RogerBW's Blog

The Survivors, Tom Godwin 11 May 2016

1958 science fiction. When the aliens capture a colony ship, they take the slaves who can work and abandon the rest on an uninhabited world. That's their error. (Also published as Space Prison.)

As with what's probably Godwin's best-known work, The Cold Equations, this book needs a very careful setup to produce the desired result. Although the colony ship has surrendered and the enemy Gerns could easily kill everyone aboard, they apparently need the cooperation of the Acceptables, their future slaves, and buy this by assuring them that the Rejects are being left on an Earth-like planet for later pickup. Then they actually do it, rather than just dumping the Rejects out of an airlock, because they may be alien space nazis but they wouldn't actually lie to their slaves. Except in turn that they would, because the planet in question is Ragnarok, full of extreme weather, vile diseases, colonistivorous wildlife, and 1.5G local gravity.

So most of the Rejects do in fact die. After a year or so it's clear that the Gerns won't be coming back for them and they won't be able to build their own ship in their lifetimes, and they start writing down everything they know, because they're going to have to take the long view: sooner or later a Gern ship will come, and then their descendants will have it.

This is a book of the 1950s, and that's thuddingly obvious at times: not just the "adaptable humanity ├╝ber alles" main motif, but the way women exist only to produce children. This is a multi-generational story, but after the initial scenes most of the female characters don't appear directly in the narrative, or get names even if they do. Mind you, even the men don't get characterisation: one is Nasty, one is a murderer who gets a fresh start (and had a good reason for it anyway), but that's about the size of it. The native fauna proves to contain wolf-analogues (eventually domesticable) and goat-analogues (that even give milk), as well as telepathic monkey-analogues.

I wonder whether Godwin had read E. E. Smith's Spacehounds of IPC, which famously has a pair of castaways working their way up from a salvaged fragment of spaceliner to a working hydroelectric generator. This is deliberately a much grimmer tale that takes a longer perspective, since it's 200 years before the Gern return. (Though, fortunately, they haven't changed the interior layout of their ships during that time, and nor have the weapons and tactics of space warfare advanced at all.)

It's enjoyable trottle which, oddly, might have been better off at greater length: the full story of someone's life, rather than a few pages touching on the significant moments from birth to death, might have built up a bit more emotional impact. I value it mostly for the realisation that some things just aren't achievable in a single lifetime, and then it doesn't matter how heroic you are, you still need to write stuff down. Followed by The Space Barbarians.

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  1. Posted by Michael Cule at 11:33am on 11 May 2016

    Trottle?

  2. Posted by chris at 12:32pm on 11 May 2016

    The Austrian, I assumed, for that which is rubbish but not actually rotting. Marianne Faithfull's mother Eva (von Sacher-Masoch, Baroness Erisso) was a friend of my mother's and used it for:

    junkmail ("Throw it away for me, there's a good girl; it is just trottle.")

    people who wittered on ("He is so trottling, darling")

    television ("Darling, do turn off the trottle-box.")

    Nazis ("They were nothing but trottle.")

    gash in general ("The room was so full of trottle we had trouble with walking, darling.")

  3. Posted by John Dallman at 01:34pm on 11 May 2016

    And gash is Royal Navy slang for rubbish, valueless, or at any rate surplus, material of any kind.

  4. Posted by Owen Smith at 02:01pm on 11 May 2016

    Apparently to those younger than us, gash means illegal drugs. We had to change a load of our published source code to rename parameters called gash to user_data (which admittedly is a much more descriptive term for them).

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