A Little Too Close to Home: When Fantasy Becomes Reality

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“Spare us all word of the weapons, their force and range,
The long numbers that rocket the mind.”
From “Advice to a Prophet” by Richard Wilbur

I mostly follow other writers on Twitter, people I’ve never met or generally even heard of but who are the most supportive community you could ever hope to be a part of. There are also a few people I follow that I do actually know.

One of them, a friend and former non-writing colleague who is obsessed with things like renewable energy, electric cars and advances in technology, recently tweeted a link to a Gizmodo article with the headline “China claims to have a real-deal laser gun that inflicts ‘instant carbonisation’ of human skin”. His accompanying comment was, “Sounds too good to be true. The ability to put such an effective laser in such a small form and to be able to fire it, at least multiple times, have to be questioned until we see it.” A picture of the laser assault rifle, which looks a lot like those brick mobile phones from the 1980s except with a scope attached, was also included.

I’d seen a less descriptive headline and the same image on another website and scrolled past it earlier that same week. But the additional information in my friend’s tweet piqued my interest. I responded to him, “This sounds a lot like the storyline of a certain debut novel of mine…” He replied, “Ha ha yes.”

So I opened the article and started reading. “As the US prepares for war in space, China’s bringing the space war home. Its ZKZM-500 laser assault rifle is reportedly capable of hitting a target from a kilometre away, igniting flammable objects, and burning through human skin. And it’s ready for production, the researchers behind the project claim.

“A weapon that fires a destructive laser beam has been a dream of military researchers for decades. The US military has recently had some luck with huge laser-firing cannons that are intended to be mounted on ships or trucks and can take down a drone by burning through its body. But effective laser rifles for use by individual soldiers have been stuck in the land of fantasy.

“The South China Morning Post, however, spoke with researchers as the Xian Institute of Optics and Precision Mechanics (at the Chinese Academy of Sciences)…” This was the point at which I had my “Holy fuck!” moment. I actually said, “Holy fuck!” out loud. Then I went into my files, opened the final version of my debut novel, Enemies Closer, and confirmed what I had suspected. The story that I’d started writing in 2004, finished in 2007 and published in 2012 with the outlandish plot that (spoiler alert) a prototype for a laser assault rifle had been developed by none other than the Chinese Academy of Sciences. (You can read the prologue here and see it for yourself – the organisation, at least; the plot reveal obviously comes much later in the book.)

I’m not vain enough to think that anyone at the Chinese Academy of Sciences had actually read my book and been inspired by it. Considering the complex nature of the technology of lasers, the research necessary to get them to this stage of weapons development has no doubt been going on since long before I ever had this idea for the story. Still, it is freaky weird coincidental how many similarities there are between the article and my novel.

But I am vain enough to be proud of how much I got right. I did an awful lot of research into lasers (as much as a lay person could understand, at any rate) so I knew back in 2004 that extremely large lasers designed for mounting on ships were a reality. I knew that China was heavily involved in research and development of technology. Alluding to this fact, at the start of Enemies Closer, I included a quote from George J Tenet, the former Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, from a publication entitled The Intelligence Community’s Damage Assessment on the Implications of China’s Acquisition of US Nuclear Weapons Information on the Development of Future Chinese Weapons: “China’s technical advances have been made on the basis of classified and unclassified information derived from espionage, contact with US and other countries’ scientists, conferences and publications, unauthorized media disclosures, declassified US weapons information, and Chinese indigenous development. The relative contribution of each cannot be determined.” [Emphasis mine.] And obviously I did enough research to know that it would be the Chinese Academy of Sciences who would be overseeing this development. Yay me!

However, my celebrations were tempered by the fact that the weapon I imagined, the weapon now being described as a reality ready to go into production, is utterly altogether too horrible to envision being unleashed on the world. According to the article, “the technology is expected to be restricted for military and police use only. Even that level of use could face pushback from other countries. As the Morning Post points out, the United Nations’ Protocol on Blinding Laser Weapons came into force in 1998 and has been signed by 108 nations around the world.” Hmmm, I’m sure China will take that fact into consideration in making its final decision on what to do (or maybe not).

In my book, the Chinese researcher who successfully develops the laser technology deliberately but covertly blows up three laboratories she works in and then tells the authorities that it’s highly unstable and unable to be harnessed in order to prevent it going into mass production. As she puts it later on when the technology is discovered to be working perfectly, she didn’t want “to be known as a destroyer of worlds”. I suspect no such real life equivalent currently exists.

It’s all just a little too close to home for comfort. One of the reasons we write stories like this (or at least why I did) with heinous villains and terrifying weapons is that it’s a way to control them. They exist only on the pages of the book and when we scare ourselves to the point of overload, we can simply close the cover and return to the real world. But at the moment, the real world and the fictional world I created are dissolving into one and the same thing.

When the Las Vegas shooting occurred, I had a moral crisis about having written a book focused so much on weapons without ever considering whether I was glamorising them. Now I’m having another. In 2012, I was so proud of this book. I published it. I became – and nobody could ever take this away from me – a published author. Now I’m also someone who imagined awful things and lived to see them become reality. It’s taken just a little of the shine off.

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