The Original SF Story

A Brief Synopsis of Fredric Brown's 1944 Short Story, "Arena"
report & analysis by David Eversole

First published in the June 1944 edition of Astounding Science Fiction, Brown’s story was instantly hailed as a classic and has been reprinted numerous times. In 1970 the Science Fiction Writers of America voted it one of the 26 greatest science fiction short stories of all time.

Gene Coon’s teleplay bears little resemblance to the story other than the basic premise of a human and alien forced into combat in an "arena," with the destruction of the loser’s race as the stakes. In their behind the scenes tome, Inside Star Trek, Herbert F. Solow (former executive in charge of production for Desilu Studios) and Robert H. Justman (Co-producer of Star Trek) avow that Coon wrote the script in one weekend and only became aware of its similarities to Brown’s story when it was pointed out by a member of the studio's research team.

This review will concentrate on Brown’s short story and leave the connections to the reader.


Bob Carson awakes, finds himself naked, lying on blue sand.

As his eyes adjust to a blinding blue light, he realizes that he is inside a dome approximately five hundred feet wide at all points and just as high. It is torturously hot.

For a moment he cannot remember how he got here. Then it returns to him. He had been flying his one-man scout ship a scant million miles ahead of the armada of human warships gathered outside of the orbit of Pluto, amassed to await the invasion of a race called the "Outsiders." Humans had never seen the enemy, and only guessed that they originated somewhere between the Solar System and the Pleiades, but the Outsiders had been raiding human colonies, leaving no survivors, and there had been numerous skirmishes between Human and Outsider patrols.

But now the Outsiders were coming en masse, and the forces of Earth were waiting.

Suddenly the proximity alarms had sounded in Carson’s scouter, and the sensors detected an approaching Outsider vessel. Carson brought his ship to bear on the small enemy ship, closed in for the kill, his finger pressed against the firing mechanism which would unleash his vessel’s weapons. And then he saw ground through his visiplate, a planet’s surface. He braked hard, and passed out from the terrific g-forces.

And then he had awakened, naked, on blue sand, spotted here and there with rocks and small scraggly bushes, inside a dome. And it was hot as hell. As he sits and wonders if he is dead, he hears the voice inside his head.

"Through spaces and dimensions wandering, and in this space and this time I find two peoples about to wage a war that would exterminate one and so weaken the other that it would retrogress and never fulfill its destiny, but decay and return to mindless dust whence it came. And I say this must not happen."

When Carson wonders what it is, it tells him that it is the end of evolution of a race so old he would not be able to comprehend, a race that has become fused into a single entity, a race such as either Humans or Outsiders may become. To insure that at least one of the races survives, the entity has brought Carson and an Outsider to this arena to battle to the death using only what weapons they may fashion from the materials at hand. The loser’s race will be wiped from existence, the race of the winner will thus progress and fulfill its destiny. The entity has placed a barrier down the exact center of the dome so that Carson and his opponent may not engage in physical combat, as this is not a test of strength, but of courage and ingenuity and the will to survive.

And the voice inside his head is gone and Carson hears a noise, looks up to see an Outsider rolling toward him. A red sphere with no discernable limbs, and before it, in a manner he cannot fathom, it is projecting putrid, nauseating hatred at him. Five feet away, it suddenly stops as it smacks into the invisible forcefield separating the two. Small cilia-like tentacles snake out from the beachball-like Outsider and tentatively touch the barrier. Carson likewise runs his hands over it. It extends higher than he can reach.

Carson speaks to the Outsider, asks if there is any possibility that there can be peace between the two, and between their races. He is suddenly hit with a wave of mental energy—HATRED, unreasonable hatred.

Carson and the Roller, as he names it, soon discover that the barrier will allow rocks, sticks, anything inanimate, to pass through. They engage in battle, stalking each other, armed with rocks, waiting for a moment when the other is unattentive to hurl them at each other.

The Roller catches a small lizard-like creature that is seeking shade beneath a bush and maliciously tears its ten legs off while it is still alive. When the creature finally quits struggling and hangs limply in its tentacle the Roller hurls it through the barrier at Carson.

Carson takes a hit on his calf from a jagged rock hurled by the Roller. Soon it is infected, and he grows delirious. He tries to keep as far from the barrier as he can on his side but the Roller builds a small catapult from the limbs of the scraggly bushes so that it can hurl larger stones at him.

Carson is almost unconscious from the effects of the infection, and is growing desperate for water. As he sits slumped against the side of the dome enclosing them, he goofily says "Hello, there," to a lizard-creature that scurries up to him.

"Hello," says the lizard. Carson is very aware that he is losing his mind, his will to survive.

But he manages to find flint-like stones and makes himself a spear using a straight limb and bush tendrils as wrapping. He also fashions a flint knife and tendril belt. He ties together several bushy branches using tendrils as rope, weights them with a rock, and finally attaches a small length of vine to swing it above his head. He uses two pieces of flint to strike a fire, and lights the bundled bushes, hurls several of these "fire-bombs" towards the Roller’s catapult. After several tries, one burning bundle lands on the catapult, sets it ablaze. The Roller sends waves and waves of hatred his way as its weapon is completely incinerated.

Despite his best efforts, the tired Carson falls asleep. He awakens, nearly dead from exhaustion and thirst. A small lizard scuttles up to him. "Hurt," it says, "Kill. Hurt--kill. Come." The lizard scurries away, stops, looks back -- it obviously wants Carson to follow. Still not quite believing that a lizard is talking to him, he groggily follows.

He finds the lizard which the Roller had sadistically mutilated, still alive, but wriggling and screaming in agony. The lizard that brought him here is asking that Carson mercy kill it to put it out of its misery. Carson takes the flint knife from his rope belt and kills the poor lizard.

But. . . Carson ponders. . . this lizard passed through the barrier though it was alive. How did a living creature. . . ? And then he knows! It passed through because it was unconscious. That was the key. He could get through the barrier and engage the Roller with his spear and knife if only he was unconscious.

Carson devises a plan, desperately hoping that it will work. He attaches twenty feet of tendril to his spear, ties one end of it around his wrist. He securely places his flint knife in his vine belt, and leans against the barrier. He picks up a rock and smashes himself in the head.

He comes to. How long has he been unconscious? He looks about frantically. He is on the Roller’s side of the barrier and even now it is rolling at him, hatred going before. Carson staggers to his feet as the Roller launches itself at him. He hurls his spear with all his might, buries it deep within the creature. The Roller attempts to run away, drags Carson who holds onto the vine attached to the spear. Slowly Carson pulls himself hand-over-hand along the rope.

The Roller knows it is doomed, and turns to fight. They grapple and its tendrils tear at his chest, but he stabs it over and over with his knife until it falls limp. Dead!

A bell is ringing!

Carson is strapped into his scout ship and the bell is his communications signal. A message from his mother-ship. Come on in, Carson is told, the fight’s over. We won.

Was it all a dream? It couldn’t possibly have happened. His scout’s chronometers show that no time has passed, but there is a healed scar on his leg that was not there before. A scar where his leg had been gashed open by a rock thrown by the Outsider. And his chest is criss-crossed with scars from the final hand-to-hand fight.

Onboard his mother-ship, Carson goes to his commanding officer’s office, is informed that a single salvo from the humans ignited the entire Outsider fleet. It was as if the blast of energy jumped from ship to ship. Every single vessel simply disintegrated!

The commanding officer commiserates -- too bad Carson, out in his scout ship, missed all the excitement.

"Yes, sir," Carson agrees, knowing that he would be branded the worst liar in the space service if he told his story, "too bad I missed all the excitement."

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