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Author Topic: EP423: Arena  (Read 11600 times)

eytanz

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on: November 24, 2013, 05:55:11 PM
EP423: Arena

by Fredric Brown

Read by Bill Bowman

--

Listen to this week’s Escape Pod!
« Last Edit: December 13, 2013, 01:08:09 PM by Talia »



chemistryguy

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Reply #1 on: November 25, 2013, 11:46:31 AM
Fredric Brown is a taste of nostalgia.  His are the stories I read when first getting into science fiction.  Dated as they are, I love his short stories to pieces, and I can only hope there are other old geezers like myself listening out there.

I'd read Arena before, so the surprise ending was no surprise.  Still, this one stands as a perfect example of his writing style.  Set up what seems to be an unsolvable dilemma and solve it through unconventional means.  There was always some kind of satisfying twist to all of his short stories.

One very short story in particular, Nightmare in Blue, resonates with me decades later as one of the most horrifying scenarios I've ever read, especially so after having kids.


darkgumby

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Reply #2 on: November 25, 2013, 06:49:15 PM
I first read this story in 1980 or so and it is still one of my favorites.

One of the things that most fascinated me about this story is the roller. I've always wondered how it was possible for it to shift it's center of gravity to move.
I've come up with an idea that I think is viable. I wonder if my idea is obvious or unique. I'd like to see some other ideas before I share mine.



matweller

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Reply #3 on: November 25, 2013, 08:54:08 PM
Really, you only need a way to shift weight either by constant muscle contraction like a snake, or by some interior back-and-forth motion.



adrianh

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Reply #4 on: November 26, 2013, 05:50:07 AM
Ah. An old favourite of mine read wonderfully. First read this back in my early teens in a Reader's Digest imprint of the story.

Oh look. The googles have found the illustration from that edition!




towrofterra

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Reply #5 on: November 26, 2013, 07:29:31 AM
First off, let me just get one thing clear; I liked this story immensely, even without having seen the referred Star Trek episode. However, I found the attitude of the roller towards humanity as almost childish. There is no reasoning behind it, just pure destruction. I think it was an excuse not to delve too deeply into an alien mind. This could be taken as lazy, or as an ingenious plot device to stop us from understanding, and therefore possibly sympathizing, with the Roller.



matweller

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Reply #6 on: November 26, 2013, 02:42:53 PM
Or it could just be that the story was told from the point of view of the scared, frantic human who didn't know much about the alien, and when the alien made it's intent to go ahead with the kill-or-be-killed scenario, he was forced to do likewise. If anything, the offense for me is either that there was no reckoning for the 3rd party alien that put them in the arena or that the sole criterion for determining your race's right to survive is which representative lives.

I mean, the alien has an opportunity to play Solomon with this lesson and at the moment of death, freeze everything and say, "[to the victor] is becoming the one responsible for the eradication of a sentient species really what you want? [to the loser] Would you want to chance everything you know and care about on warring with these aliens? No? Then go back and stop this foolishness before it begins." But instead it's just might-makes-right, have a nice day simplicity. There's a primitive beauty in it, but it feels hollow.

That said, it was a simple, cute, short story and I enjoyed it. I'm also VERY happy with how well Bill did reading it.



Max e^{i pi}

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Reply #7 on: November 26, 2013, 03:34:04 PM
Wow.
When Bill started reading I got the sense of familiarity, of "I've been here before". But I couldn't quite place it. I thought maybe I had seen the ST episode... but then the description of the blue sand trickling onto his bare thigh brought it all home to me. I READ THIS STORY! AND I LOVED IT!
Something about the image that I conjured in my mind must've called back an identical image placed there long ago. This must have been more than 20 years ago, and I don't even remember where I had read it, but it all came back in a flash. That didn't detract from my enjoyment of this episode though.
One thing that did disturb me this time around was, why does the entity care whether these two species destroy each other? Do we care that ant colonies and termite colonies destroy each other all the time? No.
But then the entity explained that one day the human race might also achieve this gestalt super-mind-entity. And I thought, "Aww, all of the multidimensional timespace lie at this entity's metaphorical feet and yet it's lonely."
So, add that to what Alasdair said about the real test, and you get a pretty deep piece layered in there.
Now excuse me, I'm going to check my anthologies for more Fredrick Brown.

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matweller

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Reply #8 on: November 26, 2013, 07:50:51 PM
You may want to look for "Fredric" Brown too. ;)

See also http://tinyurl.com/ofuxtvj



Fennel

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Reply #9 on: November 27, 2013, 12:14:58 AM
I really enjoyed this story. As a youngish science fiction reader, I haven't read as many of the classic authors that I should, and it's fun to read the stories that established many of the themes that are common in fiction now. I thought it was great timing that this story was featured around the same time that Ender's Game and Catching Fire are playing in the theaters, since it feels almost like a stripped-down, simplified version of the combination of the two. There's something in the raw immediacy and simplicity of the story that makes it feel almost cutting edge, even though I know that there are "dated" elements. I was actually happy that there was no empathy for the other race, and no sense that violence wasn't inevitable. It feels refreshing in the current context where the "other" is often painted with empathy even as the main character kills them.
On the more technical side, I thought Brown's pacing was excellent. He pulled off the use of the main character's falling in and out of consciousness as a way of marking the passage of time, without sounding corny or forced. Usually, when I read stories of characters going in and out of consciousness, it feels like a cop out, especially when they bounce back right as rain afterwards. Here, the loss of consciousness becomes a pivotal device in the story.
I was unhappy when the roller tortured the lizard creature because it seemed like a lazy way to emphasize the rollers monstrosity. However, I can partially forgive him because the tortured lizard also becomes an integrated part of the story, and the other lizard doesn't magically fix everything for the human because he acted mercifully. I wonder if we're meant to think the lizards were controlled by the mysterious entity?



InfiniteMonkey

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Reply #10 on: November 27, 2013, 06:50:32 AM
It's interesting how this story and the Star Trek adaptation differ, for both good and ill.

I think this story's actually a lot more action packed, even if ST "ends with a bang". Plus it has the insanity of hitting yourself on the head to get through the force field (really? Is that the solution the overmind had in mind? I thought he was just gonna fall asleep against it...)

But I think the ST story has more moral dimension to it. I don't know if it's a function of how society has grown, or SF, or just the moral vision of Star Trek... but it is something.

And I noticed that PodCastle ran an even more old-timey story this week -- was this Voyage to the Past week?




Ocicat

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Reply #11 on: November 27, 2013, 09:17:01 AM
Am I the only one who kept hearing "da da DUN DUN DUN DUN da da DUH da!" in their head over and over while listening to this for some inexplicable reason?  ???



Thundarius

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Reply #12 on: November 28, 2013, 04:08:09 AM
I hardly ever read the synopsis for escape pod.  I started listening to the story and remembered in the intro that this was an older story.  Once the alien voice mentioned that the creatures would have a duel to the death, i was immediately reminded of Star Trek.  It was then that I happened to look at the synopsis on the front of my iPod and read the description.  I am glad that the writers of Star Trek kept Kirk dressed.
There are classic stories like this one that are timeless and the core of the story still holds true. After thinking about it, a somewhat similar action happened in Babylon 5.  It wasn't a duel to the death and the other race didn't die, but none the less one person was able to determine the outcome of a war. 



Thunderscreech

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Reply #13 on: November 28, 2013, 02:28:56 PM
Science fiction gives us a chance to address nagging questions about life.  Sometimes, it's painful introspection about race relations.  Other times, it might be about the sociological implications of innovation outstripping morality. 

And then once in a while, you find yourself forced to confront the age-old question that has haunted man since the dawn of time:  How would YOU defend yourself against a homicidal beach ball in a mano a sphero knock down drag out fight to the death?



Devoted135

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Reply #14 on: December 01, 2013, 08:15:27 PM
I must say that this story creeped me out. A third-party entity randomly chose a representative of each civilization to participate in a compulsory duel because "evolution must be allowed to go on?" ??? So many objections here, but I'll just note that the modern understanding of evolutionary processes involves lots of competition.

That said, I can appreciate why the story still has legs after all this time, and I'm not sad to have heard it. I was impressed by how each little detail came together to reveal a creative solution, and I was surprised that the main character didn't attempt to fall asleep against the barrier before going to the extreme of knocking himself out.


And then once in a while, you find yourself forced to confront the age-old question that has haunted man since the dawn of time:  How would YOU defend yourself against a homicidal beach ball in a mano a sphero knock down drag out fight to the death?

Thank you, I needed that laugh. :D



ancawonka

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Reply #15 on: December 02, 2013, 06:59:06 PM
Because this story was written in the early days of science fiction, I knew the ending:  white man conquers violent alien species through superior intelligence and strength.

The lack of twist or empathy didn't detract from my enjoyment of this action-packed, yet intellectual, story.  The pacing was great, and I was engaged in the action (and trying to figure out how the problem would be solved). 

It seems like the meta-alien was cheating a bit, giving him the answer about the lizard.  I wish he'd figured out the solution on his own, rather than having to get help from the deus ex machina.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to put a fighting fish and a scorpion in adjoining fish tanks and see how long it takes them to kill each other if I stop giving them food.



Devoted135

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Reply #16 on: December 02, 2013, 07:14:30 PM
On the more technical side, I thought Brown's pacing was excellent. He pulled off the use of the main character's falling in and out of consciousness as a way of marking the passage of time, without sounding corny or forced. Usually, when I read stories of characters going in and out of consciousness, it feels like a cop out, especially when they bounce back right as rain afterwards. Here, the loss of consciousness becomes a pivotal device in the story.

I meant to comment on this as well. The reading was really great, and the "falling in and out of consciousness" passages were especially effectively done.



Unblinking

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Reply #17 on: December 03, 2013, 03:09:32 PM
I admit I groaned a bit when it seemed a little too by-the-book classicky SF at the contrived setting up of the arena battle.

But I actually liked this one.  I felt that making the alien full of uncompromising hatred was a bit of a copout, but a reasonable choice to justify the rest of the story--I liked that the protagonist at least tried to offer peace. 

Was it an unreasonable and strange choice for the super-aliens to intervene in this battle?  Sure.  But they're super-aliens who have nothing better to do.  I'd guess they're doing it more from boredom at watching the universe tick away as anything.  I don't think there's necessarily anything altruistic about their intentions, and I'm fine with that.

I agree with Alasdair that the real test was the treatment of the lizards.  In the end he won the day because of his empathy--he followed the lizard instead of killing or ignoring it, and he killed the other lizard out of mercy.  And that wouldn't have been possible without the roller's cruelty, so the combination of the two were what gave him the edge.

When I realized the broken lizard had passed through the barrier I reached the conclusion of unconsciousness (or wounding) right away, so that was an exciting revelation.  I did not imagine he would actually knock himself unconscious, rather that he would just lean against the wall until exhaustion took him. But I see how that would be a problem, as he'd probably just sleep until he died then.  Though it also strikes me as unlikely that he could gauge the exact way to hit himself that would knock himself briefly unconscious without causing too much injury.



matweller

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Reply #18 on: December 03, 2013, 03:12:51 PM
I admit I groaned a bit when it seemed a little too by-the-book classicky SF at the contrived setting up of the arena battle.
Can you get upset about a cliche' when the object of discussion is one of the stories that made the cliche'? :P



chemistryguy

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Reply #19 on: December 03, 2013, 05:31:05 PM
I admit I groaned a bit when it seemed a little too by-the-book classicky SF at the contrived setting up of the arena battle.
Can you get upset about a cliche' when the object of discussion is one of the stories that made the cliche'? :P
Touché.  Although I'd classify it as a trope.


Unblinking

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Reply #20 on: December 03, 2013, 06:10:37 PM
I admit I groaned a bit when it seemed a little too by-the-book classicky SF at the contrived setting up of the arena battle.
Can you get upset about a cliche' when the object of discussion is one of the stories that made the cliche'? :P
Touché.  Although I'd classify it as a trope.

Depends on what you mean by "get upset about", I suppose.  Can I blame the author for lazily using a trope/cliche?  Not fairly, I can't.  Can I still be disappointed that a story is all-too familiar and is dull because I know exactly what to expect because I've read stories like it before?  Yes, I think I can.  It didn't turn out to bug me in this case in the long run.  :)




PotatoKnight

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Reply #21 on: December 03, 2013, 08:18:47 PM
I admit I groaned a bit when it seemed a little too by-the-book classicky SF at the contrived setting up of the arena battle.
Can you get upset about a cliche' when the object of discussion is one of the stories that made the cliche'? :P

I'm not sure we can completely give this story a cliche pass--E E Doc Smith was doing huge fleets of alien ships bent on destruction facing down similar armadas of stalwart humans all presided over by hyperadvanced post-physicality aliens back in the '30s.  It might not have been quite so hoary a cliche by the mid-40s, but the set up is far from original. Nor is it really shooting for original so far as I can tell. A glance at Brown's Wikipedia page suggests he was quite happy using or skewering genre cliches as it fit what he was trying to do.

Brown seems to have started with the idea of imagining a return to champion-based warfare in the space age and to have contrived up a scenario around that. I can't be too bothered by that contrivance, since it's clearly not where the author wanted to focus. Likewise, while the morality of the story and particularly the super-aliens is interesting and troubling, especially coming off a deep Ender's Game reread, it's pretty clear that that's also not Brown's focus. In a sense, the aliens are the author--using fiat power to demand that Man and Beachball fight because of some reasons mumble mumble survival of sentient life. FIGHT FOR OUR ENTERTAINMENT!

And it is entertaining--the concept of champion warfare is a compelling one--turning something huge and impersonal and confusing (war) into something we can understand viscerally (stabbing). And this story invokes probably the most famous instance of champion warfare--David and Goliath. The winner in both stories even wins by knocking someone out with a rock!



Fenrix

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Reply #22 on: December 03, 2013, 09:29:00 PM

And I noticed that PodCastle ran an even more old-timey story this week -- was this Voyage to the Past week?

Good stuff. Thanks for running this one!


And PseudoPod ran one from the 60's as well this week.


Am I the only one who kept hearing "da da DUN DUN DUN DUN da da DUH da!" in their head over and over while listening to this for some inexplicable reason?  ???


No, except mine was being sung by Jim Carrey ala Cable Guy - oddly the only scene that has managed to remain in my memory is the Medieval Times duel that was an homage to the Star Trek episode. Not sure how I feel about that.

All cat stories start with this statement: “My mother, who was the first cat, told me this...”


Jen

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Reply #23 on: December 04, 2013, 08:12:48 AM
I had read maybe 20 years ago, but all I remembered was the fact that I read it. (I haven't seen the Star Trek episode either). I am not usually a fan of "old school" SF, with minor exception, so I was pretty surprised that this held up as well as it did. The setup did seem forced (sure, let's destroy an entire race based on two dudes' duel), but, well, millenia-old aliens can't follow the same thought processes I do. Overall, not my favorite story, but enjoyable.



albionmoonlight

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Reply #24 on: December 04, 2013, 06:25:43 PM
You could not write this story today without a lot more exploration of the idea of an unreliable narrator.  Did he pass out and hallucinate this?  Was it all in his head?

In this story, though, you just did not mess around with that idea.  "Did I just dream all that?  Let me check my scars.  Yup.  Got scars.  It totally happened."

A fun story and a neat blast from the past.  Holds up really well, I think.