In Defense of “The Cold Equations”

My first exposure to “The Cold Equations,” a short story by Tom Godwin first published in Astounding magazine in 1954, was in a college sci-fi and fantasy class.  I didn’t take the class – my roommate did.  But he shared the story with me and we talked about it quite a bit.

The story, very briefly, is this: a pilot is guiding a small spacecraft to a distant colony carrying medicine to help stop a fatal disease outbreak.  The ship is lean and purposeful, with just enough fuel to do the job with the expected payload.  Problem is, there’s a stowaway – a teenage girl who wants to see her brother, one of the colonists.  After some agonizing, the pilot does what the rules – and the laws of physics, the nominal cold equations – require him to do: push her out an airlock.  For, you see, with the extra weight of the stowaway there isn’t sufficient fuel for a safe landing.  Save the girl, the ship crashes, and all the colonists die.

The ending of the story has caused arguments since it was first published, I imagine.  My roommate and I had a good one, with me taking the side of, “this is stupid, there should have been something done to prevent this from happening.”  It was one of those things that college arguments are built on.

This time last year Boing Boing maven and sci-fi writer Cory Doctorow wrote a piece for Locus Online essentially taking the same position I did all those years ago.  Doctorow is entirely correct, as I was years ago, that things could have been set up differently to allow for a happier ending – one where the stowaway survives and the colonists don’t die of a nasty disease.  But I disagree with him when he concludes that the absence of those things makes the story a failure. Two of his arguments don’t quite sit right with me.

First, after setting forth all the ways that the story sets up the pilot’s dilemma, he writes:

It is, then, a contrivance. A circumstance engineered for a justifiable murder. An elaborate shell game that makes the poor pilot – and the company he serves – into victims every bit as much as the dead girl is a victim, forced by circumstance and girlish naïveté to stain their souls with murder.

* * *

‘The Cold Equations’ is moral hazard in action. It is a story designed to excuse the ship’s operators – from the executives to ground control to the pilot – for standardizing on a spaceship with no margin of safety. A spaceship with no autopilot, no fuel reserves, and no contingency margin in its fuel calculations.

That’s an odd accusation for a fiction writer to make.  Fiction is the ultimate contrivance.  Writers move pieces around and put them together in particular ways to tell particular stories.  That’s why in a legal drama the hero isn’t just defending an innocent man charged with murder, but his brother, or why the cute girl the guy hooked up with the night before isn’t just in the same line of work, she’s the main rival for the new account.  It can be a cheap way of ramping up the conflict, but it’s hardly unheard of.

Obviously one can critique a story for being overly contrived and unrealistic, but we are talking about a short (10,000 words, about) tale set on a spaceship.  There’s not a whole lot of room to explore the facets of this universe that don’t focus on the central conflict.  It’s a story about the rather obvious, yet compelling, theme that space is a dangerous place and it doesn’t care about the humans caught up in it.

The second argument is more implicit than explicit, but it comes up when Doctorow cites the litany of means the story could have used to avoid the tragic ending, from better engineered spaceships to better medical care at the distant colony in the first place.  All of these are true, of course – something could have been done.  But that misses a key point – is it unreasonable to think that in the universe of “The Cold Equations” such things might not happen?

Assuming the story is set in a future period of our own history it certainly isn’t.  History is riddled with tragedies that occur when some entity cuts corners on safety.  I don’t even have to look beyond West Virginia to find plenty of examples – mine explosions, the Buffalo Creek flood, the Hawks Nest Tunnel disaster.  All caused because safety was sacrificed for something else, either profit or political expediency.  Or just plain dumb assery.  Is there any reason to think the powers that be in the universe of “The Cold Equations” are better human beings than we are now?

After all, there was a sign warning unauthorized personnel not to enter the ship.  Is it too harsh to say anybody who ignored that sign got what she deserved?  Yeah, but that wouldn’t stop people from saying so.  Scour any Internet comment section in the wake of some tragic accident and there are plenty of people willing to blame the injured for their predicament.  Again, there’s no reason to think citizens in the universe of “The Cold Equations” would look at the incident any differently.

In the end, Doctorow’s main criticism of “The Cold Equations” seems to be that it’s not set in the best of all possible worlds, one where everything possible to prevent such a tragic event from taking place would be done.  But that world is a fantasy, one harder to believe in that most of what’s on sale in the bookstore.  Perhaps one of the reasons it’s endured all these years is that as readers we know it’s all too plausible.


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