This post is adapted from something I wrote about non-lethal weapons on my personal blog. I’m sharing it here because I want to get back into the Speculative Fiction Writer’s Guide to War and this post has elements like that series–i.e. technical speculation on the nature of future warfare that will enhance the life of science fiction writers, to which I’ve also added some bits about fantasy worlds.
Probably the most famous non-lethal weapon in all of speculative fiction is the Star Trek phaser, set on stun:
In spite of how easy-to-use this beam weapon is on Star Trek, the reality of human life and life in general is that it occupies a delicate balance of conditions, so that in general it’s easier to kill or seriously wound a living being with a burst of energy than to disable one without harm. As an example of what I mean, you might recall the case of the terrorist attack in Moscow in 2002, when terrorists from Chechnya took over a theater. Around 40 terrorist were holding 850 people hostage.
In the end, the Russians pumped an anesthesia gas into the place, in a quantity they intended to knock people out without killing them. The 40 terrorists zonked out, allowing military and paramilitary forces to rush in and shoot them. However, of the 850 hostages, about 130 were overdosed on the gas and died. That allowed 700 other people to be rescued and you could therefore say this use of a non-lethal weapon was a success. Though it wouldn’t feel that way if you were one of the 130 who died or related to them…
The problem is it’s easy to overdose a person on gas. The amount needed varies based on size, general health, muscle mass, and even unexpected variables such as whether you have red hair. And even people who are not killed by an overdose of anesthesia gas, who simply fall asleep, may suffer from a reaction of vomiting–which can lead them to choking to death on their own emesis. These difficulties show why a team of life-saving professionals administer anesthesia in hospitals. You can’t just administer sleepy gas or serum and walk away. Not if you want to be sure the patient will live.
Other disabling systems have the same problem. Too little of whatever you want to use and the person you intended to stun is still on his feet, ready to hurt you. Too much and you might permanently injure or kill the person you meant to stun. Ultrasonic waves or infrared heat that can disable an opponent at a certain range of energy prove ineffective or overkill at others. And the systems required to set up such “stun” settings for infrared or other beams of energy are not presently something you can just hold in your hand. And the chances are you won’t be able to hold anything like that in your hand anytime soon.
The Star Trek “stun” setting is just fiction. Knocking people out without killing them is a lot harder than that.
Star Wars used carbon freezing to in effect “stun” Han Solo (though Star Wars also shows a stun beam at least once), though if you freeze a person, the real problem comes with thawing him out. Frozen cells rupture, so a thawed person in reality is as good as dead, even if not exactly dead yet. Star Wars offered no real solution to this problem, only hinting at the difficulty by making Han Solo temporarily blind on his release from his imprisonment. But even if you mastered the technology of freezing and rethawing, actual freezing would surely work a lot better in a controlled environment, that say dumping ultra-cold liquid on a battlefield, just like anesthesia works a lot better on a surgical table than in a Moscow theater.
A pretty effective modern system revolves around pepper spray, which is usually good at causing pain and making people drop to the ground, disabled but not killed. This isn’t very practical for military use since its range is so short and it can be cancelled out by chemical protective gear. And a tiny percentage of people can ignore pepper spray anyway.
And in a speculative fiction context, I think you’d have no assurance that the pepper spray we use would work at all on an alien species or fantasy creatures–they might simply get angry. Or hungry for that matter. 🙂
The modern taser gives a better example of how an effective stun system might work. The taser uses electrical pulses to in essence override the nervous system of the person it’s used on. This isn’t practical as a military weapon as of now, because its range is too short. But imagine you could fire a taser rocket that would fly over to an enemy, guiding itself, then delivering the taser charge and keep the shocks going until its owner came to turn it off (and take the enemy prisoner). That might be very effective. And its stunning effect could be tailored to match the species it attacks. Or we could alternatively imagine a self-piloting flying syringe delivering designer anesthetic and then monitoring the patient afterwards to insure correct dosage.
In fact, futuristic science fiction story worlds with robotic weapons incorporating computer systems that would have the ability to individually calculate dosages of anesthesia or amounts of shocking energy and monitor the person who falls afterwards make non-lethal systems suddenly become much more likely. Individually fired flying projectiles, ones that could guide themselves to their target, and that could deliver a precise dose of whatever it took to knock out an opponent, such technology seems to be an inevitable part of the future of weapons.
Note that other futuristic computerized systems are possible, not just the self-guiding flying kind. You could have a door that automatically stuns people who attempt to break in. Or bomblets which drop from the sky, opening up into little flying or even crawling robots, seeking out people to stun. Or self-deploying cages or traps, that capture a person without harming anyone. Or a nanite cloud, which in science fiction are usually portrayed as eating people alive, instead, delivering them just the right amount of anesthesia to put them to sleep.
In a story world like that, taking prisoners could become the standard practice, actually killing people on purpose would be considered wrong and unneeded. Or at least certain science fiction races would see it that way. Others, presumably, would not (some interesting stories could be told about clashes between the different races with differing philosophies on lethality).
In fantasy stories, the use of non-lethal weapons is not generally considered a problem. If people (only those who breathe, though) happen to fall asleep in the field of poppies featured in The Wizard of Oz without any risk of death, that’s just how the magic in the story works. Likewise a user of magic might command an opponent to sleep and it will work without harm to opponents every time.
I think magical traps or cages are also pretty common in fantasy. Such as a room you can enter but cannot escape on your own.
But these kinds of fantasy stories might gain a small edge of realism by importing a few science fiction ideas into the background. So while a fireball or lightning bolt or similar spell that can kill or seriously maim could be sent off without a second thought required of the spell caster, perhaps a spell putting people to sleep or stunning them would require some sort of magical creature to consciously guide and direct the magic, perhaps an imp or a pixie. Or perhaps the casting of non-lethal spells could require more training and complex conjuring than lethal spells. Even if we put aside knocking people unconscious, it certainly seems much more complex to build a room that traps people than simply produce a lot of heat or electricity or similar energy that will kill or maim them.
Crafting magical systems that make non-lethal options more difficult could also have story implications concerning the nature of good and evil. Killing is easier, so evil characters drift to that kind of magic, while good characters struggle with harder, non-lethal spells. A setup like that would provide as a simple acknowledgement of that fact that reliably knocking people out without any risk of killing them is actually pretty difficult.
So, readers of this post, have you used non-lethal weapons in any of your stories? How did your weapons systems work? Or have you read stories that feature these kinds of weapons? Please share in the comments below.