William J. Fanning. Death Rays and the Popular Media, 1876-1939: A Study of Directed Energy Weapons in Fact, Fiction and Film. Jefferson: McFarland, 2015. 280 pp. $35.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-7864-9922-9.
Reviewed by Penelope Hardy (The Johns Hopkins University)
Published on H-War (July, 2016)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air War College)
The death ray has long been a staple of science fiction. Indeed, its most recent iteration is now a Disney property and thus large enough to swallow suns and disintegrate whole planetary systems. With this book, however, military historian William J. Fanning seeks to reclaim the death ray from galaxies far, far away, and to consider it instead within a broader historical background of popular culture and serious journalism here on Earth. Fanning successfully demonstrates that during the period between 1876, when he finds the first modern reports of an energy-based directed weapon, through the Second World War (despite the titular end date), death rays, broadly defined, were reported as mainstream news. This was not (or not only) because of any media tendency to sensationalism, but because they also appeared regularly in statements by military and government leaders, as well as by well-known inventors and some scientists. Death rays were considered a technology that was on the near horizon, if it did not already exist under government wraps. Because every government was reportedly working on them, no major government could comfortably deny working on them. They were considered on the floor of Parliament. Death rays were ubiquitous.
Of course they also appeared in fiction of all types, from the novel to the radio play. But Fanning shows that even these fictional death rays were often based on news reports, rather than pure imagination, and they frequently carried editorial comments attesting to their plausibility, if not their actual existence. He also shows that this death ray fiction was largely set in its own period or the very near future, not a distant and alien one, making it a commentary on the state of military technology and embedding it in the trope of “next war” fears, which ballooned—along with death ray mentions—after 1914.
This book is essentially an extended bibliographical essay, or rather two, as Fanning has divided it into two sections. The first deals with the “historical death ray,” as reported in period nonfiction, be it journalists’ press accounts, statements from official sources, or parliamentary debates. The second addresses death rays in various forms of fiction during the same period. Each section proceeds roughly chronologically, from early accounts, through the interwar years, and into World War Two. The bibliography catalogs the voluminous body of death ray reporting and literature he has collected from the period. While not an exhaustive list—Mikhail Bulgakov’s 1925 The Fatal Eggs (Rokovye Yaitza) is a notable omission—it is still extensive.
Fanning includes sources from large and small presses across the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Australia, and occasionally beyond, including a few from the Soviet Union/Russia and Singapore. While that is an impressive reach, he does not tease apart what “popular culture” means when spread so vastly, nor does he address the differing audiences the publications he cites might have had. That death rays appear in both women’s magazines and those aimed at the technology enthusiast might say something important, but Fanning does not engage it beyond its support for death rays’ ubiquity.
As an example of what is lost in the assumption of monolithic popular culture, Fanning reports several fictional tales from the late 1930s involving the development or use of rays by Africans to counter the Italian invasion of Ethiopia—or even to drive all colonial powers from the continent—and another involving an attempt to overthrow colonial rule in French Indochina. While some of these fit squarely within the “yellow peril” genre of the period, the Ethiopian tales by African American author George S. Schuyler are intriguingly different. Schuyler was an important, and eventually controversial, African American intellectual, sometimes called the “Black H. L. Mencken,” yet Fanning sums him up only as “an African American writer who worked [for] some time for the Pittsburgh Courier” (p. 160). Schuyler’s stories and the other colonial tales differ in important ways from those reflecting fears of intra-European war, and they deserve more in-depth analysis that considers them, and their authors, in their imperial and racial context.
This is not the only place where a further exploration of context might have made this text richer. Consider the developments in science and technology that made the death ray seem so realistic to observers; aside from Fanning’s reductive assertion that military technology is the application of science to warfare, he only rarely examines what is actually going on in both scientific and technological development during this period (and he tends to equate the two). What does the ubiquity of the death ray say about public understanding of science and its conduct, both in terms of actual knowledge of physics and in terms of how and where scientific knowledge was created and applied? Many, if not most, of these stories in the popular press revolve around individual, usually secretive, inventors; even rumors of government possession or interest in death rays most often involve their support for (or suppression of) an isolated inventor. Certainly the supposed lone inventor on the Edison model was a popular, if monocular, image of how invention happened in the late nineteenth century, but in the case of death rays this image appears to have maintained currency into the 1940s, when much actual invention had shifted to teams of professional scientists and engineers working in corporate or government laboratories. This disconnect could tell us much about the public understanding of technological development, or perhaps about nostalgia for the Lone Genius, but Fanning does not explore it.
Of course, one book cannot be all things to all audiences, so perhaps these critiques simply support Fanning’s contention that death rays deserve more attention. This argument is convincing, and whoever chooses to undertake follow-on work will be well served by Fanning’s extensive curatorial effort. In addition to scholars of popular fiction, and especially detective, crime, and science fiction, military historians interested in next war projections and the intersection of popular culture and military concerns will also find it useful. And as the above critiques suggest, scholars of popular culture and of its intersections with race, gender, science, and technology may also find the read fruitful.
. Mikhail Bulgakov, The Fatal Eggs, trans. Hugh Aplin (London: Hesperus, 2003).
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-war.
Penelope Hardy. Review of Fanning, William J., Death Rays and the Popular Media, 1876-1939: A Study of Directed Energy Weapons in Fact, Fiction and Film.
H-War, H-Net Reviews.
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