I just bought a used copy of this long out-of-print book. I first read it when it was released in 1978. I was working at Doubleday as a book club editor. It fell to me to do the write-up for it in the monthly publication that went to book club members.
A large part of my job was to read books. Talk about great jobs, that was the best of the best. I’m not sure I ever fully recovered from my Doubleday years. Not merely was I paid to read and write about books, but I received (as did all the editors and graphic artists in the department) new copies of every book we worked on. We all had very large personal libraries. We also had 2 hour lunches and wonderful co-workers. I looked forward to work the way most folks anticipate the weekend. It was that good. I realize this is a digression, but I wanted to put this in context and maybe brag a little.
The Far Arena is classified as science fiction. It is, sort of, but not in any traditional sense. It doesn’t fall into any of the usual sci fi categories. Time travel? Not exactly, but it has a time travel-ish feel to it.
The story in brief: A Roman gladiator is flash frozen in the arctic ice. He is accidentally discovered by a team drilling for oil and subsequently defrosted and brought back to life. What follows is his story as a Roman married to a Hebrew slave, and his perceptions of the modern world from the point of view of a man whose world disappeared 1600 years ago.
His observations on modern society are priceless. For example, while he is in the hospital, he asks about the slaves who serve him. He is referring of course to the to nurses and other workers who attend his needs.
His new friends explain that they aren’t slaves, that they work for wages and are free to leave or be dismissed by their employers. He thinks this is a fantastic idea. “You mean they do everything you tell them to do, but when they get old and can no longer work, you don’t have to take care of them? What a great idea! Slaves, but without responsibility.”
“They aren’t slaves,” insist his modern friends.
“They are treated like slaves, they act like slaves. They are slaves,” he responds. Who would like to argue the point? Not me.
That is paraphrasing, of course, but is captures the gist of the dialogue. I have never looked at the world quite the same way since I read this book. Modern workers have all the freedom of slaves, but no assurance that anyone will care for them when they are no longer able to work. That’s a pretty good deal from the owners’ … I mean employers’ … point-of-view.
This is a brilliant and unique book. It stands apart from the thousands of books I’ve read over the years. All other time travel stories are about modern people visiting the past. This is the only book I can think of where a man from the past offers a view of the modern world and it’s not a pretty sight.
Richard Ben Sapir wrote other books that are unusual and worth reading. I especially liked The Body, but The Far Arena stands head and shoulders above the rest. He only wrote a few novels. His world was really comic books, or what are now called “graphic novels” … making locating copies of his books more challenging. However you can get your hands on one – beg, steal or borrow — it’s a must-read,even if science fiction is not a genre you normally seek out. Whether “A Far Arena” is science fiction or plain fiction is a matter of opinion. I think it sits just on the edge where genres meet. (Question: When genres meet, do they have coffee together? Just wondering.)
You might check to see if your local library has a copy. I scored a good copy in hard-cover from a second-hand seller on Amazon for $8.50 plus shipping, not bad considering the book’s been out of print for 30+ years.
It would make a great movie. I can see it all in my mind’s eye. I recommend you read it if you can. You can find copies around occasionally and although he was not a prolific writer, he wrote a few other novels, all of which are very good and have unique stories.
Did I mention that it’s exceptionally well written? Highly literate? Well-researched? Convincing? All those things and a great, gripping story too.
You can hunt down used copies. They are available on Amazon (I just bought one as a gift) and more come up periodically. Sometimes you get lucky and find one of these rare books at yard sales or the Salvation Army. Then you get the book for literally pennies and you have fun hunting it down, too. On the average, you’ll find it’s less expensive than most new paperbacks and more than worth the price.