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Science and Swordplay -- by Rick Ellrod

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, book 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 book 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 book 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 duel with lightsabersOf 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 potentially 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.

Posted by Rick Ellrod 8 Oct 2017 at 01:11
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Responses to this blog

Cacollins 9 Oct 2017 at 17:39  
Dodge, parry, riposte.
Or maybe because fencing looks neat, and people think in terms of spectacle, even when writing?
I still fondly remember the scene from Indiana Jones, but I can't argue a live steel fight is just nifty to watch, slowed down enough that you can actually see all the moves. Yeah, real fights two, three seconds unless you're extraordinarily well matched, or neither of you know how to use a sword, but a drawn out clash of steel on steel? Nifty.
Paulpowell 9 Oct 2017 at 18:00  
Didn't get too much out of this article, but it was a light/easy 30-second skim. The reference to Rice Burroughs was well-taken.

'John Carter'...h'mmm...there's an old Hollywood rubric which says that any film with 'Mars' in the title is bound to flop. I think it still largely holds true.

There's a lot more which could be said about swordplay, though. No mention of Dumas?

In general, movie sword-play choreography is rarely accurate. But this is a fiction forum,
Paul Powell, Pool Player

Crease 11 Oct 2017 at 00:03  
It's an interesting exercise to imagine popular characters without their sword. Maya in The Traveler series. Michonne without her katana. Steel+character has synergy.

And yes, Jedi precognition is prevalent in the Star Wars canon. Qui-gon about Anakin (Episode I): He can see things before they happen. That's why he appears to have such quick reflexes. It is a Jedi trait.

To me, lightsabers don't seem to add the same gravitas to a character as steel. Maybe because they're turned off most of the time, reduced to dangling flashlights. Just me?
Trevose 12 Oct 2017 at 03:35  
Yes, I think this is it as you said: "...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."

I find when I read fiction the bigger the bombs the less interesting the story. If it is not personal — intimate, sweaty and in physical contact — it is not much of a fight. Whether it is (to reference movies) the bloody, violent end to The Last of the Mohicans, the final, deep cut in Roy Roy, or the cleverly choreographed death match of Aliens, close contact and personal hatred make for a charming climax.

Well done. As always.
Botanist 14 Oct 2017 at 01:52  
Interesting post, Rick. I've tussled with this question myself. In my far-future universe most people go for the distance weapons, but I justify my assassin's preference for a blade as a weapon of stealth because (a) the beam weapons are noisy, and (b) as they are effectively electrical discharges they can be detected and tracked from a distance.

Jeellis33 22 Oct 2017 at 23:01  
My take: whatever you can justify in your fictional world, go for it. There's some good examples here. The main point is to make it consistent enough with the rules of your world that it doesn't throw the reader out of the story.

Having dabbled in CQC (enough to get my butt kicked alot!), the reality is in CQC, the fight rarely lasts more than about 3 seconds. A writer interested in fight realism will build up the stakes and drama beforehand, which makes the actual fight, albeit short, still compelling. Lee Child's Jack Reacher (the books, not the movie) comes to mind.

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