapons like staves or maces, can accomplish the same things—which is why we frequently see these, too, making their appearance incongruously in SF contexts.

Flag in Exile swordfight sceneFinally, a swordfight may be more prolonged than a gunfight, because blades can do more gradual damage than bullets and thus allow for longer duels, intensifying the drama.  This isn’t always the case.  In the page on Single-Stroke Battle, TV Tropes observes that “[r]eal sword fights often take only a few seconds or even a fraction of a second, with one solid hit generally being enough to take a man out of the fight (contrast this with Flynning).”  One thinks of the powerful scene toward the end of David Weber’s Flag in Exile where Honor Harrington does in fact cut short a lengthy duel with one blow.  But this is precisely where an author can set up the desired situation to best advantage.

No matter how much futuristic SF may pervade our storytelling, then, we’re not likely to see the humble sword retired any time soon.

The Internet Strikes Back

Occasionally, science fiction can’t avoid being shaped by actual facts.  Usually these are scientific facts, but sometimes economic, social, and even legal factors play a role.  It’s illuminating to look at the recent court decision on “network neutrality,” or “Internet open access,” from a science fictioneer’s point of view.

The question of “net neutrality,” or whether Internet service providers (ISPs) such as telecommunications and cable companies can control what people send and receive over the Internet, has been in play since at least 1998.  The Internet first became accessible to the general public by dial-up service over the public switched telephone network in the mid-1990s (who can remember the once-familiar sound of a dial-up modem connecting?).  Since the telephone system was a common carrier like a railroad or the Postal Service, required to carry anyone’s traffic as long as it didn’t harm the network, there was initially no question of the carriers’ controlling anyone’s Internet communications.  But when people began shifting to “broadband” Internet service over cable systems, which had not traditionally been treated as common carriers, new questions arose.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) tried three times to establish some kind of rules of the road that would prevent ISPs from blocking or altering people’s Internet communications.  Third time lucky:  on June 14, 2016, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for D.C. upheld the FCC’s 2015 “Open Internet Order.”  The decision was published as United States Telecom Association v. FCC, __ F. 3d ___ (D.C. Cir. June 14, 2016) (USTA).


The ISPs like to frame the dispute in terms of the FCC’s “regulating the Internet.”  Actually, it’s almost the reverse.  All the FCC rules do is prevent the ISPs from regulating the Internet—from controlling what individual users can see on the Web and what they say in messages.  It would be more accurate to say that FCC is setting up rules that foster a free market.  This is why the technology industry, except for carriers and their proxies, is generally in favor of net neutrality.

Like many other tech-driven changes explored in science fiction, our ability to use the Internet has far-reaching consequences.  The court observed:  “Over the past two decades, this content has transformed nearly every aspect of our lives, from profound actions like choosing a leader, building a career, and falling in love to more quotidian ones like hailing a cab and watching a movie.”  (p. 26)

This particular change wasn’t often investigated by SF.  You can find early depictions of something like the Internet.  Characters in James H. Schmitz’s 1960s-1970s Federation of the Hub stories use a network presciently dubbed the “ComWeb,” both to communicate and to access information, as one commentator remarked, “on ‘Internet time.’”  The cyberpunk genre deals with world-wide networks—but I don’t recall a story where the neutrality issue played a role.  (On the other hand, I haven’t read all that much cyberpunk.)  Some stories show the Internet “waking up”—Internet as artificial intelligence:  for instance, Spider Robinson’s “Solace” in Callahan’s Legacy, “Webmind” in Robert J. Sawyer’s Wake.  But that’s another matter entirely.  In most of these stories, the network is just there; control over it by the ISPs isn’t an issue.

But, like a science fiction thought-experiment, the net neutrality controversy shows some of the qualities a modern society needs in a communications system.  For example—

  • Transmission integrity—trustworthiness.  If the system arbitrarily changes the information passing through it, it won’t be very useful either for trade or for speech.  As the USTA court said:  “the Commission explained that ‘[u]sers rely on broadband Internet access service to transmit “information of the user’s choosing,” “between or among points specified by the user,”’ without changing the form or content of that information.  2015 Open Internet Order, 30 FCC Rcd. at 5761 ¶ 361 (quoting 47 U.S.C. § 153(50)).”
  • Universality (which implies affordability).  This was a key feature of the original telephone monopoly—the “social contract” under which the Bell System was allowed a legislative monopoly in return for providing universal service at regulated rates.

Much of the battle over net neutrality revolves around visions of the kind of alternate futures that might result from different legal regimes.  The FCC’s rules, which act to clear a space for free action and competition, are designed to ward off certain kinds of problems that could develop in such alternate futures.

First among those problems is the economic dominance that can be gained through gatekeeper control of communications.  A cabal of ISPs that controlled all communications could prevent entry by competitors; “pick winners and losers,” deciding which new companies and products would succeed; and siphon off the profits from such new and innovative enterprises, right down to the level where a company that relies on communications can barely break even.  Thus, although the ISPs fully recover the network’s costs from end users’ payments (Americans pay more for lower speeds than in many developed countries), they also seek to be paid by the “edge providers” whose Web sites we visit, not only for those companies’ own Internet connections but also for the pure privilege of reaching the ISPs’ subscribers—in other words, to be paid three times for the same network.

In a free market, it’s essential to have a common medium in which trade can take place.  We analogize the Internet to the streets and roads of our transportation system; but if someone owned the only road leading to your home, and could bar certain traffic at will (including mail delivery), they’d have you over a barrel.

We do see examples of this kind of economic dominance by a few organizations in SF stories, though not usually in the communications realm.  In Dune, when the Spacing Guild joins the alliance against the Atreides family, the game is up—the Guild has a monopoly on interstellar travel.  In Heinlein’s Friday, the Shipstone company controls (stored) energy—and in Heinlein’s much more concise short story “Let There Be Light,” we see how entrenched interests can prevent disruptive innovation.  In a similar way, a cartel that controlled communications—without neutrality requirements—in our information-centric society could establish an economic oligarchy.  There are some fascinating stories to be written there . . .

It’s an illusion to think that in the absence of all regulation, we would have free independent individuals trading with each other on an equal basis.  What we’d have is warlords fighting over slices of a steadily shrinking pie.  One of the functions of the rule of law is to create a space in which a free market can exist—to establish the preconditions for free interaction by all economic players.  This is true of enforceable contract law in trade (just as similar principles require enforceable traffic laws on the roads).  A novel example of how legal protections create reliable conditions for trade is the notion of setting up well-policed areas where people who buy and sell online can meet to exchange their goods, without having to fear being robbed—an “Exchange Zone for Online Purchases.”

To gain the advantages of the Internet’s “flat distribution model,” in which even a small business can buy and sell worldwide without having to make major capital investments, one must be able to communicate freely and inexpensively.  The USTA court noted that “[a]ccording to the Commission [FCC], such rules encourage broadband deployment because they ‘preserve and facilitate the “virtuous circle” of innovation that has driven the explosive growth of the Internet.’”  (p. 17, citing Verizon, 740 F.3d at 628)

But we also use the Internet to create pathways for speech—a central First Amendment interest.

Some ISPs—Verizon in an earlier case, Alamo Broadband in the USTA proceeding—have argued that their own First Amendment rights forbid any imposition of net neutrality rules.  Their position is that on the networks they control, they are the “speakers”—and they cannot be compelled (as a common carrier) to transmit any speech they don’t want to carry.  In other words, when you use your Verizon Internet account to read the latest article by your favorite columnist, it isn’t the columnist whose speech is protected by law:  it’s Verizon’s.  And when you e-mail your best friend your opinions on the upcoming election, it isn’t you speaking—it’s Verizon who can exercise “editorial control” over how your message comes out at the other end.  According to this argument, if you wrote “I love Obama” (or Trump, or Sanders, or Hitler), the ISP could substitute “I hate . . .”  It’s their speech.

Fortunately, the USTA court declined to accept this argument.  If the ISPs had prevailed, the results would have been ironic.  It would have been imperative to build a government-owned network at once, one that people could use to communicate without interference—because governments are forbidden by the First Amendment from controlling people’s speech.  And by the same token, the ISPs would have been forced to police every Web site they delivered to subscribers, from pornography to political opinions—since they would be the speakers.

This scenario sounds as absurd as some science-fictional extrapolations.  But in a world where tyrannies around the globe are doing their best to exercise exactly such speech control by acting as Internet gatekeepers, it’s not hard to imagine ISPs doing the same thing.  And it’s hard to say which would be worse.


In sum, the FCC and the court have taken the right path in this case.  The alternatives could make extremely interesting ideas for stories.  But unlike the thought-experiments of SF, this is a real-life experiment, with actual consequences.  It’s important that we get it right.