Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Wayne Batteau

Astounding Stories #13: “The Cold Equations”

leave a comment »

The Cold Equations

Note: As part of the research process for my book Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction, I’ve taken 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.

The disintegrating cube

with 3 comments

The 22x22 Rubik's Cube

Last week, a video made the rounds of a disastrous attempt to construct a 22×22 Rubik’s Cube. Its creator, who remains thankfully anonymous, states that he spent seven months designing the mechanism, printing out the pieces, and assembling it, and the last ninety minutes of the process were streamed live online. And when he finally finishes and tries to turn it for the first time—well, you can skip to the end. (I don’t think I’ll ever forget how he mutters “We are experiencing massive piece separation,” followed by a shocked silence and finally: “Nope. Nope.” And if you listen carefully, after he exits the frame, you can hear what sounds a lot like something being kicked offscreen.) After the video went viral, one commenter wrote: “This makes me feel better about the last seven months I’ve spent doing absolutely nothing.” Yet it’s hard not to see the fate of the cube as a metaphor for something more. Its creator says at one point that he was inspired to build it by a dream, and it’s actually the second of two attempts, the first of which ended in much the same way. And while I don’t feel any less sorry for him, there’s something to be said for a project that absorbs seven months of your life in challenging, methodical work, regardless of how it turned out. Entropy always wins out in the end, if not always so dramatically. The pleasure that a finished cube affords is minimal compared to the effort it took to make it, and there’s something about its sudden disintegration that strikes me as weirdly ennobling, like a sand painting swept away immediately after its completion.

I happened to watch the video at a time when I was particularly prone to such reflections, because I quietly passed a milestone this weekend: five years ago, I launched this blog, and I’ve posted something every day ever since. If you had told me this back when I began, I probably wouldn’t have believed you, and if anything, it might have dissuaded me from starting. By the most conservative estimate, I’ve posted over a million words, which doesn’t even count close to two thousand quotes of the day. The time I’ve invested here—well over an hour every morning, including weekends—probably could have been spent on something more productive, but I have a hard time imagining what that might have been. It’s not like I haven’t been busy: the five years that coincided with the lifespan of this blog saw me produce a lot of other writing, published and otherwise, as well as my first daughter, and I don’t feel that I neglected any of it. (There does, in fact, seem to be a limit to how much time you can spend writing each day without burning out, and once you’ve hit those four to six hours, you don’t gain much by adding more.) Rather than taking up valuable time that would have been occupied by something else, this blog created an hour of productivity that wasn’t there before. It was carved out of each day from the minutes that I just would have frittered away, just as a few dollars squeezed out of a paycheck and properly invested can lead to a comfortable retirement.

The 22x22 Rubik's Cube

Of course, the trouble with that analogy is that the work has to be its own justification. I’m very happy with this blog and its reception, but if I were giving one piece of advice to someone starting out for the first time, it would be to caution against seeing a blog as being good for anything except for itself. It isn’t something you can reasonably expect to monetize or to drive attention to your other projects. And if I had to explain my reasons for devoting so much time to it on such a regular basis, I’d have trouble coming up with a response. There’s no question that it prompted me to think harder and read more deeply about certain subjects, to cast about broadly for quotes and topics, and to refine the bag of tricks I had for generating ideas on demand. Like any daily ritual, it became a form of discipline. If writing, as John Gardner says, is ultimately a yoga, or a way of life in the world, this blog became the equivalent of my morning devotions. My energies were primarily directed to other kinds of work, often frustratingly undefined, and some of which may never see the light of day. The blog became a kind of consolation on mornings when I struggled elsewhere: a clean, discrete unit of prose that I could publish on my own schedule and on my own terms. I could build it, piece by piece, like a cathedral of toothpicks—or a massive Rubik’s Cube. And even if it fell apart in the end, as all blogs inevitably must, the time I spent on it would have been a worthwhile pursuit for its own sake.

I realize that this sounds a little like a valedictory post, so I should make it clear that I don’t plan on stopping anytime soon. Still, the odds are that this blog is closer to its end than to its beginning. When I started out, my resolve to post every day was a kind of preemptive resistance against the fate of so many other blogs, which cling to life for a few months or years before being abandoned. I didn’t want it to succumb to half measures, so, as with most things in life, I overdid it. Whether or not the result will be of lasting interest seems beside the point: you could say much the same of any writing at all, whether or not it appears between book covers. (And in fact, my quick post on George R.R. Martin and WordStar seems likely to be the single most widely read thing I’ll ever write in my life.) The only real measure of any project’s value—and I include my novels and short stories in this category—is whether it brought me pleasure in the moment, or, to put it another way, whether it allowed me to spend my time in the manner I thought best. For this blog, the answer is emphatically yes, as long as I keep that Rubik’s Cube in mind, looking forward with equanimity to the day that it all seems to disintegrate. It’s no different from anything else; it’s just more obvious. And its value comes from the act of construction. As the scientist Wayne Batteau once said of the three laws of thermodynamics: “You can’t win, you can’t break even, and you can’t get out of the game.” Or, as the critic David Thomson puts it in the final line of Rosebud, his biography of Orson Welles: “One has to do something.”

Written by nevalalee

November 30, 2015 at 10:02 am

%d bloggers like this: