Thursday, March 15, 2012

High Gravity, Horrible Disease, Man-Eating Monsters and an Unpleasant Weather Forecast

Science Fiction writer Tom Godwin is best remembered today for his emotional short story “Cold Equation,” in which a young girl stows away on a space ship, causing her extra weight to endanger a rescue mission.

But he turned out a lot of quality stuff during his career. And if I had to pick a best Tom Godwin story, it would probably be his short novel Space Prison (1958).  (It’s also been reprinted under the title Survivors, by the way.)

An expansion of a short story called “Too Soon to Die,” Space Prison begins as a colony ship with 8000 passengers is captured by evil aliens (called Gerns). Half of them are kept as slaves. The other half are marooned with virtually no supplies on a planet called Ragnarok.

Ragnarok is well-named. The place is literally a Hell Planet, with gravity at 1.5 times that of Earth and full of a variety of deadly fauna. A disease called Hell Fever rips through the human community. Semi-intelligent carnivores called Prowlers attack constantly. Soon, they learn that Ragnarok’s erratic orbit means that there are regular periods of either searing heat or Ice Age-level cold.

It’s not at all a nice place and, at one point, the population level shrinks to less than 100. But the survivors fight back, slowly gaining a toe-hold over their environment. And one day, by golly, they are going to wreak vengeance on the Gern for stranding them here.

Despite being short, Space Prison is a multi-generational epic. There’s no one protagonist. In fact, the first few chapters very quickly run through a set of characters you think will be the protagonist, but who keep getting killed.

Often, the lack of a single, strong point-of-view character can weaken a story. But here, it strengthens it. In a very important sense, the society the survivors build on Ragnorak is the main character. The humans work not just to live, but to preserve their history and their technical knowledge, passing this down to each successful generation. This gives them a purpose —to one day regain contact with other planets and bring some major butt-kicking to the Gern.

Godwin really does a great job of making you root for the humans, regardless of who the current point-of-view character might be. He creates an admirable and believable community of humans who find a collective cause to live for; who stick up for each other because they’ll all die if they don’t; who fight not just to live but to eventually win.

A lot of the action centers around a years-long search (something possible only when the weather permits) to find an iron deposit somewhere on the metal-poor planet, so they can make real progress in recreating advanced technology. In the meantime, successive generations (each better adapted to the high gravity than the last) make do with spears and multi-shot crossbows. It’s a neat trick, giving Godwin a viable excuse to have his characters encounter new dangers and native creatures they hadn’t met before.

In a very general sense, Space Prison reminds me of Verne’s Mysterious Island, in that a group is stranded somewhere remote and must rebuild civilization from scratch. There’s also a little bit of “Androcles and the Lion” tossed in when the humans are able to form an alliance with the semi-intelligent Prowlers after generations of killing each other.

But Godwin’s novel has its own individual vibe nonetheless, zipping along from one deadly threat to the next without ever pausing for a breath. Comic book writer Warren Ellis once wrote that Space Prison is “as shamelessly gleeful as a short genre book should be.” I think that describes it perfectly.

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