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Monday, March 27, 2017

Last chance to buy: Arena

(* We're in the last week of our 25% off Sale of Arena here at Bear Alley Books as our two-year license is about to run out. Here's a taster of the introduction which takes a look at the SF notion of gladiatorial fighting...)

Blood and Circuses
    Welcome to the twenty-first century and the greatest, most exciting sport ever. The ultimate conflict… a fight to the death… men locked in mortal combat employing the most ingenious weapons of the day.
    Welcome to the Arena.
From our lofty position in the teens of 21st century, looking back at the predictions of past scholars can be an amusing pastime. On 14 August 2014, The Independent carried a list of “Visions of a future that didn’t exactly pan out,” featuring six writers ranging from Nostradamus to Isaac Asimov. The author of the list was surprisingly dismissive of an elderly Nikola Tesla’s prediction that we could expect—to quote the Independent—“robots working as labourers, and that milk, honey and wheat would suffice everyone’s appetites. Both are yet to prove accurate.” But, of course, automated production lines do exist just as Tesla predicted in his 1935 Liberty interview: “Innumerable activities still performed by human hands today will be performed by automatons.” Chalk up a point to Tesla.

Science fiction has predicted many of the great inventions and social trends of the past century, from mobile phones to ready meals. We should perhaps be grateful that not all its predictions have come to pass. In New Maps of Hell, Kingsley Amis wrote, “Several writers devise a socially approved system of murder committed as therapy for the murderer or simply for fun, and the correlation between a regularised society and the incidence of uncontrollable destructive urges is even more widely explored.”

Welcome to the Arena. Written in 1978 and set in the then distant 21st century, “Arena” was one of six stories that debuted in D. C. Thomson’s The Crunch, a “sensational NEW paper with the most DYNAMIC bunch of stories ever!” A whole new experience in boys’ papers, boasted the editor. “It’s for the boy of TODAY—packed with never-before-told stories with true-life features on the men who have faced the crunch in their lives.”

The heroes of The Crunch included a bounty hunter, a footballer investigating a weird medical experiment, a German soldier who discovers that Hitler survived the war and a traffic cop attempting to uncover the plot behind the assassination of the President of the United States.

The story that led most issues from the very first was “Arena”. The hero, Mark Sabor, was not a  soldier or lawman, but a reporter accused of writing seditious material. The story has a long pedigree in dystopian fiction: like Nineteen Eighty-Four’s Winston Smith, Sabor is a journalist; like Kafka’s K, he is arrested and secretly tried in a future controlled by an oligarchy akin to that of Jack London’s The Iron Heel. The world is heavily state controlled and—per Orwell’s Big Brother or the Bureau of Guardians in Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We—the ruling elite are quick to act when the status quo is threatened.

Following his trial, the defiant journalist has his rights of citizenship revoked. Believing he will be imprisoned and able to appeal against the sentence, Sabor is curtly informed that, as a non-citizen, his future lies in the Arena.

The Arena is a gladiatorial gameshow, televised to keep the masses distracted and pacified, although they also hold a far more important role central to the commercial interests of countries around the world. Country borders exist in this version of the 21st century, but control seems to be in the hand of corporations—only later will we discover that there is an even higher power—who will hire a company of gladiators and use their champion to battle on their behalf. Disputes over trade rights can be settled this way, echoing the premise of Mack Reynolds’ 1962 tale “Mercenary”, which featured mercenaries and brawlers who sign up for battles (known as fracas) between businesses. These fracas are fought using pre-1900 weaponry that does not violate a Universal Disarmament Pact and successful fighters can raise their status in the caste-riven society of the story. A loss can mean the death of thousands of mercenaries, the destruction of millions of dollars of military equipment and financial ruin for the company.

These fracas are televised for the entertainment of the lower castes. As one the characters explains: “Automation, the second industrial revolution, has eliminated for all practical purposes the need for their labor. So we give them bread and circuses. And every year that goes by the circuses must be increasingly sadistic, death on an increasing scale, or they aren’t satisfied.”

Battles in “Mercenary” are held on natural terrain. A later story in the same sequence, Time Gladiator, has a more specific setting: “The amphitheater covered an area of some six or seven acres. Overall it measured slightly more than six hundred feet by five hundred feet, but the arena itself, the fighting arena, was two hundred eighty feet by one hundred seventy. There were comfortable seating facilities for approximately fifty thousand persons, but on an occasion such as this—national games—they could, and did, pack in as many as seventy-five thousand spectators.”

This gladiatorial combat was, again, a way of turning large-scale arguments into manageable contests, the results binding—in this case a potential war between three major powers is to be decided by nine men who have been chosen to fight by the World Court.

(* Continued in Arena... available from Bear Alley Books.)

(* Arena © DC Thomson.)

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