Dani Zweig's Belated Reviews : archive

Belated Reviews #24: Tom Godwin

I've been concentrating primarily on major authors and primarily on novels, but Tom Godwin gets in largely on the strength of a single short story. (Good as it must feel to produce a story that has a lasting impact, it must be miserable to then keep writing for another quarter of a century without ever living up to that one story.) Aside from his stories,Godwin also wrote three novels, two of which I enjoyed far out of proportion to their literary merits.

"The Cold Equations" (****) is the story for which Tom Godwin is best known. It should be understood, at least in part, as a reaction to a subgenre of 'problem' stories, which typically got solved by the protagonist's pulling a scientific or technological rabbit out of a hat. The day would be saved when the hero realized that energy could be stored as angular momentum or that wheels don't have to be round (okay, so this came later, sue me) or whatever else the plot required. So Godwin wrote a story in which there was no rabbit -- just hard choices.

(A frequent complaint about the story is that the situation is highly artificial -- in particular, that spaceships are allowed unrealistically low margins of error. I don't see this as an interesting objection: Analogous situations arise in the real world frequently enough. The artificiality just allows the writer to get to the meat of the short story without getting bogged down in setting up the problem.)

It's a powerful story -- a bit overwritten, but still worth seeking out -- and has been anthologized frequently. (My own copies of the story are in Asimov's "The Great SF Stories" of 1954 and in Dikty's "5 Tales fromTomorrow", which consists of selections from "The Best Science FictionStories and Novels: 1955".)

"Space Prison" (***) was Tom Godwin's first novel. The three stars are a compromise between four, for how much I enjoyed it, back when, and two, for the plot holes I generally ignore and the writing that isn't equal to the author's vision. The space prison of the title is Ragnarok, a planet which likely helped inspire Harrison's "Deathworld" a couple of years later -- a planet of high gravity, impossible temperature extremes, murderous wildlife, and no usable resources. The expedition that discovered it wrote it off as uninhabitable after the sixth expedition member was killed. It is near Ragnarok that a colony mission is intercepted by enemies, and it is on Ragnarok that about half the colonists are left to die. Most do so in shortorder. The book covers the two-century history of this involuntary colony, as it survives and finally adapts and thrives.

"The Space Barbarians" (**) is a sequel to "Space Prison". The interception of the colony ship was the opening shot in a war that is still going on two centuries later, and which Earth is losing -- until the survivors of Ragnarok appear on the scene. (The space technology is such that their high-gravity adaptation is tactically decisive.) At the start of this book, three years have passed and the war that Earth spent two centuries losing is over. It can be hard to be grateful under such circumstances, and when disaster strikes Ragnarok, the survivors find themselves on their own. I first encountered this space opera in my teens, and enjoyed it more than "Space Prison", but it hasn't held up as well.

Paperback editions of "Space Prison" and "The Space Barbarians" show up periodically in used book stores. Godwin's third novel, "Beyond Another Star" (*), is a disappointment.


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Dani Zweig