Wednesday, December 20, 2023

Casual Shorts & the ISFdb Top Short Fiction # 37: Arena by Frederic Brown

Brown, Frederic. "Arena." Astounding Science Fiction, June 1944.

This article is part of my attempt to read all the 155 stories currently (as of 1 November 2022) on the ISFdb's Top Short Fiction list. Please see the introduction and list of stories hereI am encouraging readers to rate the stories and books they have read on the ISFdb.

ISFdb Rating:   8.83/10
My Rating:        7/10

"Carson opened his eyes, and found himself looking upward into a flickering blue dimness."

At the edge of our solar system, just beyond the (once) planet Pluto, humans are battling beings from another galaxy. They have named these beings "Outsiders," as they know nothing of the aliens, having never captured any of their technology nor ever having even seen one of the creatures. Despite this, humans and Outsiders are caught in an ongoing war that has no end in sight, and no clear victor.

A soldier awakens on a bed of hot blue sand, in a dome that has drawn him and an outsider into its confines. The "Entity" that has trapped them informs Carson telepathically that to end their forever war, he and the outsider must fight to the death, and the losing being's entire species will be wiped from existence. The Entity explains that there will be no end to this way, as they two are equally matched, and that there is no hope for peace, so in order to end the war and allow the progression of one race, the other needs to be destroyed.

"Arena" then becomes a battle of wits between Carson and the Outsider, a round blobbish creature with extendable arms. As such it is entertaining and has a decent ending. Reading this in 2023 I cannot help, however, to have some major qualms about the story. Namely, the Outsiders are presented as cruel, bloodthirsty creatures, and humans are human, so that we must root for Carson and the human race. Yet the Outsider is seen only through Carson's eyes, and we must accept its bloodthirst via two points: it kills a lizard and can project its hatred toward Carson. These, however, are interpretations of a being we know absolutely nothing about--a being so different from us that we should not be trying to project our own human limitations on it. Perhaps it killed the lizard to absorb nutrients, or perhaps it is testing its environment as it is also aware that it is engaging in a battle to save its entire species. Its projection of hated can be related to the perceived threat of the human to its race, or the intense emotion is merely its way of expressing fear, or like a boxer before a fight, trying to intimidate its opponent. Regardless, this is not a reason to so easily accept the destruction of another species. We understand, from Carson's point of view, that the Outsiders invaded our galaxy, but as in Starship Troopers, it is possible that the humans were in some way the original aggressors, but that Carson, a mere soldier, would be unaware of this. The motive is unknown, yet the perception is that these are evil creatures out to destroy us, without actual evidence.

Interestingly, the story was published in 1944, near the close of World War II. While the general public was not at that time fully aware of the genocidal extremes experienced during the war, presenting humans here as participating in genocide, justified by Carson and the Entity, is still a somewhat uncomfortable. In the 1960s, Gene Roddenberry and the producers of Star Trek were more aware of these allusions, and in their adaptation by frequent ST contributor Gene L. Coon, for the short story for its season one episode also title "Arena," the threat was diminished. The losing party of a battle between human Captain James T. Kirk and alien lizard creature Gorn would see its warship and crew destroyed, and not their entire species.

"Arena" recalls some of those adventure survival stories I read as a kid, and though I grew tired of them as I grew older, there is something compelling in Brown's version. The solitariness of Carson, the strangeness of his environment, and the predicament itself, more so than the alien foe, kept me rapt.

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