In search of: the sonic stunner

I’ve been enjoying the TV Tropes website a lot recently. Today I created my first full-fledged trope entry: the sonic stunner.

Feel free to chime in with other instances in SF literature, film, animation, and whatever. I’m especially interested in turning up uses prior to 1958, the year of Alan E. Nourse’s Gold In The Sky. As I note on the page, I am pretty confident this was the trope codifier; Nourse explains the effects and limitations of the Markheim gun in some detail, and these seem to have been copied by later authors who felt less and less need for explanation as SF fans got used to the concept.

However, there may very well have been ur-examples other than the Kornbluth one I note from 1941. They would have been quite plausible back to the beginning of the Campbellian revolution in 1938, and not implausible in earlier pre-Campbellian space opera.

Hm…I found a copy of Fire-Power and the reference probably wasn’t intended to be to a sonic stunner but to something more like a wireless Taser. So Alan E. Nourse looks like the actual originator on this one, not just the codifier. Unless someone sends me an earlier instance…

UPDATE: I’ve concluded that Nourse’s “Markheim guns” were actually Static Stun Guns and derived from originals by Robert Heinlein. So far, my commenters have found sonic stunners going back to 1948 (H. Beam Piper), but the trope seems to have been defined by Randall Garret’s “Hunting Lodge” (1953).


  1. I’m pretty sure that Heinlein described some sort of sonic stunner in Methuselah’s Children (1941), but I’d have to drag it out and re-read.

    ESR says: That Heinlein described one early is quite credible, but I found a torrent of Methusaleh’s Children and checked. The string “stun” only occurs once, and not in the right sort of context.

  2. The novelette Gulf contains, if I recall correctly, a Markheim gun, called by name.

    ESR says: No it doesn’t, I just grepped. Nor does it contain the word “stunner”.

  3. Careful. I think the Web finally refined a potent formula of digital crack, in the form of TVTropes.

    As for the trope itself, variations of it seem to be gaining currency in visual media, especially with the U.S. military’s research into actual sonic crowd-control weaponry. Most notable are the sonic pulse guns from Minority Report (necessary since self-defense weapons must be nonlethal; the precogs would adumbrate any use of a conventional firearm) and the huge truck-mounted transducers used to subdue Hulk in The Incredible Hulk (2008). I’m not sure if these qualify, since it seems you have some very specific criteria to fill…

  4. If I recall correctly, a sonic stunner was described in some detail in Randall Garrett’s 1954 story, “The Hunting Lodge.” I’ll have to find my copy to be certain.

  5. Found it. Page numbers are from my copy of the anthology Men and Machines, in which the story appears:

    p.156: “…I took two of the power cartridges from the stun gun and pried them open. The powder inside ought to burn nicely. It wouldn’t explode unless it was sealed inside the gun, where the explosion was channeled through the supersonic whistle in the barrel to form the beam.”

    p.158: “I was less than a block from the city limits when something hard and hot and tingling burned through my nerves like acid and I blacked out.
    “Maybe you’ve never been hit by a stun beam, but if you’ve ever had your leg go to sleep, you know what it feels like. And you know what it feels like when you wake up; that painful tingling all over that hurts even worse if you try to move.”

    ESR says: Bingo. Now I need to check “Gold In The Sky”; it may not be the full trope, as I’m not sure it described stun shock.

  6. … Why am I having to point ‘phasers set to stun’ out?

    ESR says: Those are more like what TV Tropes calls “Static Stun Gun”

  7. Your description doesn’t match the title, or I can’t read. You mention nothing about ‘sound’ in the checklist. Stun gun, the synonym you point out, would be a better title. Something flashier and punnier would be better matched to tvtropes.

  8. My first thought was to the stories of H Beam Piper. He occasionally had characters use sonic stunners despite being very conservative wrt personal weapons otherwise. But his use of such weapons comes after your 1958 date, IIRC.

    — On checking, he uses sonic stun weapons in Null ABC (1953)

    — Then there’s “Naudsonce” which was a special case wrt the use of sonic weapons.

    ESR says: Good hit with “Null ABC” – that even describes stun shock. Headaches, anyway.

  9. … Why am I having to point ‘phasers set to stun’ out?

    Aside from what ESR said, Gold in the Sky predates Star Trek by half a decade. Trek first aired in 1966, I believe.

  10. @morgan: I was thinking about the tvtropes page, not the request for early examples here. My mistake.

  11. “He felt a teeth-chattering chill as the blast from the Markheim hit him; he
    pitched forward on his face.”

    “Gilead caught a glimpse of the guards as they reached the door- They
    stopped momentarily; the bell of the Markheim was too big to use through
    the steel grating, the charge would be screened and grounded.”

    “Gulf”, Heinlein.

    ESR says: Odd. There are variant editions, perhaps? What’s the URL for yours?

  12. Thanks a lot, Eric. No, not for sending me to TV Tropes — I’ve been there plenty of times before, and I know how to stop when I reach my limit. But when I got there, I saw a quote at the bottom of the web page that I knew but couldn’t quite place: “Please don’t go. The droids will miss you. They look up to you.” The qhad an embedded link, which took me to the TV Tropes page about Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri (SMAC), possibly my all-time favorite computer game (and I’ve been playing computer games for 35 years). That page, in turn, had a link to a Civ4 mod, Planetfall, that recreates much of SMAC within Civ4.

  13. Oops: premature posting (the keyboard did something funny). Anyway, I’ve downloaded the mod (and patch) and will undoubtedly lose many precious hours (I get paid by the hour). Must…resist…installation….

  14. I promptly thought of somebody-or-other’s super-powered ultrasonic dog whistle.
    A bit of memory-prodding turned up the name “Rick Brant,” whence a quick Google turned up The Whispering Box Mystery (1948).

  15. Mongol or Japanese hummingbird arrows? The only way I can think of to make a sonic ‘beam’ transmit would be a bullet with a whistle.

  16. @Jeremy Bowers:

    TV Tropes is certainly more intellectually beneficial and not any worse than many other sites people waste their time on the Internet with. *ahem*WoW*ahem*

  17. There are stun guns used throughout the “Tom Corbett, Space Cadet” series. Not sure that they are sonic though.

    ESR says: 1949-1953. I think those were Static Stun Guns derived from Heinlein’s “Markheims”.

  18. I know that ultrasonic stunners are used in Piper’s temple trouble, which I believe was 1951.

  19. I just did a further check, and “ultrasonic paralyzers” show up in Piper’s ‘police operation’, which was 1948

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