Assorted Nonsense Episode IX: Secret Writing Tip #1.
There are a lot of secret writing tips that professional writers don’t want you to know.
But I’ll share them with you.
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The Cold Equations is a short story by Tom Godwin, first published in Astounding Magazine in August 1954. You might want to read it before we go any further. I wouldn’t want to spoil anything for you.
The spoilers begin here.
The story’s about a teen-aged girl named Marilyn Lee Cross who stows away on an emergency space shuttle with disastrous results. I chose it as one of the two radio dramas we included in our science fiction radio pilot Faster Than Light.
I chose The Cold Equations because it was dark and sombre. I’m partial to humour, but I wanted something with a little gravitas, something that I thought people would take seriously. I wasn’t the first to adapt The Cold Equations for radio. It had been adapted twice before, for an episode of the radio program X Minus One in 1955, and for the radio program Exploring Tomorrow in 1958.
In the story, Marilyn just wants to visit her brother on a nearby planet. The emergency shuttle is delivering critical medical supplies to sick miners on that planet.
Unbeknownst to Marilyn, the shuttle is designed with a strict set of parameters: it has just enough fuel to carry its sole pilot and his critical cargo to the planet. With Marilyn on board, the shuttle will run out of fuel, the mission will fail, and the miners will die.
Critics of the story point out that the writer, Tom Godwin, unnecessarily stacked the deck against the girl. Why was it necessary to design the shuttle with such a slim margin of error? Godwin might argue that fuel would be a precious resource in space; you wouldn’t want to use any more than was absolutely necessary. Of course, the real reason is that Godwin needed to create a very specific set of circumstances for the story to work. But consider the recent plane crash in Colombia that tragically killed most of the Brazilian Chapecoense Real football team. The plane ran out of fuel because the company that owned the plane skimped on fuel to save money, with horrific consequences. Godwin’s plot may not be so unrealistic after all.
Realistic or not, in the universe of the story the girl must be jettisoned from the shuttle into deep space for the mission to succeed. Not exactly a Hollywood ending. My story editor, Dave Carley, felt that Marilyn learns the consequences of her ill-fated decision to stow away too quickly. She spends the rest of the story waiting to die, while the pilot reflects on the cold, harsh reality of the universe. There is no hope and therefore no real tension.
I didn’t necessarily agree, at least initially. I’d originally come across the story in an English class in high school in one of our text books. I began reading it during class, during the teacher’s lecture, and quickly forgot about the lecture. I found the story utterly gripping. This was long before cold-blooded authors like George R. R. Martin began killing off our favourite novel and television characters with impunity. I didn’t believe that the girl was going to die. I kept waiting for her to be saved, and was utterly gobsmacked when she was finally jettisoned from the space shuttle. Reading the story as a teen-ager, I had never encountered such a brutal ending before. It left quite an impact.
But Dave felt strongly that we needed more tension, more suspense, so for my version of the story I concocted a storyline where there was some slim hope that another ship (the Stardust) would catch up with the emergency shuttle and rescue Marilyn. I made other changes as well. In the original story, Marilyn was older, in her late teens. I reduced her age to thirteen to make it more believable that she would do something so ill-considered as to sneak onto an emergency shuttle without understanding the consequences. This also injected a little more pathos into the story. Because it was radio, I needed her to speak at the beginning of the story to help illuminate to the listener what was going on. (You can’t just have a character say, “I’m sneaking into the shuttle now,” and so on. Well, you can, but that would be narration, and I didn’t want a narrator.) So I had Marilyn sneak into the shuttle while talking to her cat, Chloe (which happened to be the name of one of my cats at the time.)
Writing the adaptation, I felt like I was writing yet another draft of Tom Godwin’s story. This may be horribly presumptuous, and my apologies to Tom Godwin, but I felt like it was a opportunity to correct some of the story’s flaws. For one thing, the original story was quite wordy. I cut an awful lot out of it. Now, I have a lot more respect for Tom Godwin than some, such as editor Algis Budrys, who reportedly once said that The Cold Equations was “the best short story that Godwin ever wrote and he didn’t write it” — referring to the fact that editor John W. Campbell sent the story back to Godwin three times before Godwin finally got it right—that is, before Godwin stopped coming up with ingenious means of saving the girl. Oh, and allegations that he borrowed the idea from a story published in EC Comics’ Weird Science #13 .
Anyway, Campbell recognized the true power of the story: the idea that the universe is impartial. It doesn’t care whether you live or die. Reading it back in high school, I glimpsed, perhaps for the first time in my life, a sense of the implacability of the universe. You play by its rules or you die. The stowaway is done in by cold, hard facts. For others to live, she had to die.
Several drafts into my version of the story, I was happy with everything except the ending. Something was missing. It didn’t feel complete, somehow. Endings don’t always come easy for me. I work hard at them because I consider them extremely important. Getting the ending wrong can ruin an entire story. Getting it right can elevate all that came before.
I discussed it with my wife. Something she said (unfortunately, I don’t remember what, exactly) made me realize that the pilot didn’t need to talk or think after ejecting Marilyn from the shuttle. He needed to acknowledge what he’d just been through. He needed to cry. It was an epiphany for me. It allowed me to cut a bunch of extraneous boring dialogue and get on with the emotion of the scene.
Later, one of my colleagues suggested that if you allow a character to cry, you are depriving the audience of the chance to cry themselves, because you’re doing it for them. I felt differently. Making the pilot cry felt like what would actually happen. I know that truth doesn’t necessarily equate to good fiction—the truth is deeper than that—but sometimes it does. So my pilot cried, and it felt right and true to me.
Once the script was complete, we held auditions for the cast. An embarrassing amount of actors showed up for the casting call (we auditioned for both radio plays included in Faster Than Light at the same time, The Cold Equations and Captain’s Away). Ultimately we cast Matthew MacFadzean (not to be confused with British actor Matthew Macfadyen) in the role of the shuttle pilot, and Vivian Endicott-Douglas as the young stowaway Marilyn. Shawn Smyth played the stowaway’s brother Gerry Cross. Andrew Gillies played Commander Delhart of the Stardust. Sergio Dizio played the Clerk and Jennifer Dean one of the surveyors. Julia Tait was our casting director (replacing regular CBC Radio Drama Casting Director Linda Grearson, who, I believe, was subbing for Deputy Head James Roy at the time).
Barbara Worthy directed The Cold Equations while I sat behind the Neve Capricorn console recording the show. Matt Willcott did all the live sound effects. I was extremely happy with the work of our actors. I have to single out Vivian, though, who was extra-ordinary. She nailed every single take of every single scene. We could have used any of her lines in any take.
We did have trouble with one lengthy scene during which the pilot must stoically accept Marilyn’s fate. Couldn’t quite nail the pilot’s tone and neither Barbara nor I could figure out what direction to give Matthew to make it work. We did four takes and were running out of time—we only had the actors for so long. We were forced to move on and record other scenes. Just before production wrapped for the day we came back to that problematic scene and did two more takes. Matthew finally nailed the tone, sounding troubled yet together.
It didn’t take me long to edit The Cold Equations, probably a couple of hours. I used most of the scenes we recorded in their entirety, which was unusual. Usually we scavenged lines from other takes of the same scene. I mixed the twenty-five minute long play in a single day in Sound Effects Three, my favourite mixing studio.
I didn’t have the budget for much original music, but I was able to use an original piece of music for the opening called Snowfire Reprize, by Rod Crocker. I used a couple of Manheim Steamroller pieces from Fresh Air 1 for a couple of tiny music bridges. At the end, I had Mozart’s Lacrimosa swell up underneath the pilot’s tears. At first I thought it might be too much, a little too heavy, but after listening to the completed mix in the studio I was convinced that the pathos of the piece supported it.
The Cold Equations may not be the most accomplished or sonically interesting radio play I’ve ever worked on.
But I’m pretty darned happy with it.
The Cold Equations was originally broadcast as a part of Faster Than Light on Sept 22nd, 2002 on Sunday Showcase (in mono) and again Sept 23rd on Monday Night Playhouse (in stereo).
Once upon a time I made my own radio show. I mean one that was actually mine, as opposed to someone else’s (I’ve made plenty of those).
I only ever made one of these that actually aired. You might well ask, what’s the big deal? So you made one lousy radio show. Other people make their own radio shows all the time. What’s so special about this one?
Nothing, really, except to me, and maybe those who helped me make it.
It was, of course, a science fiction radio show. (This is me we’re talking about, after all.) It was a radio show about science fiction, featuring science fiction, hosted by a science fiction writer, and, on a meta-level, was science fiction itself. I still think it’s a cool idea.
You see, I’ve loved science fiction ever since I was six years old. I’ve loved it since I stumbled upon this crazy low-budget television show from Japan called Johnny Sokko and His Giant Robot. Johnny Sokko was extremely low budget and super cheesy, but it didn’t matter. What kid doesn’t want a giant robot as a best friend? Especially one that can fly, and clobber alien villains. Once I could read, it was Robert A. Heinlein’s juveniles (Have Space Suit Will Travel, Rocket Ship Galileo) and James Blish’s adaptations of the original Star Trek scripts (unlike most people, I read most of the original Star Trek television episodes before ever seeing one on TV), and then Isaac Asimov’s robot stories, and Cordwainer Smith (The Ballad of Lost C’Mell) and A. E. Van Vogt (Slan), and David Brin (The Postman), and on and on and on.
It so happens that the CBC has produced some excellent science fiction and fantasy over the years. My pals Bill Howell and Matt Willcott both worked on Johnny Chase: Secret Agent of Space, a radio space opera that aired for two years (featuring music by the Canadian Progressive Rock band FM). There was also Vanishing Point, a science fiction anthology series produced by Bill Lane, and Nightfall, a supernatural/horror anthology series created and produced (for the first two seasons, at least) by Bill Howell.
Working for the radio drama department, I aspired to join this select club. One day I mentioned this to producer Barbara Worthy, who doubles as a ball of enthusiasm. She promptly suggested we pitch a science fiction show, so off the top of my head I suggested a show based on science fiction magazines such as Analog, Asimov’s, and The Magazine of Science Fiction & Fantasy. I thought it would be fun to produce full cast radio adaptations of classic science fiction stories interspersed with interviews of science fiction luminaries and other fun, fantastical elements. Never dreaming that anything would come of it.
James Roy happened to be Deputy Head of the Radio Drama Department at the time. Shortly after our conversation, Barbara marched into his office and pitched the idea. To my astonishment, he gave us a greenlight, providing a budget and a broadcast slot for a pilot.
Barbara and I got right to work. The first order of business was finding a host for the show. Years earlier, I had worked on a couple of episodes of Ideas about science fiction produced by a young freelancer by the name of Robert J. Sawyer. Rob and I had a lot in common. We both loved science fiction and we were both interested in writing. Rob told me that he had a novel coming out soon called Golden Fleece. I told him I’d keep an eye out for it.
Secretly, I thought that Rob Sawyer would vanish into the ether like so many other freelancers I’d met and never heard tell of again. After all, I was going to be the famous author, not him. But in the time it took me to write one novel (debuting this coming October, 2017, thanks for asking), Rob wrote twenty-three novels. He also won many (if not all) of the field’s major awards, such as the Hugo Award, the Nebula Award, and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award. In short, Rob became one of the most successful writers on the planet (of any genre, let alone science fiction).
I read Golden Fleece, along with many of Rob’s other novels, and watched his growing success from afar with something akin to amazement. From time to time I would send him notes of congratulations. Rob always responded warmly. Once, he suggested I call him to chat, but he was already pretty famous by then, and I was kind of shy, so I didn’t. Until it became time to produce a science fiction radio show.
“You know who would be the perfect host?” I told Barbara. “Rob Sawyer.”
“Call him,” she said.
I was still kind of shy. I emailed him instead.
Rob was interested.
Rob, Barbara and I met to talk about it. We agreed that it would be modelled after classic science fiction magazines. That Rob would host. That it would include one adaptation and an original drama, the latter of which would be the first part of a potential serial. I would write and adapt the dramas and Rob would contribute an essay. Rob would also interview a science fiction personality still to be determined. Rob was enthusiastic and perfectly willing to collaborate.
I wrote what I thought was a fun opening involving Rob taking off in a spaceship of his own to launch the show (this was the meta-science fictional component, which grew more elaborate in subsequent pilots). We picked Canadian science fiction author Nalo Hopkinson (Brown Girl in the Ring, Midnight Robber) to interview in between the two radio plays. Once we had part one of the original drama (Captain’s Away) and the adaptation (Tom Godwin’s The Cold Equations) in the can (more on them in separate posts) we recorded all the other bits, including SF poetry by Carolyn Clink (read by Barbara Worthy) and Rob’s intros and extros. I also included a brief station ID recorded by William B. Davis, aka “Cancer Man” on the X-files, which I’d asked Davis to record when we worked together on a radio adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.
I had some corrections for Rob’s essay. I feared this was rather presumptuous of me, considering Rob’s track record of having written several award-winning, best-selling novels versus my track-record of having (at that point) sold a mere short story or two.
I apologized as I gave him the corrections. “Who am I to correct your work?”
“You’re the producer,” he reassured me. “If it needs correcting it needs correcting!”
We needed a name for the show. Early on I considered “All in a Dream”, a lyric from a favourite Neil Young song—I even wrote a draft of the script using that name—but even now, a decade and a half later, I cringe at the thought. Fortunately, somebody—probably Rob—suggested Faster Than Light, which, in three simple words, perfectly encapsulated what we were up to. You could shorten it to FTL and literate fans would still know what we were talking about. We all loved it instantly.
Creating Faster Than Light was the most fun I’ve ever had making radio. I loved every single second of it. All the fussy producers I’ve ever worked with—and I’ve worked with some damned fussy producers—didn’t hold a candle to me on this show. Everything—every line, every level, every edit—had to be absolutely perfect. And it was, by the time I was done with it.
Faster Than Light broadcast Sept 22nd, 2002 on Sunday Showcase (in mono) and again Sept 23rd on Monday Night Playhouse (in stereo). We had a listening party at my home. Barbara Worthy, Rob Sawyer, Rob’s wife Carolyn, my family and several friends attended. It was great fun, though I have one regret. I happened to be watching my pennies at the time (public broadcasting, remember) so I purchased flimsy 4 ounce hamburgers to barbecue instead of nice plump 5 ounce burgers. What a cheapskate! Nobody complained, but I still wince every time I think about it. On the plus side, the show was well received by Rob and my friends.
The response from our listeners was even more positive. Faster Than Light did pretty good for itself. It was named a finalist for the Prix Aurora Awards 2003 for the Best in Canadian SF and Fantasy. One of its elements, “The Cold Equations,” a full cast adaptation, was selected by CBC’s internal jury for the New York Awards. The show received an unprecedented response for the drama department. Many listeners wrote to convey unbridled enthusiasm for the show. Particularly gratifying was feedback from as far away as California and Australia, from listeners who tuned in over the internet. James Roy informed me that it was the biggest response any Sunday Showcase show had ever received.
I would like to think that the response was a consequence of the effort we’d put into the show, and I’m sure that was indeed a factor—but I know it also had a lot to do with Rob Sawyer’s role in the production. Faster Than Light had been quite well promoted by Rob and his fans before the broadcast. I suspect that many of those who wrote in were already fans of Rob’s. Still, the feedback boded well. Everyone wanted more.
Adrian Mills, the Director of Programming at the time, invited me into his office to talk about the show. He asked me what I thought of it. I told him honestly that I thought it was the best work I’d ever done in my life on anything. I was inordinately proud of it. I still am.
We were asked to make a second pilot, and then a third, and even a fourth, but with each pilot the concept seemed to stray further and further from its original conception. In the end, I’m afraid the stars never quite aligned for Faster Than Light.
I treasure the experience just the same. I became friends with Rob Sawyer and his wife Carolyn Clink. I learned how to adapt a short story into another medium. I got to write, mix, and broadcast an original drama of my own. I discovered that directing was a lot harder than it looked watching from behind a console. And I acquired a modicum of empathy for fussy producers.
In a sense, Faster Than Light lives on. In the fictional universe of Robert J. Sawyer’s novel Rollback, published a few years later, Faster Than Light did become a regular series on CBC Radio. Where, for all I know, it continues to be broadcast to this day.
Apparently I have a short story eligible for an Aurora Award this year. It’s called “Fizz” and you can find it by clicking here.
(Yes, I know it’s bad form in blogs to say “click here.” Don’t care. You’re going to see a lot of that in this post.)
But the fact that I have an eligible story is not the important thing. The important thing is that you be aware of the Aurora Awards, which are Canada’s top science fiction awards, and the fact that you can vote for them.
It costs $10 for a CSFFA membership to be able to vote. Oh come on, that’s not much! Well okay, it’s a bit. But it’s worth it to be able to vote for Canada’s best science fiction.
To become a member, go here.
If you’re already a member, just log in to the Aurora Awards/Prix Aurora site and nominate your favourite work(s).
Other Five Rivers authors with eligible works include:
Dave Duncan: Novel, Eocene Station
D.G. Valdron: Novel, The Mermaid’s Tale
Susan MacGregor: Novel, The Tattooed Queen
D.G. Laderoute: YA Novel, The Great Sky
Robert Runté: Short Story, The Age of Miracles (Robert is my editor)
Susan Forest: Short Story, Earth and Flame
Lorina Stephens: Short Story, The Intersection (Lorina is my publisher)
James Beveridge: Cover Art, Eocene Station, Spawning Ground
Jeffrey Minkevics: The Mermaid’s Tale (Jeff is doing the cover art for my upcoming novel A Time and a Place)
Patrick Hunter: The Great Sky
The complete eligibility lists are here.
Go vote! For your favourites.