Thursday, April 8, 2010

Overlooked Authors Series

By Lyn McConchie, science fiction and fantasy author.

Tom Godwin was born January 1st 1915, and died on the same date in 1980. In his career he wrote three books and 27 short stories, most of which have very justifiably vanished into the dustbin of history.

Little is known of Godwin who lived for many years in a number of small towns around the Mojave Desert. During this period, he tried to earn a living in widely differing fields — as a prospector and a science fiction writer. He published 27 short stories and three novels in the course of the latter career, and perhaps because he knew the Mohave, his themes often concentrated on human survival in extremely harsh environments.

Godwin is best known and remembered for one short story entitled “The Cold Equations.” This story explains that equations have no mercy, show no pity, and cannot be appealed to by humans. They simply are, and you live or die as a result. The story is heart wrenching. The film, unfortunately, attempted to show a happier ending and blew it. That’s the whole drive of the story: that there can be no happy ending.

Cold Equations first appeared in Astounding, August 1954. The interesting gossip about this story is that when Godwin submitted it, it did have a “happier” ending but Astounding’s editor of the time – John W. Campbell - asked Godwin to rewrite it several times before the author finally produced the cold, brutal tale that has such impact on any reader.

What is often missed is that of the three books that Godwin wrote, one of those is also very good. It was initially published by Gnome Press in 1958 as The Survivors, and then by Pyramid Books two years later as Space Prison.

This book could be described as Military SF with some cause. Earth is at war with the Gern Empire. Earth’s rulers have known this was coming and the spaceship “Constellation” has been running fast and silent for seven weeks in the hope of reaching a new planet, Athena, where settlers can put down roots, and, unknown to the Gern, begin assisting Earth.

However, the Gern have found the Constellation and disabled it, and the settlers are informed that they will be divided into two groups – The Accceptables and the Rejects. The Acceptables will be taken on to Athena to serve the Gern, the rejects will be dumped on an “earth type planet.” They will be graciously permitted to take one small carry bag each before they disembark.

But the “earth type planet” turns out to be Ragnarok, a hell world of 1.5 gravity, terrible beasts, killing weather, and decimating fevers. Onto this world, the Gern’s have dropped two thousand people, a pitiful heap of food and supplies, little useful clothing, and few weapons. Two hundred people die that first night. By morning, the Rejects know what they have to live for - revenge. If they had nothing to use but crushing gravity and deadly beasts, then they would take what they had and use them.

And so they do.

The story of how they survive generations, desperately trying not to loose all knowledge, gradually building back their numbers from a low point of a third of the original rejects, and how they decide that they can call in and use the Gerns to begin a fight for freedom, is inspirational and stunning.

The sequel to this book -- The Space Barbarians, Pyramid Books 1964 --, is adequate. It’s as if someone pointed out to Godwin that the Rejects would have trouble integrating and a book dealing with this would be good. So he wrote it. It slides by, IF you liked the original book a lot and wondered yourself about the Ragnarakians. If you come to it cold, then it’s unlikely you’ll appreciate it.

For those who’d like to read Space Prison, Project Gutenberg has it available on free download as it is apparently out of copyright, and Baen published a compilation of some of Godwin's work in April 2003 under the title of The Cold Equations and Other Stories. This contained the whole of Space Prison, the Cold Equations, and seven other short stories. However, I feel that they'd have done better to publish two volumes, one of all 30 of the short stories, and the other of the two novels - with perhaps the third stand alone novel as volume three.

Most readers of SF aren’t familiar with Tom Godwin’s work. The amount he produced was so small, with much of it mediocre, that he isn’t well remembered today. I think that’s a pity, The Cold Equations, and Space Prison equal many other fine books and stories that are well remembered. I suggest that you see if you can find and read them. Both works will repay your attention.

Godwin managed to have a very long writing career. His first story appeared in Astounding in October 1953, while his last story was published in Fantasy and Science Fiction in March 1980 – almost three months after his death. Twenty-seven years isn’t a bad career length.

Bibliography – Books The Survivors (Gnome Press, 1958) a.k.a. Space Prison (Pyramid Books, 1960)
The Space Barbarians (Pyramid Books, 1964)
Beyond Another Sun (Curtis, 1971)

Short Stories -
1. "The Gulf Between" Astounding, October 1953
2. "Mother of Invention" Astounding, December 1953
3. "The Greater Thing" Astounding, February 1954
4. "The Cold Equations" Astounding, August 1954
5. "No Species Alone" Universe, November 1954
6. "You Created Us" Fantastic Universe, October 1955
7. "The Barbarians" If, December 1955
8. "Operation Opera" Fantasy and Science Fiction, April 1956
9. "Brain Teaser" If, October 1956
10. "Too Soon to Die" (basis for his novel The Survivors) Venture, July 1957
11. "The Harvest" Venture, July 1957
12. "The Last Victory" If, August 1957
13. "The Nothing Equation" Amazing, December 1957
14. "The Wild Ones" Science Fiction Stories, January 1958
15. "My Brother" The Ape" Amazing, January 1958
16. "Cry From a Far Planet" Amazing, September 1958
17. "A Place Beyond the Stars" Super Science Fiction, February 1959
18. "Empathy" Fantastic, October 1959
19. "The Helpful Hand of God” Analog, December 1961
20. "...and Devious the Line of Duty" Analog, December 1962
21. "Desert Execution" The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Magazine, July 1967
22. "The Gentle Captive" the original story anthology Signs and Wonders (1972)
23. "We'll Walk Again the Moonlight" the anthology Crisis (1974)
24. "Backfire" Ed McBaines 87th Precinct Mystery Magazine, April 1975
25. "The Steel Guardian" Antaeus, Spring/Summer 1977
26. "Social Blunder" Amazing, July 1977
27. "Before Willows Ever Walked" Fantasy and Science Fiction, March 1980

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