2.16.2004

Frederic Brown: the Arena of SF

One of the problems of focusing on the present is that we bypass standing on the shoulders of giants who have made great yet forgotten strides in whatever field. Robert Sheckley is one name you’ve heard much mention of here. Frederic Brown is another.

The best essay on Brown is by Barry N. Malzberg found in his genre collection From These Ashes. He writes, “[Brown] has in the last few decades fallen almost completely out of print.” This is rather astounding, considering that his shorts have appeared in around a dozen or two of the year’s bests as edited by Judith Merril, Isaac Asimov, and Everett Bleiler--not to mention major retrospective anthologies like Terry Carr’s Treasury of Modern Fantasy and SFWA’s Science Fiction Hall of Fame.

“Arena,” his most famous story, is tenth on William G. Contento’s reprint list and fifteenth on SFWA’s list of best stories between 1929-1964, which is not too shabby considering the stories on that list. After one reads that story, the connection to Orson Scott Card’s masterwork, Ender’s Game (also influenced by Heinlein’s Starship Troopers), is unambiguous.

His best story may be “The Weapon,” which some may consider a vignette due to its brevity but packs a narrative arc which makes it unmistakably a full short story with the potency of stories ten-fold its length. But he wrote a number of works at this length and shorter that have more power than people generally give them credit because readers may fail to reflect on the portent of meaning/purpose/truth/theme/change [see forthcoming essays on meaning in life and in Andrei Tarkovsky's The Sacrifice] unpacked in relatively short space--a lesson in brevity that only passionate readers of poetry seem to be aware of [see forthcoming essay on the connection between poetry and SF]. One would have to take “Abominable” as another example--here, however, both Emshwiller’s and Brown’s stories combine for a greater effect than either alone.

His greatest work, however, gives its effect in a form that inhabits almost solely in the SF realm--an effect almost forgotten by our present-tense only eyes for genre [again, refer to future essay on poetry]: “Letter to a Phoenix.” The time-spanning effect we can grant to Olaf Stapledon who used it to compress entire histories of the universe into one narrative (although Wells predates both in his finale of The Time Machine). But Brown does it to such an impact that neither predecessor quite achieves through its use: as Malzberg writes, “[it] holds that humanity may be hopeless but it is absolutely unassailable.”

This is but one major attribute of SF almost wholly forgotten except in a few brief glimmers today (i.e. Paul di Filippo), which gives us the first in a string of examples of what the genre could learn from the example of poetry [see future essay on the connection between SF and poetry].

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