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The Cold Equations

Science fiction has been described as a literature of ideas, a literary arena in which the idea is hero. This may well be true. Too often, however, it is a flawed literature of ideas, marked by shoddy treatments received with uncritical enthusiasm. The SF story, The Cold Equations, is a good example. Over the last forty years it has been cited an instance of the “literature of ideas” at its best. As we shall see it is no such thing; rather it is an example of systemic blindness, a shoddy and dishonest mistreatment that points to a fundamental moral obtuseness.

Synopsis Of The Story

The Cold Equations by Tom Godwin was first published in the Austust 1954 issue of Astounding Science Fiction, pp 62-84, and was illustrated by Kelly Freas.

The story is set in the early days of interstellar exploration and settlement. Interstellar travel is expensive but not prohibitively so. Large liners make regular scheduled trips to the main colony worlds; scheduled stops at minor colonies are very expensive and are not regularly made. Unscheduled deliveries to colony worlds are made by dropping off EDS (Emergency Dispatch Ship) vehicles. These are minimum configuration ships, small and collapsible. They are dropped off with the minimum amount of fuel necessary for landing pilot, cargo, and ship. These ships do not carry enough fuel to land if there is a stowaway. Hence the policy is that stowaways must be jettisoned. To make sure that no one stows away the EDS compartment is marked with a sign: UNAUTHORIZED PERSONNEL KEEP OUT! The pilot carries a blaster and is under strict orders to jettison stowaways.

The story begins with the discovery by an EDS pilot that there is a stowaway aboard his ship concealed in the cargo closet. He forces the person out and discovers that she is an 18 year old woman. If the stowaway had been a man he would have been ready to shoot on sight; a young woman is a different matter. He calls the liner which dropped him to see if there is an alternative to jettisoning her. There isn’t. He esplains the situation to her; either she dies or she, he, and a number of colonists will die. She is granted an hour until course change to write letters to her parents and to call her brother who is a colonist on the destination planet. The situation is quite dramatic. The ship is carrying fever serum for the colonists. The young woman is appealing; she reminisces about her kitten when she was a young child. In the end she enters the airlock voluntarily and is jettisoned. The final lines of the story are:

It was not yet time to resume deceleration and he waited while the ship dropped endlessly downward with him and the drives purred softly. He saw that the white hand of the supplies closet temperature gauge was on zero. A cold equation had been balanced and he was alone on the ship. Something shapeless and ugly was hurrying ahead of him, going to Woden where its brother was waiting through the night, but the empty ship still lived for a little while with the presence of the girl who had not known about the forces that killed with neither hatred nor malice. It seemed, almost, that she still sat small amd bewildered and frightened on the metal box beside him, her words echoing hauntingly clear in the void she had left behind her:
I didn’t do anything to die for – I didn’t do anything –

The story is a tear jerker…

The Idea as Protagonist

The thesis of this story is that the universe is not our friend, that it governed by cold equations that are indifferent as to whether we live or die. Within civilization we have created a protected environment in which we can live by right and wrong, an environment where the violation of regulations is dealt with by man made administrative punishments. But we cannot escape entirely the cold equations and their amoral judgements of life and death. There are inevitably times and places when civilization will not protect us, when our fate is governed by the cold equations. Respect them and live; ignore them and die.

Thus it is with our heroine. Her death was a tragedy, to her, to the pilot, to her brother, and to all those people that her situation touched, a tragedy made poignant because she died, not for any moral fault of her own but rather because she had inadvertly stumbled into the cold equations. Civilization, prepared her to accept punishment for transgression of the rules, a punishment calibrated to culpability. That is the law of civilization; that is fair; that is just. And the tragedy is that the universe is neither fair nor just. It does not care. It just is.

Shoddy Goods, Shoddy Story

This story is quite famous. It is often cited as a great story which makes a profound point. It is not. The story is melodramatic and moving. The thesis is important. None-the-less it is a sloppy, shoddy story; the praise that it has received is characteristic of much which is wrong with genre Science Fiction.

The trouble with this story is this: From the internal evidence of this story the heroine did not die because of the cold equations of nature; she was the victim of criminal bureaucratic stupidity. That neither the author nor the editor nor the critics who praised the story perceived this speaks to flaws in the genre. The flaw in the story is that a failure in government, in administration, is tacitly treated as though it were a law of nature. It is a common fault, one that is pervasive in our society. But one expects more, one deserves more, from a self professed “literature of ideas”.

In saying this we should be fair. There are nits that can be picked. The assumptions about aerodynamic entry are unrealistic. It is implausible that the ship would have no margin of safety. No check on mass is made before liftoff. There is nothing in the story about jettisoning enough mass to avoid killing the young woman. Could they not have jettisoned clothing, notepad, chair, blaster, etc.? Still, these are nits – it is beside the point that the author did not close all of the loopholes perfectly.

The important point is that no serious effort is made to keep stowaways out. It is official policy that stowaways be killed, a term that the story avoids. Paragraph L, Section 8 of Interstellar Regulations: Any stowaway discovered in an EDS shall be jettisoned immediately following discovery. To enforce this policy the pilot is issued a blaster with which to execute any hapless stowaway.

This is serious business. The very existence of the regulation implies that stowaways are not an unheard of problem. You might suppose that a serious effort is made to avoid the possibility of people stowing away. You would be wrong. The pilot does not make a routine check for stowaways and feels no remorse for not having done so. No effort is made to keep stowaways out except for an uninformative sign. Nothing stops the young woman from just wandering on board.

There is a well known legal doctrine called the doctrine of the attractive nuisance. There is a famous case in which a company maintained a pool of sulfuric acid with an easily climbed fence surrounding it. Some kids climbed the fence and dived in. Their parents sued the company and won. The essence of the ruling was that someone who maintains an attractive nuisance has the obligation to secure it safely.

In this story the EDS ship is portrayed as an attractive nuisance. It is a given that being a stowaway is fatal. It is given that people try to stowaway. However the people who ran things made no real effort to prevent stowaways. They posted an uninformative sign. They issued a blaster with orders to shoot to kill. They didn’t care; they didn’t seriously try to keep stowaways out. The entrance could have been locked. The sign could have been explicit. The pilot could have checked his ship. The official attitude is clear; the death of a stowaway is not a serious matter – no special efforts, not even the most obvious and simplest, need be taken to prevent it.

Early in this century factories were gruesomely unsafe places to work. People worked for low wages in unsafe conditions. Hours were long and the pressures to produce were high. There were a lot of accidents. People lost hands and worse. If one suffered a severe accident, that was your problem. You were careless and you paid the price.

Things changed for two reasons. Laws were passed to make safe equipment obligatory; workmen’s compensation laws were passed. When the factory owner had to pay for accidents ways were quickly found to reduce the rate of industrial accidents.

The industrialists of the times took the position that accidents were the fault of the individual worker and that he should therefore bear the responsibility. In one sense they were right. In each individual accident you could go back and point out where the person involved had been careless. And yet their position was false. The responsibility was shared. The individual workers were careless; the industrialist created the unsafe conditions.

The attitude of the administrators and the pilot in this story are similar to the attitudes of theose early industrialists. They are responsible for administering a dangerous situation. Yet they feel no obligation, accept no responsibility beyond putting up a sign and issuing a blaster with orders to kill.

The situation in The Cold Equations is not really novel – analogous situations are common in the history of pioneering and exploration. Think of Shorty in The Virginian. Nor is the point made a novel one – it recurs in fiction about the West. The great advantage of Science Fiction is that one can construct a situation to explicitly illustrate a thesis. The tragedy of Science Fiction is that most such attempts are seriously flawed, either by carelessness, or by intrinsically shallow thinking.

An earlier version of this essay appeared in Personal Notes #9
This page was last updated February 7, 1997.