Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Astounding Stories #13: “The Cold Equations”

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The Cold Equations

Note: As I dive into the research process for my upcoming book Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction, I’ll be taking the opportunity to highlight works within the genre that deserve to be rediscovered, reappraised, or simply enjoyed by a wider audience. You can read the earlier installments here

The plot of “The Cold Equations,” a short story by Tom Godwin that first appeared in Astounding in August 1954, can be summarized in just a few sentences. Its protagonist is Barton, the pilot of the Stardust, a small emergency spacecraft carrying a shipment of serum that is urgently needed to save the lives of six colonists on an isolated planet. Because the emergency vessels are deployed only as a last resort from larger transports, they carry the bare minimum of fuel required to get them to their destination, and any extra weight would cause the entire ship to crash. As a result, the punishment for stowaways is severe: in order to save the ship as a whole, the pilot is legally obligated to immediately eject any unauthorized passengers through the airlock. The story opens with Barton discovering that he has a stowaway, a teenage girl named Marilyn, who snuck onboard to visit her brother at the ship’s destination, unaware that the penalty was death. Barton, in despair, realizes that he has no choice but to jettison her: if he doesn’t, they’ll both die, along with the six colonists awaiting the serum. After an agonized discussion of the situation, Marilyn comes to terms with her fate. Barton allows her to talk to her brother over the radio one last time, then marches her into the airlock and opens the doors. Marilyn is sucked into space to die horribly, while Barton returns to the controls. As a character in another story reminded his captain under similar circumstances, the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few—or the one.

And that’s pretty much it. “The Cold Equations” made an enormous impression on readers at the time, and it’s the only story by Godwin, a favorite of editor John W. Campbell, that is still widely read or anthologized. Of all the short stories that were published in Astounding after the golden age, it’s the one that has probably inspired the most subsequent discussion, usually in response to the question of whether or not Campbell deliberately avoided unhappy endings. Ben Bova, who certainly knows what he’s talking about, once wrote:

It is no secret that Campbell did prefer “upbeat” stories. He had little tolerance for weaklings or failures…Does this mean he automatically rejected “downbeat,” pessimistic stories? No, as a glance at Tom Godwin’s “The Cold Equations”…will show…The theme of the story is classical: the universe (or what the ancient Greeks would have called Destiny) does not care about our petty loves and desires. One and one inexorably add up to two, no matter how desperately we would have it otherwise.

Years after “The Cold Equations” was published Campbell laughingly recalled the story’s evolution. “He [Godwin] kept wanting to save the girl.” The editor had to insist on the “downbeat” ending. To do otherwise would have been to turn a memorable story into merely another “gadget” tale.

Campbell later said that he sent the manuscript back to Godwin no fewer than four times in order to get the bleak ending that he wanted. As it stands, the story is almost ludicrously free of the engineering heroics that readers had come to expect: both Barton and Marilyn quickly come to see her fate as a given, which seems to imply that Campbell was willing to push a story into dark places if he felt that the logic demanded it.

The Cold Equations

Yet the truth is a little more complicated. “The Cold Equations” emerged from a period in Campbell’s career when he was frustrated with orthodoxy of all kinds, and he was on the verge of taking the fateful plunge, which would consume his life for more than a decade, into psionics and fringe science. He also believed that it was worth embracing a contrarian stance for its own sake, as he explained to the writer Raymond F. Jones in a letter from 1954:

We’ve called the technique the Demeaned Viewpoint technique. It boils down to this: Consider the viewpoint that you just can’t consider under any circumstances, and find validity in it. There is no viewpoint that has zero validity—though some have very small validity, or very limited application. But if there is some viewpoint that you hold to be anathema—it must be important if you expend the effort to anathematize it!

And this was the explicit motivation for the ending of “The Cold Equations.” As Campbell said in a letter to his friend Wayne Batteau from later that year:

That [story], you see, is simply a Demeaned Viewpoint gimmick on the proposition “Human sacrifice is absolutely unacceptable.” So we deliberately, knowingly and painfully sacrifice a young, pretty girl…and make the reader accept that it is valid!

In other words, it wasn’t so much that Campbell saw a dark ending as following inexorably from the premise, but that he systematically twisted the story to subject the reader to an unpleasant thought experiment. This is a subtle distinction, but a real one. And many readers didn’t accept it at all. Gary Westfahl noted that the story was good physics, but bad engineering: the fact that the emergency ship is built without any factor of safety is clearly just a plot device. More recently, Cory Doctorow wrote: 

The parameters of “The Cold Equations” are not the inescapable laws of physics. Zoom out beyond the page’s edges and you’ll find the author’s hands carefully arranging the scenery…The author, not the girl, decided that there was no autopilot that could land the ship without the pilot. The author decided that the plague was fatal to all concerned, and that the vaccine needed to be delivered within a timeframe that could only be attained through the execution of the stowaway.

Doctorow concludes that the story is “an elaborate shell game.” And he’s right. But so is nearly every work of science fiction, which quietly rigs the rules for the sake of the story that the writer wants to tell, no matter how implausible it might be. What sets “The Cold Equations” apart—and why I don’t think it holds up as a story, despite its historical importance—is that by blatantly loading the dice to create its no-win situation, it inadvertently reveals its own fakery. As Doctorow says, the real cold equations are “parameterized by human beings.” And we finish the story knowing that it wasn’t Barton, or physics, who killed Marilyn. It was Godwin and Campbell.

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