Wednesday, 27 May 2020

Retro Review: "Arena" by Fredric Brown

Astounding's covers were hit and miss in the 1940s, but this one, courtesy of William Timmins, falls on the "hit" side of the equation.

I'll continue my reviews of the 1945 Retro Hugo finalist with "Arena", a science fiction novelette by Fredric Brown that was published in the June 1944 issue of Astounding Science Fiction and is a finalist for the 1945 Retro Hugo Award. The story may be read online here. This review will also be crossposted to Retro Science Fiction Reviews.

Warning: Spoilers beyond this point.

"Arena" opens in medias res with a man called Bob Carson awakening on his back in the sand of the titular arena. Of course, Carson has no idea that he is in an arena yet – though he notes that he has awoken in some kind of circumscribed area. Carson takes stock of himself and his surrounding and realises that he is completely naked, that it's hot and that the sand is blue, which tells him that he is not in Kansas – pardon, the pulp science fiction shared solar system – anymore.

Carson has no idea how he came to be in the place with the blue sand, but while he tries to figure it out, he also gives us one of those infodumps that 1940s Astounding was so fond of. We learn that Carson was the pilot of a one person scout ship, deployed near Pluto, where the mighty Earth armada of ten thousand ships and half a millions soldiers is about the face off against the invading Outsiders. As alien naming practices go, Brown's creativity leaves something to be desired.

Since this is a 1940s issue of Astounding, Carson also gives us an infodump about the Outsiders, what they look like (no one knows), the history of humanity's interactions with them so far (unprovoked raids with no survivors, occasional skirmishes and finally a fully fledged invasion fleet) as well as their strengths and weaknesses (the Earth ships have better weapons, while the Outsider ships are faster and more manoeuvrable)

The clash of the two fleets would have been the decisive battle of the undeclared war (a fact that has nothing to do with current world events in 1944, I'm sure) between the humans and the Outsiders. And Carson and his scout ship would have been at the forefront of that battle. Carson still is at the forefront of that battle, though he doesn't know it yet.

The last thing Carson remembers before awakening in the blue sand is that the alarm in his scout ship went off, as his sensors detected a scout ship of the Outsiders. Brown now treats us to a pitched space battle between Carson and the Outsider scout ship.

Contrary to popular belief, space battles are comparatively rare in golden age science fiction. At any rate, I have found only a handful of space battles in the more than thirty stories I reviewed for the Retro Reviews project. And if space battles do occur, they are mostly kept off stage. Either the scene fades to black just before the battle begins, as in "The Big and the Little", which contains one of Isaac Asimov's comparatively few space battle scenes (or battle scenes of any kind) or the story picks up after the battle is already over, with a spaceship going down in flames, as in Leigh Brackett's "The Citadel of Lost Ships" (though that story does contain a brief space battle) or her later story "Lorelei of the Red Mist". Meanwhile, Ray Bradbury's superb "Morgue Ship" begins with the two-man crew of the titular ship literally picking up the corpses left floating in space after the battle is over. And while the protagonist of Bradbury's 1945 Retro Hugo finalist "I, Rocket" is a warship, we never see the rocket actually engaged in battle.

I'm not sure why space battles are so uncommon during the golden age, especially since spaceship crashes (not all of them due to battle) or physical fights are both extremely common. Part of the reason might be that no one in the 1940s had any idea what a space battle would look like, but then we no more know what a space battle would truly be like than the writers of the golden age did, but that doesn't stop modern science fiction writers from penning endless battle scenes. Furthermore, the most common models for space battles, i.e. eighteenth and nineteenth century naval warfare and WWI and WWII aerial dogfights, were already plentiful in the pulps as well as in the more respectable fiction of the era. The Horatio Hornblower series by C.S. Forester as well as Rafael Sabatini's various maritime swashbucklers were already in full swing by 1944, while the aviator hero G-8 and His Battle Aces had been fighting aerial battles against extremely colourful antagonists in a version of WWI that never was for eleven years by this point. So it's not as if the models didn't exist. It's just that science fiction writers of the era did not use them.

I now wonder when space battles became common in science fiction. Was it Star Wars, whose space battles were famously based on the aerial battles in the 1955 British war movie The Dam Busters, that made space battles an integral part of science fiction? Or did science fiction's fascination with space battles start before 1977?

Because "Arena" features a battle between two scout ships, Fredric Brown chooses the aerial dogfight model for his space battle. By 1940s standards, the battle is quite detailed, even though Brown tells us that a space battle lasts three seconds, because a lightly armoured scout ship like Carson's only has time to fire a single shot, cause once the opponent fires their single shot, it's all over. Carson fires his single shot and misses. Since his antagonist misses as well, Carson tries to get in another shot, when both the Outsider ship and his own suddenly dive towards the ground – ground where there should be no planet, asteroid or other celestial body, since the plethora of Transneptunian objects would not be discovered until much later.

Carson explores the blue landscape in which he finds himself, when he suddenly receives a telepathic message from a highly evolved alien being. This being informs Carson that both humanity and the Outsiders have the potential to evolve into something like the alien's own species, but only if the battle between the Earth fleet and the Outsider fleet is stopped now. For the two fleets are too evenly matched, so that any victory will be a Pyrrhic one. Not only the losing species will be destroyed, but the winner will have suffered such great losses that they will regress and never reach their full potential either. The aliens want to prevent this and so they picked a representative of each species and dumped them naked and unarmed into the titular arena, an environment that is equally alien and equally unpleasant to both, to fight it out as the champions of their respective people. The winner's species will survive, while the loser's fleet and species will be destroyed. And because "Arena" was published in Astounding, the alien also informs Carson that "brain-power and courage will be more important than strength".

However, Carson doesn't have much of a chance to think about all this, because he has his first encounter with his Outsider opponent. And this opponent is – no, not a two-meter tall green Reptilian alien – but a featureless, bright red rolling sphere, which also has retractable tentacles. The sphere rolls towards Carson who grabs a sharp-edged blue rock to defend himself. But before the sphere can reach him, it suddenly hit an invisible barrier and bounces off. It turns out that the two opponents are separated by a force field.

Both Carson and the alien – Carson calls it a "Roller" for its way of moving – check whether there is a way under, over or around the forcefield, but neither can find anything. Then Carson tries something else. He tries to project a telepathic message of peace to the roller. The Roller responds by sending waves of hatred at Carson, a hatred so intense that Carson almost collapses under its vehemence.

Since the Roller has no interest in peace, but is clearly telepathic, Carson tries telepathically killing it next, with zero success except giving himself a headache. Carson then watches as the Roller examines a bush and laboriously breaks of twigs and then as it captures a lizard and begins to rip off the legs the critter.

The Roller's pointless cruelty disgusts Carson, as he tries to figure out how to kill it. Meanwhile, the Roller throws the dead lizard towards Carson. The lizard lands at Carson's feet, which leads Carson to believe that the force field is down. However, when he tries to launch himself at the Roller, improvised stone knife in hand, Carson only succeeds in running into the barrier.

The Roller and Carson now graduate to throwing rocks at each other. The Roller's throwing tentacle is weak, though it does manage to hit Carson in the leg. Carson tries hurling his stone knife. He does not draw blood, but his missile clearly hurts the creature enough for it to flee to safety.

With the Roller out of range, Carson examines his injured leg and finds it bleeding. He also tests the barrier and finds that it is impermeable to living beings, but that inorganic objects and dead organic objects can pass through without problems. Carson also realises that he is thirsty, so he goes in search of water, but finds none. This means that Carson has to finish the fight, before he passes out and dies of thirst, taking the entire human race down with him.

The Roller is still keeping its distance, so Carson binds the wound in his leg with the leaves of one of the bushes. He also makes himself another stone knife with a wooden handle, fashions a belt from plant tendrils to hold the knife and starts to collect rocks suitable for throwing. Carson also holds a brief chat with a lizard and tries to dig his way under the barrier, without success.

Meanwhile, the Roller has done the logical thing and built a catapult, which it uses to hurl rocks at Carson. None of the rocks come even close to hitting, but Carson can't take out the catapult either. Worse, he is steadily weakening from thirst, exhaustion and blood loss.

When one of the Roller's missile strikes a stone and generates sparks, Carson has an idea. He builds a fire, using the bushes as tinder and striking sparks for ignition. Then he builds a slingshot and hurls firebombs at the Roller and its catapult. The Roller is not hurt, but the catapult goes up in flames.

Next, Carson builds a harpoon from stones, wood and plant fibres. But his condition is worsening, so he lies down to sleep as far away from the barrier as possible. When he awakes, he finds that his leg is badly swollen, the wound infected. Carson has to finish the fight quickly, before he succumbs to sepsis and takes down the whole human race with him.

One of the lizards suddenly starts talking to Carson. Carson naturally thinks that he's hallucinating, but the lizard won't go away, until he follows. So Carson follows the lizard, crawling on all fours, because he is too weak to walk, and finds one of its pals. The lizard is obviously in pain, its legs missing. The other lizard wants Carson to euthanise its fellow, which he does. Carson realises that it's the same lizard that the Roller tore to pieces and threw through the barrier at Carson. Only that the lizard wasn't dead, it was only unconscious. Now Carson realises that the force field is a mental barrier, which is why an unconscious lizard could pass through, but a conscious one couldn't. This gives him an idea.

Carson grabs his harpoon and his knife and crawls right up to the barrier, to a place where the ground slopes downward. Then he hits himself in the head with a stone and lets his briefly unconscious body roll down the slope on the other side. Of course, if Carson hits too hard and blanks out for longer than a few seconds, he's dead and so is humanity. However, this harebrained scheme is his – and humanity's – only chance.

It works, too. Carson briefly passes out – long enough to pass through the barrier, but short enough that he comes to again before the Roller has the chance to kill him. The Roller comes closer to investigate. Once it is in range, Carson hurls his harpoon at the Roller. The wounded creature tries to get away, but Carson uses the harpoon's rope, which he tied to his wrist to pull himself closer to the creature. Once he's close enough, he stabs the Roller, again and again, until it is finally still.

Carson passes out once more and wakes out in the cockpit of his scout ship – thirsty, but otherwise perfectly healthy. However, there is a new long scar on his leg as well as lots of smaller scars all over his torso.

Carson is still not sure whether his experiences in the arena were real, when his commanding officer calls him and tells him to return to the ship, because the war is over and humanity won.

The first salvo the human fleet fired, so his commander tells him, ignited the Outsider fleet and caused it to go up in flames. A material flaw, most likely. Carson knows better, of course, but decides to keep his mouth shut, for who would believe him?

This cover for the German edition of "Arena" in Pabel Utopia Magazin is striking, though not at all accurate. And what is that mummy doing there?

I imagine that "Arena" must have been a lot more impactful in 1944, when the mystery of Carson waking up naked in the blue sand still was a genuine mystery rather than a story everybody already sort of knows. For these days, "Arena" is better known for its 1967 TV adaptation as an episode of the original Star Trek.

That said, there are several differences between the Star Trek episode and the story that may or may not have inspired it (screenwriter Gene L. Coon claimed that he hadn't knowingly read the story, when a Desilu executive noticed the similarities). For starters, the arena itself is a blue sand landscape in the story and Vasquez Rocks in Star Trek, though Vasquez Rocks supposedly can be hot as hell as well. In Star Trek, the opponent is a Gorn, a two metre tall reptilian alien. In the story, the opponent is a red blob with tentacles. Nor is there a barrier in the Star Trek episode, since Kirk and Gorn initially engage in a physical fight. Finally, William Shatner does not materialise naked at Vasquez Rocks – to the disappointment of many fans, I'm sure.

A lot of these changes are due to the technical limitations of 1960s television. A landscape with blue sand and blue vegetation would have been a lot more expensive to recreate in a studio than shooting on location at Vasquez Rock. Nudity was out completely (and would still be out today, unless Star Trek somehow ended up on HBO or Starz), so both Gorn and Kirk wear clothes. And while 1960s special effects could theoretically have recreated the Roller – The Blob, which features a very similar creature, was made in 1958, after all – a two metre tall reptilian creature like Gorn was a lot more photogenic and probably cheaper to do as well.

However, there is one change between the novelette "Arena" and the eponymous Star Trek episode that is not due to the technical limitations of 1960s television and that is the ending. Because the ending of the Star Trek episode is completely different from the ending of the novelette. In the novelette, Carson kills his opponent and the mysterious, unseen aliens who kidnapped them both to make them fight hold true to their word and destroy the Outsider fleet. In the Star Trek episode, Kirk gains the upper hand, but refuses to kill the Gorn and decides to spare him instead. This unexpected display of mercy persuades the not-so-unseen aliens (in Star Trek, they're called Metrons and appear as a semi-translucent special effect in glittering togas) not to destroy the Federation (as they'd planned to do, because the winner is clearly more dangerous than the loser), because Kirk has proven that humanity is more civilised than it looks at first glance and that there may be hope for its evolution. Personally, I vastly prefer the Star Trek ending and was actively pissed off at the ending of the original story. Others feel differently, e.g. Adventures Fantastic prefers the novelette to the Star Trek episode in their review, as does Paul Fraser of SF Magazines in his review.

A stirking seventiestastic cover for an anthology, in which "Arena" appeared, even though the Roller is not a bug-eyed monster. Gorn, on the other hand, very much is.

The different endings of the original novelette and the Star Trek episode based upon it are largely due to the very different geopolitical situations in which the respective versions of the story appeared. Both versions of the story appeared at a time when the US was at war, but the novelette was published at the height of WWII, a war that was considered just and had broad popular support, while the Star Trek episode appeared at the height of the Vietnam war, a war that was hugely unpopular and that not even its supporters ever considered just. These two very different situations gave birth to these two very different endings for the same story: One ending where exterminating the enemy is completely justified, because they are cruel and hateful and utterly alien and peace cannot be possible, and another ending, where showing mercy and abandoning the war is the right solution, because the enemy turns out to have been misunderstood and acting in what they felt was self-defence. As someone who would have been a candidate for total extermination due to the mere fact of my nationality, it's obvious why I prefer the Star Trek ending. Never mind that genocide is never an acceptable solution, even if the enemies are rolling red balls of hatred.

That said, I'm pretty sure that Brown would never have gotten a Star Trek ending past John W. Campbell in 1944, even if he had been inclined to write one. Just as Gene L. Coon wouldn't have gotten a genocide (let's call it what it is) ending past Gene Roddenberry in 1967. And indeed, Steve J. Wright points out in his review that the different endings are very representative of the venues where they appeared.

The very different nature of the alien opponent in either version of the story also predicts the respective ending. Brown's Outsiders/Rollers are unknowable, utterly other aliens in the Cthulhu mode. There can be no peace or understanding with them – and to be fair, Carson at least tries – because they are just too different. Between this and the malevolent parasitic earrings of "And the Gods Laughed…" or the microscopic aliens of "The Star Mouse", Fredric Brown certainly created some of the more inventive aliens of the golden age. And because the Outsiders are literally rolling red balls of hatred, who tear lizards apart for fun, few readers complain about the genocide. After all, who worries about the fate of murderous rubber balls?

Gorn, on the other hand, is a far more conventional type of alien, a huge, somewhat goofy looking green lizard. Of course, Reptilian aliens were (and still are) usually evil during the era of the original Star Trek. However, Gorn can also talk and express his grievances ("The Federation built an outpost in our territory. We consider that the precursor for an invasion"), while the Roller remains silent. Nonetheless, audiences would likely have been a lot more resistant to the Gorn being exterminated than to a race of rolling red balls of hatred getting exterminated, if only because Gorn feels more humanoid. And indeed, the fact that Gabriel Lorca has a Gorn skeleton in his ready room/cabinet of horrors is one of the many little hints that Star Trek Discovery drops regarding Lorca's true identity.

Another great cover and another anthology, in which "Arena" was reprinted.

However, the different depictions of the antagonist and the different endings of both versions of "Arena" also show how the depiction of the Other in speculative fiction has evolved in the past seventy-five years. The Outsiders (even the name the humans give them show that they are other) are just an evil to be exterminated. Understanding them, let alone peace with them, is not possible, because they are just too different, too other. And while few aliens of the era – with the possible exception of Cthulhu – were quite as alien or nasty as the Outsiders, genocide as a solution to intergalactic conflicts was depressingly common during the golden age. Fredric Brown isn't even the worst offender, compared e.g. to the genocidal war criminal Richard Seaton from the Skylark novels by E.E. Smith. But while there were sympathetic aliens during the golden age – and bug-eyed monsters were very common on the covers, but rare in the stories themselves – aliens were mainly something to shoot with your ray gun.

These "Shoot all the aliens" stories still exist and there is an audience for them, as the flood of cookie cutter military science fiction novels in the Kindle store proves. However, speculative fiction has gradually moved towards humanising the Other, as the different versions of "Arena" show. The alien antagonist has gone from unknowable, absolutely evil thing to be killed in 1944 to other, but with understandable motives to be spared in 1967. A contemporary version of the story would probably have the antagonists teaming up to outwit those who have pitted them against each other (who are the true evil in this story IMO). Or we would have gotten the story from the POV of the alien antagonist. During the same time period, vampires and werewolves went from soulless undead evil in the 1930s/40s via tortured soul that doesn't want to do bad things, but cannot help it in the 1960s/70s to viable romantic prospect in the 2000s. Robots and artificial intelligences have POVs now. Cthulhu is now a cuddly plush toy and new Lovecraftian writers are telling us that the elder gods are not the greatest evil a protagonist can face.


This is not the Roller, obviously, but Mitkey Mouse from "The Star Mouse"

I've spent a lot of time comparing Brown's "Arena" to the eponymous Star Trek episode and analysing the historical context of both stories. However, one thing I haven't done is discuss whether "Arena" is a good story.

Well, it's certainly a competent story. Brown was a skilled writer and "Arena" is testament to his skill. Both the adrenaline fuelled space battle as well as Carson's ordeal in the blue sand and his anguish at the fate of the entire human race hinging on him are viscerally described. And while there are infodumps – this is a 1940s Astounding story, after al – they are much less intrusive than with many other stories of the period. Bob Carson is a bland protagonist – the only things we learn about him is that he's a scout ship pilot and that he's white – but that's hardly unusual for the period.

Of all the stories I've reviewed for the Retro Reviews project, "Arena" is the story that most matches the stereotype of what Astounding was like during the golden age. The protagonist is a competent white, presumably straight and presumably American man, who uses his brains and technical skills to triumph over the aliens and thus asserts humanity's superiority. And though the sequence of try and fail circles goes on a little too long – "Arena" could easily have been cut down to short story size without losing anything – the story is never boring. The eventual solution is a little contrived – it relies both on telepathic lizards and Carson knocking himself out, after all – but Brown does his best to make it work. I also liked the fact that it's intelligence rather than brute strength that decides the contest, though Carson does eventually bring his brute strength to bear on the Roller, when he stabs it to death with a sharpened rock.

Would "Arena" be as well remembered as it is, if not for the Star Trek episode? I'm not sure. The story has been reprinted several times over the decades, including long before Star Trek was a gleam in Gene Roddenberry's eye. And Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg selected it for their anthology The Great SF Stories Vol. 6 – 1944. Furthermore, Fredric Brown shows up quite frequently on the Retro Hugo ballot, twice this year alone, so he certainly is still popular among the Retro Hugo electorate. Nonetheless, the "Arena" most people know is the Star Trek version and not the original novelette.

"Arena" is a well written science fiction story that is probably the closest thing to a stereotypical Astounding story on the 1945 Retro Hugo ballot. I'm not at all surprised that it was nominated, though given how strong the competition in the novelette category is, I would be very surprised if it were to win.

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