Short Fiction Reviews: George R. R. Martin’s “The Second Kind of Loneliness” (1972) and Tom Godwin’s “The Nothing Equation” (1957)

The following reviews are the 21st and 22nd installments of my series searching for SF short stories that are critical in some capacity of space agencies, astronauts, and the culture which produced them. Some stories I’ll review in this series might not fit. Many are far from the best. And that is okay. I relish the act of literary archaeology.

I’ve paired a take by Tom Godwin (1915-1980) and George R. R. Martin (1948-) on the psychiatric impact of isolation in the bleak emptiness of space. Both explore the interior landscape of the mind alone with itself and all its memories, and delusions, and terrors. There are no heroes in these pages.

Previously: Harlan Ellison’s “Psycho at Mid-Point” (1956) and “The Discarded” (variant title: “The Abnormals”) (1959)

Up Next: Philip K. Dick’s “The Infinites” (1953) and James Causey’s “Competition” (1955)

4/5 (Good)

George R. R. Martin’s “The Second Kind of Loneliness” first appeared in Analog Science Fiction/Science Fact, ed. Ben Bova (December 1972). You can read it online here.

At the Edge of the Vortex We Tell So Many Lies

The location: the Cerberus Star Ring, six million miles beyond Pluto (10). The manmade station, “a circle whose diameter is more than a hundred miles” (12), surrounds a nullspace vortex (think wormhole) to an unknown location across the universe. Humanity sends ships through the brightly colored swirling eddies of the portal to establish colonies somewhere beyond. A single man operates the machinery on the ring from a featureless white control room via a holograph helmet (11). The story follows the journal entries of an unreliable narrator ostensibly counting down the days until his relief arrives from Earth: “It will be at least three months before he gets here, of course. But he’s on his way” (10). It’s a mantra he tells himself. Relief is on its way. Relief is on its way. But does he want relief?

Our narrator ruminates on the reasons that made him choose this post and the different types of loneliness that afflict him: “I know about loneliness. It’s been the theme of my life. I’ve been alone for as long as I can remember” (14). He reveals a disturbing obsession with this new loneliness, a sensation “tinged with grandeur” (14). A loneliness different than the experiences of those who “have said the wrong thing so often that they don’t have the courage to say anything anymore” (14). A loneliness different than those who sit “along in furnished rooms in crowded cities, because they’ve got nowhere to go and no one to talk to” (14). Our narrator’s justifications for his actions and grandiose proclamations that he will solve everything that went wrong before when he finally returns to Earth hide a far more sinister truth. Or so it seems.

Final Thoughts

Unlike Tom Godwin’s story discussed below, the wonderous nature of space permeates “The Second Kind of Loneliness.” The swirling colors of the null space portal within the Cerberus Star Ring clash with the dark drama that unfolds. It vortex feels like it could be an object of obsession. The narrator tells himself “I must memorize the way things are out here at Cerberus, so I can keep the awe and wonder and the beauty fresh inside me when I return to Earth” (18). But the wonders of the distant cannot obfuscate the actions of the troubled. It becomes the perfect place to escape to. The perfect place for the egoist to create and live a delusion.

This is an effective early Martin story marred by a few moments of unpolished prose. I am a sucker for stories that play with the notion of textual truth and the stories we tell ourselves to cover our wounds. Recommended for Martin completists and fans of the theme.

3.25/5 (Above Average)

Tom Godwin’s “The Nothing Equation” first appeared in Amazing Stories, ed. Paul W. Fairman (December 1957). You can read it online here.

The Smothering Sense of Nothing

Green arrives at a remote observation bubble “ten thousand light years beyond the galaxy’s outermost sun” (87). A lineage of disaster precedes him. The first bubble attendant (think space lighthouse keeper) “committed suicide and the second was a mindless maniac” (87). The new arrival tells himself that he will not be like the others. The others were weak minded. He will succeed where they have failed. And anyway, everyone said the place was safe! The inspections revealed no malevolent force, no malignant interloper, “nothing was found” (89).

The descent into a psychological hellspace occurs within a sphere “not much larger than a tomb” with only a “thin sheet steel” barrier separating him from the cold void (89). The ship leaves Green, alone, for six months. He spends his days perusing a small microfilm library and checking instruments (90). He realizes that his growing sense of apprehension seeping from the vast emptiness that surrounds him will not pass (90). And the thinness of the observation bubble’s walls, the sounds his shoes make, the unnerving sense that the emptiness watches him erodes his mind….

Final Thoughts

This is the first Godwin story I’ve read. Yes, I need to get to “The Cold Equations” (1954) due to its historical importance and power to continually create controversy. Most short stories are forgotten. Godwin’s seems to enter debates over genre again and again. Similarity of title aside (is he poking fun at his own story or riffing on its popularity?), “The Nothing Equation” takes an astringent look at psychiatric impact of space travel. The story itself resonates with unease and pain. Green’s small actions–a toe hitting the wall of the bubble–trigger disquieting depressive bouts and panic attacks. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that Godwin makes manifest some of his own struggles due to his deeply troubled life.

“The Nothing Equation” contains no extra parts, an effective structure, and a bleak cynicism at the inability of humanity to identify the why behind the broken minds left along the path in the conquest of space. It’s this final point that I find Godwin the most successful. Humanity, forever reaching outward, fails to understand the festering interior wounds its explorers accumulate. There’s always a new spacer waiting to play their part. And another.

As with Harlan Ellison’s similar “Psycho at Mid-Point” (1956), “The Nothing Equation” forms a gritty expose of the tortured psyche of a spaceman on the fritz entirely free from wonderous delight in the exploration of the cosmos.  If brief, dark, and intensely claustrophobic visions appeal to you, track this one down.

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8 thoughts on “Short Fiction Reviews: George R. R. Martin’s “The Second Kind of Loneliness” (1972) and Tom Godwin’s “The Nothing Equation” (1957)

  1. Minor correction — “The Cold Equations” is from 1954.

    I haven’t read “The Nothing Equations”. Godwin was a competent writer, to my mind, who rarely if ever really stretched beyond competence. Still, solid. Besides “The Cold Equations” — a story almost impossible to discuss these days as it has been encrusted with commentary — I’d recommend “Too Soon to Die”, from Venture in 1957, which became the novel THE SURIVORS in 1958. Effective if never surprising story of humans, er, surviving on a hostile world.

    The Martin story was the second I ever read by him, after “A Song for Lya”. I read both in the Analog issues they appeared in — borrowed from my local library. Ah, for the days when libraries might have copies of genre magazines to borrow! A bit overwrought, as your “cringe-worthy prose” comment suggests, but effective enough. I remember Bova’s near apology for making it the cover story — he basically said it made for such a good illustration he couldn’t resist, even though he didn’t think it the best story of the issue. (To be honest, while there were decent stories by Vernor Vinge and F. Paul Wilson, and the second part of a Simak serial, I’m not sure any of the other stories overwhelmed “The Second Kind of Loneliness”!) It took a long time, in my opinion, for Martin to overcome the “overwrought” nature of stories like this one, or “A Song for Lya”, or his first novel, DYING OF THE LIGHT.

    • Thanks for the correction. Fixed!

      I thought my “cringe-worthy prose” comment was too mean so I changed it to “unpolished.” Haha. There are two poetic phrases about loneliness in a row and then (wince) some jarring utterly unpoetic comment about being alone at a party.

      I don’t know why Bova would apologize for selecting the Martin story for the cover. The cover is majestic and I think conveys the story really well. Martin’s tale is an effective and introspective piece with a fantastic backdrop. I enjoyed it despite its rough edges.

      I’ll put “Too Soon to Die” on my “to investigate” list.

      I can’t figure out the earlier Martin short story I read. I think I picked up some Best Of collection and read a story or two before putting it down. I remember it was beautiful and there was something to do with some tower on an alien world…

      • JB: I thought my “cringe-worthy prose” comment was too mean so I changed it to “unpolished.”

        You were accurate with the “cringe-worthy prose.” The first decade of Martin’s stuff including his first novel,THE DYING OF THE LIGHT, was notable for how overladen with jejeune sentimentality it was — sentimentality meaning unearned emotion, or what we also call kitschiness or cheesiness.

        It would be inaccurate to say Martin’s stuff was “unpolished,” on the other hand.

        To the contrary, his writing was highly overwrought — that was the word I wrote before I read through Rich H’s comment above, with which I now absolutely agree — as his stories made constant claims that the situations and the characters and their emotions they presented were imbued with far more meaning and depth — that is, pathos — than the callow cliches that Martin actually had put on the page.

        • Have you read this story? I disagree, in this particular instance, that emotions experienced by the character don’t work here. I can’t say anything about his other works from the period as I have not read them yet. Here there is a certain justified depth and meaning that goes beyond “he was lonely in space and committed an atrocity.” The package might not be the best expressed, hence my use of “unpolished”….

          • Have you read this story?

            I read it in ANALOG when it came out. Not since, I confess, and I recall no more than, as you say, “he was lonely in space and committed an atrocity.” Is there more?

            I did buy Martin’s first collection and my remarks re. ‘sentimentality’ are very much based on those stories. I don’t recall ‘The Second Kind of Loneliness’ being much different — indeed, if anything, it’s slighter.

            On a practical basis, furthermore, why would the authorities of the future place a single potentially unstable person in the position of running such a station and being responsible for numbers of lives, when today, for instance, we don’t let airliners go up without two pilots? (Granted that some airline corporations might like to increase profit margins by claiming that autopilots can replace that second pilot.)

            And if the basic premise of the story makes no logical sense, how can it be a good story?

            • Yes, the story has value at the metaphorical level (I feel like we’re going down a dangerous road if we obsess over “realism” in SF). The story examines the psychological impact of isolation, conceptions of self-persecution, the power of self-justifying narratives, and delusions of grandeur against a fantastic backdrop. It’s the space equivalent of a lighthouse keeper.

  2. “The Second Kind of Loneliness” got a very nice Kelly Freas cover, which I’ve seen reused elsewhere. It also shows early Martin in a good light—not exactly at his best (that would be “With Morning Comes Mistfall” from this period) but it’s an almost perfectly constructed mood piece. Martin, in the retrospective collection Dreamsongs, talks about how he wrote these two stories in quick succession, and interestingly he wrote “With Morning Comes Mistfall” first despite it being published a good five months after “The Second Kind of Loneliness.” At this very early point he was a devoted science-fictionist, apparently because of the lack of publishing opportunities for short fantasy; he was never that convincing as a science-fictionist anyway, but his control of mood is admirable, even if it borders on the solipsistic.

    • Yup, the Freas was reused by Ashley for his account of the magazines in the 70s. The cover is Freas at his absolute best (I’m not always a fan of his gauzy visions). I love this one though!

      I agree. As I mentioned to Rich above, this is an effective early work that successful conveys mood and introspection, albeit with some rough and jarring prose moments that I found broke its spell.

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