Arena (short story)
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|Published in||Astounding Science Fiction|
|Publication date||June 1944|
"Arena" is a science fiction short story by American writer Fredric Brown, first published in the June 1944 issue of Astounding Science Fiction 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 payment and 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" and an episode of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe titled "The Arena".
Amid escalating conflict between Earth and mysterious alien Outsiders, massive armadas from both sides are set to meet in what looks to be an evenly matched battle. Bob Carson, the pilot of a small one-man scout ship blacks out while engaging with an Outsider counterpart. When he awakens, he finds himself naked in a small enclosed, circular area about 250 yards (230 m) across. In the distance is an Outsider, which Carson labels a "Roller" because its form is that of a red sphere about 1 yard (0.91 m) in diameter with several dozen tentacles.
Carson hears a voice in his mind that identifies itself as an evolved intelligence that has decided to intervene because the upcoming war would utterly destroy one side and hurt the other so badly that it would not be able to one day advance into an evolved intelligence like itself. This Entity therefore chose one individual from each species to fight in single combat. 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 only inanimate objects can cross it. Carson tries to communicate with the Roller, to see if a compromise is possible, but receives a mental message of unremitting hatred.
Carson is wounded in the leg. Inspired by seeing the Roller throw an unconscious lizard across the barrier, he knocks himself out on a slope and rolls through to the other side. He regains consciousness and kills the Roller using a knife knapped from a flint-like rock.
Carson immediately finds himself back in his scout 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 decides to keep his experience to himself.
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The story in effect recreates, under new circumstances, champion warfare: a type of battle, common 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, Isaac Asimov in The Last Question, Piers Anthony in Macroscope, and by David Brin in his Uplift universe series.