Monday, October 24, 2011

Classic Science Fiction 03: “Arena” by Fredric Brown

     We’ve all seen the episode: Kirk must use the tools provided to him by a super-intelligent alien to defeat the evil Gorn.  “Arena” is one of the most-recognized episodes of the original Star Trek series.  It was based on a story of the same name by science fiction writer Fredric Brown.  That story was first published in June of 1944 in Astounding magazine and has become a classic of the genre.

     The premise is this: a highly-advance alien entity observes humans and another species--called the Outsiders by the humans-- on the brink of a war that would devastate both civilizations.  The entity’s solution is to pit one human against one Outsider and whoever kills the other will ensure the safety of their own people and the complete annihilation of their foes.  Carson is the man who is chosen for this battle and he wakes up in a dome-shaped enclosure with a force field separating him from an Outsider.  He must find a way through that force field and kill his enemy before the Outsider finds a way to dispatch him.

     There are some flaws in the story.  For one, the entity doesn’t seem to have exhausted all options before deciding to kill off an entire species.  “It is in my power to stop the war, to send the Outsiders back to their galaxy,” it claims.  “But,” it continues, “they would return, or your race would sooner or later follow them there.  Only by remaining in this space and time to intervene constantly could I prevent them from destroying one another, and I cannot remain.”

     And is a to-the-death match between two randomly chosen individuals really fair?  Carter may be a fine pilot but his hand-to-hand training may be non-existent.  He could be abnormally weak--or strong--for a human.  The same goes for the Outsider.

     Another flaw is the mechanism by which Carson is able to pass through the force field.  It hardly seems logical or reasonable for the smarter of the combatants, the one who figured out how to get through, to have to brain himself with a rock and be exposed to attack in order to have a chance at winning.  One would think that the entity would reward the more intelligent/resourceful combatant by ensuring him victory rather than making it, in the end, a physical struggle between the two.

     But these are quibbles.  The main strength lies in the story-telling and the wonderful alienness of the Outsider.  This is no man-in-a-rubber-suit type of alien.  This is a spherical organism that utilizes rotating locomotion.  Carter calls it a “Roller.”

     Still, as much as I like this story, that issue of killing off an entire intelligent species keeps me from loving it.  For Carter, the choice is obvious: he wants to win and preserve his own species.  But suppose the entity decided to choose one to preserve and one to destroy based on criteria less arbitrary than a one-on-one cage match?  Do we humans really have much going for us, from a Universal perspective?  Are we any better or any worse than the other intelligent species that are out there?  We haven't encountered anyone else, so who knows?

     True, in Brown’s story the Outsiders are the aggressors and, based on Carter’s experience, we learn that they lack any recognizable form of compassion.  But we know from history that it doesn't take much for humans to take this same hateful, uncompassionate attitude.  So, would we be the best species to save?  Maybe we’d be better off letting a champion decide our fate after all.

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