Review: The Survivors

Tom Godwin
1958

I like his style. Tom Godwin writes from a very dark perspective. I mentioned in the Close Up that the cover looked dramatic and impressive, and that it gave me a good feeling for the content. My feeling was correct. This book is dramatic. It’s dark. It’s filled with that kind of obsessive resentment that you harbor over a lifetime, single-mindedly planning, watching and waiting for the opportunity to unleash against the unfortunate but deserving object of your vengeance.

I get the impression that Tom Godwin wrote this story while dressed in moldy rags, hunched over a dirty scrap of paper with a rat-gnawed stub of a pencil that he had to keep sharpening with his teeth, while starving in the clammy corner of a dank, dark, locked room.

The story starts under a cloud of fear, fugitives broken through the blockade around Earth, running silent at at the limit of their ships capacity, hellbent for safety and refuge on a distant planet.

But it all turns to custard.

The alien antagonists find and cripple the ship, take the fit for slave labor and dump four thousand Rejects (as they call themselves), apparently doomed to a very short and brutal life on the hell planet of Ragnarok.  But, as you know, the name of the book is The Survivors, and survive they do.

The scope of this book is big,  too big for it’s 190 pages.  If this was written today it would be of Helliconian dimensions.  Alas, in the 1950s, people weren’t really envisaging multi-volume science fiction epics.  Actually, the backdrop of the Helliconia Trilogy is very similar, so similar in fact that I could be tempted to say that Mr Aldiss drew some inspiration from this novel.  Ragnarok – like Helliconia – orbits a star.  That star in turn orbits another in a binary system.  This leads to an unusual seasonal rotation.  The planet’s primary orbit around it’s star maintains an Earth-like minor seasonal cycle, and the secondary orbit around the other star induces major (longer and deeper) seasons.  This of course means that the major winter and summer are killers.  Fortunately, the major seasonal cycle on Ragnarok is much shorter that the two and a half thousand years that Helliconia is immersed in it’s major seasonal cycle.

If the climate of Ragnarok is brutal then the fauna is equally so.  Between the wildlife, the climate and the ‘Hell Disease’, our few thousand castaways are whittled down to less than a hundred in short order.  There is no romanticism here.  As the tale progresses through the generations of those that eke out an existence on Ragnarok, characters who are shaping up to play major roles are killed quickly throughout the book.  A little disconcerting from the point of flow perhaps, but it lends a certain amount of realism, especially in this environment.  I like it.

I only have two major issues with this book, one is that the brevity doesn’t do the story justice as I mentioned, the other is the seeming ability to conjure something out of nothing in the way of manufacturing processes and technology.

Example:  Becoming fed-up that their traditional-style bows and arrows are too slow and unwieldy to effectively combat the aggressive wildlife, they somehow manage to put together a magazine fed bow and arrow system that is cocked in the style of a semi-automatic shotgun that can release 10 arrows in less than 10 seconds.  A generation after that, they are smelting aluminum and have built a powerful generator to power a hyperwave transmitter.  Uhhh… ok.

I have to nit-pick about the ending a little too, a ‘sail off into the wild blue (black) yonder’ closure didn’t really sit well given the grim nature of the bulk of the story.

All that aside, this is a very enjoyable book – if you appreciate gritty realism in terms of suffering and consequences and don’t mind that no one is considered too essential to the story.  I don’t, and I find it very refreshing given the space opera fare that was popular back then.

If Tom Godwin sounds appealing to you, and you can’t get hold of this book, I recommend you visit Rusty over at Best Science Fiction Stories and take in Godwin’s very highly regarded short story The Cold Equations online.

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4 Responses to “Review: The Survivors”

  1. If you like this one, you should try the sequel, “The Space Barbarians”, where the “wild black yonder” is explored further, although imho not as convincingly. Good luck finding it, though.

  2. I didn’t think the book was dark. On the contrary, I thought it optimistic. Yes, the setting was dark. Their reality was dark. But the spirit of the Reject community – their determination, commitment, and faithfulness – was bright as can be. Also, I saw the community as a whole to be the protagonist, rather than any one individual or series of individuals.

  3. Terisa Reinholtz Says:

    I would love to find this book as the hardback version. I am the author’s granddaughter, and have not been able to find the old Gnome Press version for sale. Thank you!

    • Hi there Terisa!! Tom Godwin’s granddaughter!! Wow… Cheers for the comment!! Yes, the GP hardcover is hard to get hold of these days, but keep an eye out on eBay and Heritage Auctions. It does appear occasionally.

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