Monday, August 25, 2014

Space Prison by Tom Godwin

"They were on Ragnarok, the hell-world of 1.5 gravity and fierce beasts and raging fevers where men could not survive."
My copy of the 1962 printing, front and back
In 1958 Gnome Press published Tom Godwin's The Survivors in hardcover.  Renamed Space Prison, the novel appeared in paperback in 1960.  In May I purchased a copy of Pyramid's second printing, which came out in 1962 and has a more arty and less sexy cover than the first printing.  This edition has an ad for John Gunther's Inside Russia Today on its final page; it was, apparently, your go-to book for understanding the post-Stalin USSR.

Space Prison is your go-to book for understanding the Gern Empire and the planet Ragnarok.  The Gerns have Earth, which is running low on natural resources, under blockade.  The human race's plan to escape this trap is to fill the colonization ship Constellation with 8,000 men, women and children and race it through the blockade.  The Constellation will colonize the resource-rich planet of Athena, which the Earthers think the Gerns don't know about, and there build a space navy that can challenge the Gern Empire.

The Gerns are more clever than we humans realized, however.  They know all about Athena, and as the novel opens the Gern navy captures the Constellation, kidnaps all the people aboard with technical training, and drops the rest of the passengers off on Ragnarok, the famously inhospitable hell-world.

isfdb image of 1960 printing
This is a good set up for an adventure novel, but Space Prison (whose original name, Survivors, is actually more appropriate) doesn't follow a single protagonist or a small party as they overcome obstacles and make discoveries and fight enemies or whatever.  Instead, it is like those epic sagas by Edward Rutherford that my wife reads that cover a thousand years of English or Russian history, following not individuals but families and societies.  Mr. Jones meets Samuel Johnson in the tavern, his son fights alongside Wellington at Waterloo, his grandson shows Queen Victoria around the Crystal Palace, his great grandson helps bury Rupert Brooke, his great great grandson helps Alan Turing crack the German code, blah blah blah. I don't care to read a book like that; I had hoped to be spending 158 pages with the rifle-toting he-man and the blondtastic chick on the cover of the 1960 edition. You can imagine how disappointed I was during the first 40 or so pages of Space Prison, as Godwin again and again introduced a woman or man whom I thought was going to be a major character, only to kill that person off a few pages later.    

Four thousand humans are dropped off on Ragnarok, and they immediately start dying by the hundreds, felled by vicious beasts that attack in packs, the "Hell-fever," or simple vitamin deficiency.  Fifteen years later the colony consists of fewer than 100 people, but these are the hardiest people Earth has to offer, and as they have children the colony begins to grow.  Generations pass, the colonists build a transmitter, domesticate native animals, develop a magazine-fed rapid fire crossbow, etc.  (This is one of those SF books that romanticizes engineering and science; besides hearing all about the stuff they build, we get lots of info on Ragnarok's climate, orbit, axial tilt, weather, relationship to other bodies in its system, and how all these things tie together.)

Finally, 200 years after their ancestors were marooned on Ragnarok, the people of Ragnarok use their transmitter to trick a Gern ship into landing.  Now 6000 strong, they capture the ship, and use it to capture still more Gern ships.  Because they are native to 1.5 gravities, and the Gerns to only 1, a Ragnarok crewed ship can outmaneuver a Gern ship, so the humans can win all the space naval battles.  The Gerns of two centuries ago unwittingly bred the nemesis of their own race; in a decade the Gern Empire is shattered.

Space Prison is a story about manly men making hard choices, struggles for leadership, the way different people respond to life and death situations, and perhaps most importantly, the primacy of the group over the individual.  A main theme of the book is how a real man sacrifices himself for the good of the community, and we get exemplary stories that reminded me of Horatius at the bridge or the story of Lucius Junius Brutus, founder of the Roman Republic, who stoically accepted the execution of his own sons, who were royalist conspirators.

For example, while away from the camp two men are attacked by monsters.  If they flee to the camp, the monsters will follow, find the camp and kill every human on the planet.  One man accepts this, and bravely faces certain death.  The other runs for the camp, and so the first saves the colony by shooting his comrade in the back before he can expose the camp to the monsters.

All three of the covers I am reproducing here
include Ragnorok's two suns; it's like the
artists actually read the book!
We also have a negative example, a fat guy who slacks and takes more than his fair share of food while everybody around him is starving, reminding me of the guy in the Broadway and Hollywood adaptations of Anne Frank's diary.  This hoarder and wrecker gets hanged when his cache of food is discovered, as immortalized on the cover of the Italian edition.

The theme of the importance of the community and need to sacrifice individuals for the good of the group echoes the theme of Tom Godwin's famous short story, "The Cold Equations."  (Important SF critic and writer Barry Malzberg, in the preface to a Baen collection of Godwin's work, tells us "The Cold Equations" is "perhaps the most famous and controversial of all science fiction short stories.")

Godwin's style is bland, sometimes poor; I found myself rewriting some of the sentences in my head, like when I'm copy editing student papers.  Because the style was not arresting, there were no individual characters to care about, and the plot held no surprises, Space Prison felt long.  I'm going to have to give this one a marginally negative review, just a few ticks below acceptable.  It is not offensively bad, just a little limp, flat, and long-winded.  

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I paid a dollar for my copy of Space Prison, but all you cheapos out there can read it for free online at Baen (the free sample chapters of their collection Cold Equations include the entire novel under its original title, The Survivors) or at Gutenberg, which reproduces the edition I own, even the ad for Inside Russia Today! 

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