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Saturday, November 1, 2014

"Arena" - It's Scientifiction

I've just finished my LIT 166 (Science Fiction) midterm.  This is an online class; the test was an essay question with a two hour time limit. We were instructed to write two pages about how one of the stories we've read for class demonstrates one of the "protocols" of science fiction that we've discussed, and to tie this together with the historical events surrounding the story.

I wrote about the short story "Arena" by Fredric Brown, and Hugo Gernsbeck's definition of a scientifiction story.

The short story “Arena” by Fredric Brown is a fine example of Hugo Gernsbeck’s definition of science fiction.  It fits the protocol, “"The ideal proportion of a scientifiction story should be 75% literature interwoven with 25% science."  In Gernsbeck’s definition a science fiction story shouldn’t be overwhelmed by scientific details, but rather, allow a general understanding of science to lay a foundation for an exciting story. Although “Areana” was first published in the June 1944 issue of Astounding magazine – a competitor to Gernsbeck’s Amazing Stories - it still displays Gernsbeck’s guiding principal: 25% science, 75% literature.  

The actual science content of “Arena” is fairly thin.  There are space craft that can travel out to Pluto’s orbit (Brown 228).  The human characters use long range “detectors” (Brown 229).  There’s an understanding of gravity and the realization that different planets have differing gravitational fields (Brown 230) and “radiotronic” messages sent across space (228). The concept of evolutionary development is treated very briefly (Brown 231). These are scientific aspects that the reader can understand and accept.  They are grounded in the reality that we know and, to some extent, understand.

But ”Arena” takes off from that thin scientific foundation to tell a story of an advanced creature, “the end of evolution of a race so old the time can not be expressed in words….a race fused into a single entity, eternal” (Brown 231).  This isn’t science.  Not really.  It’s imagination based on science.  This highly developed creature/species has powers that seem almost godlike, the ability to instantaneously transport two specimens of warring societies to some sort of timeless intradimensional space (Brown 232).  This is definitely not science, not as we understand it anyway, but Brown writes it well and, having grounded it with science that we do and can understand, develops the story with a literary freedom.

Pitted against a member of the “Outsiders” species as the champion of Earth in a timeless space within space combat arena, Carson, the human protagonist, uses a sort of scientific approach.  In this fight to the death that will decided the fate of both species, Carson uses science (of a sort) to defeat his opponent.  Again, the actual science is thin here, but it’s the scientific approach guides the story.  Carson uses a scientific method – asking questions, making hypotheses about his environment, experimenting, developing conclusions – and it is this that allows him to eventually overcome his opponent, and to save the human race.  The scientific details are detailed – that would slow the story.  But there are there to ground this fantastic story in what we know of reality.

In 1944, as World War II was turning in favor of the Allied forces, this story would certainly have resonated with its American readers.  “Arena” begins with the threat of invasion from the “Outsiders,” an alien race armed for battle and ready to conquer our Solar system.  It would be easy to read the Earth versus “Outsiders” of Brown’s story as Allies versus Axis.  The fate of the world seemed to hang in the balance, and Brown uses this real world situation to inform and guide his story.  The fear and desperation of very real people in a real life or death battle are transferred to this science fiction story. It’s not merely a fantasy, it’s not merely a dream. It is a scientifiction expression of real life – even if it involves little actual real world science. It is “scientifiction.”

Brown, Fredric. “Arena” The Science Fiction Hall of Fame: Vol. 1 1929 – 1964.  New York, Orb

Books. 1970 

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