Back | Next

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


Back | Next