James Alan Gardner’s “The Ray-Gun: A Love Story” is just what it says. A boy finds an alien ray-gun in the woods. He is convinced it means his is special, and he works to make himself worthy of it — but at the same time his relationships with other people, particularly women, are poisoned. The story reflects on the dangers of the power such a gun might confer — as it notes internally, not entirely in a new way: “he realized he was not Spiderman, he was Frodo”. I enjoyed this story quite a bit, and I am reprinting. I acknowledge one weakness — as Science Fiction, it’s a bit lacking, in that (as Gardner announces at the opening) the central Maguffin is not explained at all, and is really not that SFnally interesting — it is just a device (no pun intended) for stringing a character story on. Fair enough … and reason enough for me to decide to vote Bear’s story ahead of this one on my final ballot. But the story does what it intends to do very well, I think.
James Alan Gardner’s “The Ray-Gun: A Love Story” (Asimov’s, February 2008) is my kind of SF story. It takes a simple premise—a young boy discovers the eponymous alien artifact—and explores it with strong characters and a healthy does of philosophy. Jack, the boy who finds the weapon, becomes obsessed with his discovery, and as he grows into adulthood this obsession comes to define him. His interest in the gun leads him to a career in science; his fears about its discovery lead him to push away those whom he loves. Before long both he and the reader begin to wonder if the ray-gun is intelligently guiding its owner to predetermined ends. This sort of high-tech teleology is a common trope in SF—among other things, it’s the foundation of Asimov’s Foundation. The idea that there is a way things are supposed to be, a conclusion to which everything is moving, is essential to any satisfying story, but SF allows a greater degree of transparency about the intelligence(s) that determine that end. The whys of Gardner’s story remain sketchy; the ray-gun is, after all, wholly alien, and its design is as ineffable as its tech. Nevertheless, it’s a moving exploration of the concept of the happy ending. The real strength of the story is its characters. Jack seems to be painted in broad strokes—we learn few concrete details about him, and he doesn’t even have a last name. But Gardner tells his story confidently, and as a result he feels more real by the story’s end than if he were granted more exposition.
Aliette de Bodard, for The Fix:
“The Ray-Gun: A Love Story” by James Alan Gardner is the other standout. About a mysterious alien ray gun which falls to Earth, it follows the life of Jack, the boy who finds it and keeps it, and the various ways in which the gun affects his life. As the narrator warns us, this isn’t a story about how ray guns work, but rather a very intelligent look at how having a mysterious artifact can change lives. Both Jack and his girlfriends are profoundly affected by the ray gun’s secret in utterly believable ways. The last paragraph did feel a tad superfluous, but don’t let that deter you from reading this fine story.
Gardner has a matter-of-fact story-telling voice with a hint of wry wit under the surface that, when he’s on, is oddly compelling. I found myself thoroughly enjoying this story without being able to put a finger on why. I think it’s because the story is so confident in itself; it doesn’t spend time explaining or justifying. A boy finds a ray-gun. The ray-gun changes his life, for both good and bad. As he matures, he realizes what a responsibility it is, and the problems it causes. And by the end of the story, it’s the spark for a touching love story. The whole story is in the title, really, but Gardner writes it with such confidence and gentle emotion that it’s the highlight of the issue. (7)
- The good:
- I loved all the references to Spider-Man and The Lord of the Rings, and how they worked so well with this story. Very cool!
- Like the title implies this really is a love story. I don’t think I’ve ever read a romantic science fiction story and enjoyed it as much as this one. Really well done!
- The ending of “The Ray-Gun: A Love Story” was really quite nifty – it was totally fun to see how things all came together.
- The bad:
- The story telling style was a little bit different with its “simplistic narrator” point of view. But after the first part of the story I eventually got used to it and it didn’t really bother me any more.
- Even though “The Ray-Gun: A Love Story” starts out with young teenagers, it isn’t really a story for kids.
The result is pleasant but not very exciting. If I had to guess, I’d say that it’s the appeal to so many readers’ own experiences as young science fiction fans, convinced that any minute their life was going to transform into something out of their favorite stories, that is at the root of “The Ray-Gun”‘s appeal (though by the same token it’s not much of a stretch to view the ray gun as a metaphor for being an SF fan, and the story’s ending, in which Jack and his new girlfriend send the gun to the bottom of the ocean, as saying that if you want to get a girl, you’ll have to give up that creepy science fiction habit). I can’t say that I think nostalgia and sentimentality are, on their own, good enough reasons to give a story a Hugo nomination, or indeed to lavish it with all the praise that “The Ray-Gun” has received.