I know for a fact I’m not the only person to feel compelled by the prospect of swords in science fiction. Though the standard is blasters or laser guns, there’s just something intensely cool about swinging a sword around on a spaceship.
Those of us who write swords in space invariably do it for the aesthetic. We like swords in fantasy and we also want to write science fiction, so why not include the swords in the space books we love? But that doesn’t mean there can’t be a rationale for it. In fact, for the obsessively scientific among us, there has to be!
So what are the best reasons why people might use swords even in a science fictional future?
One approach to space swords is to have a cool, high-tech kind of sword. It fits with the aesthetic, plus we could believe it has additional properties which make it competitive with guns. Star Wars lightsabers aren’t just an elegant weapon from a more civilized age, they actually do have capacities blasters don’t—at least in the hands of a Jedi. They can block blaster fire, cut through metal, and give the Jedi the opportunity to use more of their skills.
Of course I have many questions about the light saber. For instance, does it have a low-power setting for practice, or do the padawans have to face the possibility of severing their own limbs from day one? If you drop one, does it fall through the floor till it comes out the bottom of the ship? Can your enemy use the Force to switch it off? I’m sure the hardcore fans have answers to all these questions.
Other high-tech swords I’ve seen or invented include the gun-sword—fires at long range, stabs at close range, so convenient!—and the poisoned sword. Technology can be just as good at enchanting swords as magic. How could you upgrade a sword to make it competitive with guns? Or, what other tech might you have that could get you to close range before your enemy could fire a gun?
Guns don’t work
Another possibility is that guns just aren’t usable in a certain scenario, so characters resort to swords. In an RPG my brother and I invented, there was a techno-gizmo that created a gun-blocking field. No high-speed projectiles or energy weapons would work on an enemy ship or station. So each character had a gun of some type for the situations we could use them, plus a high-tech sword to pull out when invading enemy territory.
An undersea setting might be another good time to use swords. Guns require dry powder, which would be hard to manage underwater, and even if you did manage it, the water would slow a bullet down much more than air does. I can think of lots of interesting weapons you might use underwater, from harpoons to some kind of vibration gun.
There are three main physical issues with guns in space which might lead characters to pick a sword instead. First, in a zero-g environment, the recoil of a gun might be problematic. The total force is small, but since standing (well, floating) still is already a challenge, I can see not wanting to add random forces to that equation.
Second, a gun could theoretically put a hole in your ship. If it’s going fast enough to hurt a human, it might well be going fast enough to puncture something important. And last, if your bullet can’t puncture the hull, it might bounce off. Do you want to be in a tin can with a ricocheting projectile? I don’t.
To solve these problems, you might turn to swords, arrows, or special lower-velocity guns, perhaps with exploding projectiles. I think a small flechette pistol might be a good option for ranged attacks. Or there are blow darts and grenades of carefully controlled sizes.
Another reason you might have swords in space is because the fighting situation makes them useful. If you’re already at very close quarters, for instance because your ship corridors are narrow, you might not find yourself wishing for a gun.
In the Locked Tomb books, cavaliers use swords exclusively. Guns are “antique,” used for hunting animals, not people. Which makes no sense at first. If you have the knowledge to make guns, they’d surely give you an advantage against swords. However, I personally think it probably has to do with the way they fight. A cavalier is support staff to a necromancer. The necromancer gets a lot of juice from nearby deaths. So it makes the most sense for the cavalier to kill enemies at close range, so that all the death energy is conveniently handy.
So let’s say none of the aforementioned issues are relevant, but you still want swords. In that case, you could have a normal fighting strategy with guns . . . but your character doesn’t have a gun, and is a fencer. Or maybe ceremonial swords are standard dress attire, making them ready to hand when the characters aren’t otherwise armed.
For duels and other contests, a sword may simply be traditional even though other weapons are available. So you can have a sword combat which carries great symbolic value for the characters, using weaponry important to their history.
I’m not a weapons aficionado; I have what you’d call a necromancer’s build (wimpy). But I just love the aesthetics. Who doesn’t like a big pointy thing you can swing around? Plus, characters who use swords are physically strong and skilled. Any chump can pull a trigger; somebody who can win a swordfight has probably trained for years. It’s just cool to see and imagine.
So, if you want to have swords in your sci-fi, I think you should go for it. There are any number or reasons why you would. And nobody’s stopping you from just using them and explaining nothing. What are they going to do, complain? There’s an awesome character with a sword in it! They won’t mind!
For more on swords, especially in speculative fiction, I always look to Marcus Vance. He’s incredibly knowledgeable and produces video content with every kind of sword you can imagine.