There are some authors who prolifically make their way through science fiction's publishing circles, but who remain relatively unknown to the larger genre community as a whole. One such author is Fredric Brown.
Brown was born on October 29, 1906, in Cincinnati, Ohio. As an adult, he found work as a proofreader and typesetter for the Milwaukee Journal and alsostarted writing mystery stories, beginning in the 1930s, for pulp magazines such as Street & Smith's Detective Story, Thrilling Detective, and Detective Fiction Weekly.
It was in 1941 that he published his first science-fiction story, titled “Not Yet the End,” in the January issue of Captain Future. Hit next two stories, “Armageddon” and “Mr. Jinx,” followed in August in John W. Campbell Jr.’s Weird Stories competitor, Unknown Worlds. From that point on, Brown unleashed a flood of short stories to other magazines such as Astounding Science Fiction, Planet Stories, Weird Tales, Thrilling Wonder Stories, and others.
In 1944, he published his breakout story, “Arena,” which appeared in the June edition of Astounding Science Fiction. This short story epitomized the type of story that Campbell was publishing in Astounding: an alien civilization has been fighting with Earth's colonies, and one pilot, Bob Carson, is captured during a battle, and is placed into an arena to fight one of the Outsiders, a spherical being with tentacles.
Carson is contacted by a third entity who tells him that they're being watched by an older, highly-evolved civilization that helps to shepherd younger species along the evolutionary path. Because the Outsiders and humans are facing a devastating war, the outcome will be determined through single combat—the loser's entire species will face extinction. Carson fights the alien and eventually wins by outsmarting his opponent.
The story was a popular one, enough so that years later, members of the Science Fiction Writers of America selected it for Robert Silverberg’s anthology Science Fiction Hall of Fame: The Greatest Science Fiction Stories of all Time. The anthology, which predated the professional Nebula Awards, collected a range of the genre’s best fiction.
The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction notes that Brown’s best work are his short stories: "Brown is possibly at his best in these shorter forms, where his elegant and seemingly comfortable wit, its Iconoclasm carefully directed at targets whose defacing sci-fi readers would appreciate, had greatest scope."
Indeed, he carried some of these conventions over to his later science-fiction novels, the first of which was written in 1949, titled What Mad Universe. However, it was his 1953 novel The Lights in the Sky Are Stars that really took apart typical genre conventions. Where many science-fiction authors have looked to space with an optimistic view, Brown went with a realistic one and set his book in 1997, at which time man went to space but the effort was decried as a waste of time, energy, and money. The story’s main character, Max Andrews, is a mechanic who’ll do anything to get into space. He teams up with Ellen Gallagher, a newly elected senator, to pursue funding for a mission to Jupiter. Ultimately, writes John Marr for io9, the novel “is a moving chronicle of one man sacrificing his small dream on the altar of Man's Big Dream.” Looking at exactly how the space race played out, Brown hit the tone and mood better than most authors out there.
While writing science fiction, Brown never abandoned writing mysteries: his first mystery novel was The Fabulous Clipjoint, published in 1947, which earned him an Edgar Award. Brown followed with a number of other books in the late 1940s: The Dead Ringer (1948), Murder Can Be Fun (1948), The Bloody Moonlight (1949), and The Screaming Mimi (1949).
Over the 1950s and into the 1960s, he published almost 20 novels, most of which were mysteries or straight up fiction. In 1955, he published his next science-fiction novel, Martians, Go Home, which featured an entertaining group of little green Martians who come to Earth to simply annoy everyone. Brown’s 1957 novel Rogue in Space fixed up two novelettes, “Gateway to Darkness” (published in the November 1949 edition of Super Science Stories) and “Gateway to Glory” (Amazing Stories’ October 1950 issue), about a sentient asteroid and an interstellar criminal. The novel is widely seen as one of his weaker novels. Brown’s final novel came in 1961, title The Mind Thing, and is about an alien banished to Earth for crimes it committed on its home world. The alien has the ability to take control of people, and he goes on a killing spree, forcing people to kill themselves, before a scientist realizes how to stop it.
Brown’s short fiction largely tapered off in the 1940s, but he continued to publish in both science-fiction and mystery pulps up through 1964. He passed away on March 11, 1972.
Brown might best be known for his famous short story “Arena,” but not necessarily because of the short story: In 1967, it was used as inspiration for an episode of Star Trek. In it, USS Enterprise captain James Kirk is beamed down to a planet and finds himself under attack. Both the Enterprise and the attacking ship are halted by the Metrons, who force each captain to fight to the death. This has become one of the most iconic episodes of the show. Interestingly enough, the story may have been created independently: it was only after the episode was written that the show’s writers realized that there were similarities to Brown’s story. Regardless, Brown was given credit for the story and compensated accordingly.
Another curious fact about Brown is that, despite his prolific output, his wife noted he hated to write, and tried to avoid it as much as possible, playing with the plots and characters until he forced himself to sit down before a typewriter. Brown’s best known for his sharp wit within his short stories that sought to puncture the genre’s well-loved conventions. John Clute, writing for the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, notes that “Brown was a kind of internal exile in the field of sci-fi, but in the end his gaze is marginally warmer than might have been expected,” a fitting description for the man and his works.