Arena (short story)
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|Published in||Astounding Science Fiction|
|Publication date||June 1944|
"Arena" is a science fiction short story by Fredric Brown that was first published in the June 1944 issue of [Astounding] magazine. Members of the Science Fiction Writers of America selected it as one of the best science fiction stories published before the advent of the Nebula Awards, and as such it was included in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume One, 1929-1964.
The Star Trek episode "Arena" had some similarity to this story, so to avoid legal problems, it was agreed that Brown would receive a story credit. An Outer Limits episode, "Fun and Games", also has a similar plot, as does an episode of Blake's 7, titled "Duel".
The mysterious Outsiders have skirmished with Earth's space colonies and starships. Their vessels are found to be faster and more maneuverable, but less well armed. There have been no survivors of the small raids of earth forces so they have no information about the outsiders. Fearing the worst, Earth builds a war fleet. Sure enough, scouts report a large armada approaching the solar system. Earth's defenders go to meet them. All indications are that the two fleets are evenly matched.
Carson is the pilot of a small one-man scout ship on the outskirts of the fleet. While engaging his Outsider counterpart in battle, he blacks out. When he awakens, he finds himself naked in a small enclosed, circular area about 250 yards (230 meters) across. Other than vegetation and blue sand, he sees in the distance only a red sphere about a yard (0.9 meter) in diameter. The sphere turns out to be an Outsider, with several dozen fully retractable thin tentacles to manipulate objects. Based on its method of movement, Carson labels it a "Roller".
Then he hears a voice in his mind that identifies itself as the end product of the evolution of an entire race. While traveling through various spaces and dimensions, it had come upon the impending battle. The evolved intelligence decided to intervene because both humans and Rollers have the potential to one day evolve into a being like itself, but the upcoming war would utterly destroy one side and hurt the other so badly that it would not be able to fulfill its destiny. It therefore chose one individual from each species to fight in this small arena. The loser will doom its kind to instant extinction.
Carson and his opponent discover, through trial and error, that there is an invisible barrier between them, and that living things cannot cross it, though inanimate objects can. Carson tries to communicate with the Roller, to see if a compromise is possible, but receives a mental message of unremitting hatred.
He then observes his foe catch a small blue lizard, casually pull off its legs, and then throw the body unimpeded to his side. Thinking that the barrier is down, Carson charges and nearly knocks himself out when he is proved wrong. While he is on the ground recovering from the collision, Carson is seriously wounded in the leg by a rock thrown by the Roller.
Aware that his wound will eventually kill him, Carson searches desperately for a way to get to his enemy. When he finds that the blue lizard is still alive, he puts it out of its misery. Then realization hits him - the lizard passed through the barrier while it was alive but unconscious. Taking a risk born of ultimate desperation, he knocks himself out on a slope and rolls through to the other side. He regains consciousness but lies motionless in order to lure the faster, healthier Roller into range, then kills it.
The next instant, he finds himself back in his ship. He receives a jubilant message from his commander, informing him that Earth's first salvo somehow caused the entire enemy fleet to disintegrate, even the ships that were out of range. When Carson sees several newly healed scars where he had been wounded, he knows he did not imagine the fight, but wisely keeps his experience to himself.
The story in effect recreates under new circumstances champion warfare - a type of battle, most commonly found in the epic poetry and myth of ancient history but extinct in modern wars, in which the outcome of the conflict is determined by single combat, an individual duel between single soldiers ("champions") from each opposing army.
The idea of humanity facing an implacably hostile alien species bent on its destruction, with whom no negotiation or compromise is possible, is shared with Brown's "What Mad Universe".
The idea that it is the destiny of intelligent species — including humanity — to eventually fuse into a single "super-being", and that elder races who had earlier gone this way come to supervise humanity's development, was later taken up by Arthur C. Clarke in "Childhood's End".