The cold equations

AFTERWORD: Sometimes It All Just Works

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Sometimes It All Just Works

by David Drake

My parents' thirteenth birthday present to me, a collection of SF paperbacks bought from a guy going into the Navy, included an anthology titled Five Tales for Tomorrow. I've since learned that the paperback was a selection from Best SF of 1955, but I was just getting into SF at the time; all the names and ideas were new to me, and I had a thirteen-year-old's appreciation of style (that is, effectively no appreciation at all).

Till I dug out the volume a couple days ago, I couldn't have told you what the other four stories in the anthology were (though one of them, Simak's How-2, is justly famous). I say "the other four" because the second of the five was "The Cold Equations."

A few years ago Ramsey Campbell asked me to put together my list of the ten greatest horror stories of all time; the first story I thought of was "The Cold Equations." For me at least, the question isn't even arguable.

I've read a lot of Godwin since 1958. None of it is similar to "The Cold Equations" in tone, nor is any of it even remotely comparable to "The Cold Equations" in impact. Though (as you know if you've read this volume) much of Godwin's work is very good, all the rest of it put together wouldn't have kept him from the obscurity that's covered truly excellent contemporary writers like Wyman Guin and Ralph Williams (the pen name of Ralph Slone).

But Godwin did write "The Cold Equations." Eric suggests it may be the best science fiction story ever written. That's true, but it's even more likely to be the best known science fiction story ever written.

What follows is my guess as to how Godwin came to write something so uncharacteristic (and by the way, he never tried to duplicate that one enormous success). The plot is lifted directly from "A Weighty Decision," a story in the May-June, 1952, issue of the EC comic Weird Science. I don't believe that coincidence could have created plots so similar in detail.

But before I'd read "A Weighty Decision," I'd heard the rumor that Godwin offered the story to Astounding with a happy ending: the pilot manages to strip enough out of the ship to allow himself to land safely with the girl aboard. John Campbell read the story and told Godwin to change the ending so that the girl can't be saved. Godwin obeyed, and we have the story as it stands.

I believe the rumor for a number of reasons. Campbell was notoriously fond of telling his writers to change some critical point of a story before he bought it. (He did that in 1940 to my friend Manly Wade Wellman, which is why Manly sold "Twice in Time" to Startling Stories instead of Astounding—after he'd told Campbell to go piss up a rope.) Further, the story with a happy ending would be exactly the sort of triumph over enormous adversity story which Godwin generally wrote.

Finally, the plot is such an obvious steal from the comic that I think Godwin would have concealed it better if he hadn't intended to use a completely different ending. I can also imagine that Godwin wouldn't have expressed his qualms at changing the ending to Campbell, who wouldn't have winked at direct plagiarism. (Not that EC had any legitimate gripe: Bill Gaines laughed in later years about the way he and his staff at EC stole plots from SF stories and ran them without credit.)

So a good but not great writer, through a series of chances, came to write an outstanding story; perhaps the most outstanding SF story ever written. I don't know about the rest of you, but personally I take comfort in the notion.

Dave Drake



by Barry Malzberg

David Drake's remarkable short essay illumines the comment from A.J. Budrys' which I quoted in my preface, making what would otherwise seem an arcane reference completely understandable. (" 'The Cold Equations' was the best short story that Godwin ever wrote and he didn't write it.")

It is clearly on the record that a 1952 story, "A Dangerous Situation," appearing in the comic book Weird Science, uses the central theme and circumstance of "The Cold Equations." Although, in the Weird Science version, the stowaway is the pilot's fiancée who hid on the ship so that she could give him a nice surprise—her "nice surprise" is that she is jettisoned just as thoroughly as Godwin's heroine.

There is myth—but no concrete evidence—that Godwin, in the belief that Campbell (to whom he had just begun selling stories; "The Cold Equations" was his fourth appearance in the magazine in a period of less than a year) would never publish an ending this despairing, changed the Weird Science story so that the girl was saved. But Campbell, having none of it, flogged Godwin through numerous revisions until Godwin was forced to accept the implications of his own material (the universe is vast and uncaring and has no room for pity, sympathy or even awareness of the human condition) and reinstalled the original ending.

We are not sure of this . . .  The first collection of Campbell's letters, published in 1985, contains a letter to Isaac Asimov in which Campbell says, "I had Godwin really sweating over that story," but there are no specifics. It would be a pretty and resonant thing to believe that Campbell, all on his own, found the proper ending and made Godwin more of a copyist than he would have otherwise been, but we will probably never know.

What we do know is that Godwin's story, published in the August 1954 issue of Astounding, found an enormous response. As I said in my preface, and according to Campbell (a letter from that collection), it generated more mail than any story previously had—most of it apparently from anguished men who insisted that the girl could have been saved. (Harry Harrison in an introduction to the story in his Astounding anthology in 1972, said that the response to this story from ASF's overwhelmingly male readership proved that males were clearly the more truly sentimental and teary gender.)

Campbell then showed Godwin his appreciation by the apparent rejection of his stories over a period of more than seven years until "—And Devious The Line of Duty" appeared in the December 1961 issue of Analog. One more story appeared in the magazine exactly a year later, and that was it—although Campbell edited the magazine for another nine years and Godwin himself lived another nineteen.

Did someone perhaps tip off Campbell to the Weird Science story after the fact? We can speculate entertainingly and uselessly over the imponderable Campbell but we shall never know. Campbell certainly had an authoritarian and vindictive mode (John Brunner and Fritz Leiber, regular contributors who suddenly became contributors no more, have testified to that). But Godwin did sell to him again; and Campbell, in a letter to Scott Meredith rejecting a 1966 Godwin story (Godwin came to the Scott Meredith Agency in that year) expressed unhappiness with the outcome and said, "I'm glad to see he's back to writing, I've been trying to get him to do that for years."

So, who knows? Science fiction is in many ways imponderable; our apocrypha have often overcome the apparent truth. The history of science fiction, compiled offstage and in its interstices, can never truly be known.

Godwin's story, certainly the most famous of the so-called five most famous science fiction stories (okay, for the record, the other four are: Bradbury's "Sound of Thunder," Asimov's "Nightfall," Daniel Keyes' "Flowers for Algernon" and Arthur Clarke's "The Star") was signed by an obscure writer; none of Godwin's other stories is well known or often reprinted. The fact that two of the five most famous stories are by writers otherwise unnoted within the field and regarded in all of its precincts as "one-story writers" is highly provocative and says a great deal about science fiction itself. But that would be another essay.

How did this happen?

My answer, years ago, was that Godwin was a writer who at the age of thirty-nine, with no definable history and no estimable future, had been—as a soprano said about a Puccini aria in Girl of the Golden West—"kissed by God"; that Puccini and Godwin had not been creating at that moment so much as they had been listening; and Godwin's failure to produce anything remotely as memorable (not true of Puccini) makes the mysterious answer the only explanation.

That seemed reasonable enough before I knew of Weird Science. Now I am not so sure. This story and its provenance become more elusive and mysterious the more carefully they are considered. As The New York Review of Science Fiction debate made clear, there is less of a settled body of opinion on this story than there was ten or thirty years ago. This of itself is not an explanation or definition of a masterpiece; but it is certainly a quality whose absence means no masterpiece.

Beyond "The Cold Equations" are twenty short stories and three novels written by Godwin. Some of the stories—I opt for "The Gulf Between" and "Mother of Invention"—are quite competent. And the two prison planet novels (The Survivors and its sequel, The Space Barbarians) are memorable enough to have been optioned for film by the respectable Howard Chaikin only a few years ago.

The third novel, Beyond Another Sun, was written before Godwin came to the Scott Meredith Agency, was marketed everywhere by the agency for five years, finally sold to a bottom-line publisher in 1971 for a thousand dollars and barely issued . . . I've never myself seen a published copy nor have I ever read or met anyone who had a good word to say of that novel. (Although, in fairness, I should mention that the editor of this volume, Eric Flint, thinks it would have made a good novelette—unfortunately, Godwin tried to expand a too-slender framework into a full-length novel.)

Godwin, without "The Cold Equations," is a mid-range writer of the kind formed and framed by the 1950s. Some of those writers are clearly better than he, others not so good, and almost all of them have been forgotten by all than old science fiction fans. In deference to those writers or their estates I won't call the roster, but I would note Godwin's astonishing similarity in one way to the otherwise forgotten Jerome L. Bixby, 1923–1998, who also wrote one extraordinary and memorable story— "It's a Good Life"—and is otherwise unknown. But . . .  "It's a Good Life" has faded; "The Cold Equations" has not.

With "The Cold Equations"—and it is his story; he signed it, and there is no other fair ascription—Godwin comes as close to permanence as any writer to emerge from science fiction. If there are SF readers, if there is such a medium a millennium from now, Isaac Asimov and Arthur Clarke and "The Cold Equations" will still be read. The story has not only outlasted Godwin and almost all his contemporaries, it may outlast science fiction itself.

It is a mystery, this work, in the way that Puccini's great arias—my favorite is the Dove song which comes very early in the first act of Rondine—are mysteries. The marks on paper which cue the performer or reader are absolutely no indicator of the power, the tormenting, haunting, overwhelming power of the creation. For this we honor the creator, even if the creator was (as Mozart said of himself) only "taking dictation," was only the medium. What passed through Tom Godwin in one night or one week or one month in late 1953 was what Richard Strauss and Nietzche called "The World Riddle," the muss ess sein which Beethoven scrawled epigraphically on the opus 135 Quartet.

"Must it be?"

Yes, Beethoven and Godwin respond, yes it must be. It must be and here we all are: in its enclosure.

3l December 2001
New Jersey

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