Monday, November 04, 2013

Radio Greats: The Cold Equation (X Minus One)

From the far horizons of the unknown come transcribed tales of new dimensions in time and space. These are stories of the future; adventures in which you'll live in a million could-be years on a thousand may-be worlds.

Rather curiously, straight science fiction did not really have much of a place in classic radio until the era was drawing near an end. It's difficult to explain the dearth of science fiction in the early Golden Age of Radio, but the increased importance of science fiction later can at least partly be explained by greater salience of science fiction in general and partly by the fact that science fiction was still a genre that was very difficult to bring to television, and therefore it was an area in which the bleed from radio to television was very limited. You can move a series like Dragnet or Gunsmoke without any loss, but 1950s television really had very little that could compete with the imagination in the science fiction department. The late 1950s saw a surge in science fiction on the radio, however, both in mainstream series like Suspense and in primarily-SF series. It's generally recognized that the greatest of these science fiction series was X Minus One. The storytelling is often extraordinarily good -- it should be, since it adapted stories by authors of science fiction's own Golden Age -- and the production values were relatively high for a such a late radio program.

X Minus One itself was an attempt to repeat the success of slightly earlier series, Dimension X; all the early episodes, in fact, are re-done Dimension X episodes. But the quality was in general better, and so the series branched out into stories from the pages of Astounding and Galaxy, two of the most important magazines from the Golden Age of Science Fiction; the stories were by Isaac Asimov, Frederik Pohl, Robert Heinlein, Ray Bradbury and many others who eventually became big names in the genre. The stories are extremely diverse, so for this Radio Greats I will be focusing on one of the best dramatic episodes; and I will do one of the best comic episodes for the next one.

Tom Godwin's "The Cold Equations" was published in Astounding Magazine in 1954. It is consistently considered one of the best science fiction short stories ever written, and one of the highlights of Golden Age science fiction. Intriguingly enough, the story as we have it is due to editor John W. Campbell refusing to accept the endings that Godwin kept coming up with. Godwin kept trying to make it a happy ending; Campbell kept refusing to accept a happy ending. Thus a tragedy was born.

"The Cold Equation" -- sometimes it is given the same plural title as the short story, sometimes not -- is an excellent version of the story. A woman stows away on an emergency dispatch ship (EDS) in order to visit her husband; she's trying to make amends for an affair. The problem is that the fuel for an EDS is precisely measured, and there's not enough margin of error for her extra mass. Procedure is to jettison the stowaway. The astronaut cannot bring himself to do it. But the equations of physics do not care: there's only so much fuel, and it's burning faster than they can afford; they could jettison other things, but the ship is bare except for medicine that needs to get where it's going. Of course, a good re-telling of a science fiction's saddest short story is inevitably going to be sad.

You can listen to "The Cold Equation" at My Old Radio.

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