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Godwin, Tom

Entry updated 28 August 2023. Tagged: Author.

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Working name of US author Thomas William Godwin (1915-1980), whose life and career were afflicted by disease and misfortune: family tragedies caused him to leave school after third grade, kyphosis misshaped his spine and truncated his military career, and he was an alcoholic. He published the first of approximately thirty sf stories, "The Gulf Between", in Astounding for October 1953, and soon after wrote his most famous and compelling tale, "The Cold Equations" (August 1954 Astounding), in which a girl stowaway on a precisely payloaded one-person scoutship must be jettisoned by its pilot, because to transport her extra mass would require more fuel than the ship carries, making disaster inevitable and also dooming the colony to which the ship is heading with the medical supplies necessary for its survival. The story itself is precisely told in accordance with the Thought Experiment constraints described above, which are described as absolutely binding (no miracle solution, like jettisoning ship innards, or slingshotting around the target planet as a braking manoeuvre, is permitted); "toughminded" readings of the story, which have been frequent, tend not to reflect upon these minutely worked-out constraints. It is this double-edged "hardness" – minute obedience to minutely circumscribed premises – that may have inspired David G Hartwell to suggest that the tale is a metaphor for reading Hard SF in general (for resemblances between this tale and Robert Cromie's A Plunge into Space [1890], see the entry on Cromie). Dramatizations of the story appeared in the television series Out of This World (1962) and The Twilight Zone (1985-1987); it was filmed as The Cold Equations (1996).

Godwin's first two novels – the Ragnarok series comprising The Survivors (1958; vt Space Prison 1960) and its sequel The Space Barbarians (1964) – tell of the abandoned human survivors of an alien Prison planet who wait 200 years for revenge, then undergo Space-Opera adventures involving a demoralized Earth and telepathic allies but ultimately demonstrating – in the approved Astounding fashion – humanity's inextinguishable spirit. A similar bias governs Beyond Another Sun (1971), in which Aliens observe Man on another planet (see Anthropology). Godwin wrote relatively little – he seems to have been in constant pain during the later years of his life – and almost always within the expansionist tradition fostered by John W Campbell Jr. What he did write, however, though sometimes sentimentally conceived, exhibited considerable narrative verve and a fine clarity of conception. [JC]

see also: Antigravity; Colonization of Other Worlds; Moon; Physics; Proto SF; Religion; Space Flight.

Thomas William Godwin

born Arizona: 6 June 1915

died Las Vegas, Nevada: 31 August 1980




  • The Survivors (Hicksville, New York: Gnome Press, 1958) [Ragnarok: hb/Wallace Wood]
    • Space Prison (New York: Pyramid Books, 1960) [vt of the above: Ragnarok: pb/Bob Stanley]

individual titles

about the author

  • Diane Godwin Sullivan. "Tom Godwin: A Personal Memory" (Summer 1990 Quantum #37) [see Thrust: mag/]


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