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Cold Equations and Moral Hazard
March 3, 2014 11:12 AM   Subscribe

Legendary science fiction editor Gardner Dozois once said that the job of a science fiction writer was to notice the car and the movie theater and anticipate the drive-in – and then go on to predict the sexual revolution. I love that quote, because it highlights the key role of SF in examining the social consequences of technology – and because it shows how limited our social imaginations are. Today, we might ask the SF writer to also predict how convincing the nation’s teenagers to carry a piece of government-issued photo ID (a driver’s license) as a precondition for participating in the sexual revolution set the stage for the database nation, the idea that people are the sort of thing that you count and account for, with the kind of precision that the NSA is now understood to bring to the problem.
posted by brenton (64 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite

 
Legendary science fiction editor Gardner Dozois once said that the job of a science fiction writer was to notice the car and the movie theater and anticipate the drive-in – and then go on to predict the sexual revolution

Where are the the giant spaceships engaged in anachronistic naval combat in this? Does this guy understand anything about science fiction?
posted by prize bull octorok at 11:15 AM on March 3 [4 favorites]


"This guy" being Doctorow or Dozois?

The bit about lifeboat rules reminded me that someone described Dick Cheney as the guy who, when getting onto a lifeboat, immediately decides who the first person to be eaten should be when the food runs out.
posted by emjaybee at 11:19 AM on March 3 [2 favorites]


Paging Hari Seldon. Mr. Seldon, you have a phone call at the front desk.
posted by bastionofsanity at 11:27 AM on March 3 [6 favorites]


"I Will Fear No Evil" is the only Heinlein novel I've ever read and it instantly (okay, over the course of several hours) disabused me of the idea that I'd ever want to read more. What a steaming pile of garbage.
posted by Pope Guilty at 11:29 AM on March 3 [1 favorite]


Science fiction is supposed to teach us how to think about the future.

I think SF can teach us how to think about the future but it would be boring as hell if that was always done in a prescriptive fashion.

"But, the girl didn't have to die! The author set it up that way!!!" uhhh YEAH.

Doesn't the story end up teaching us how to think about the future BETTER when bad shit goes down in the story? When hard decisions have to be made? When characters we like suffer?
posted by stinkfoot at 11:30 AM on March 3 [5 favorites]


Does this guy understand anything about science fiction?

Yeah, it's almost as if there's more than one kind of science fiction, which—hear me out on this—might fill different roles for different reading audiences.

Anyway, this is pretty fish-in-a-barrel, but old Cory's not wrong. I think in general, SF writers need to be aware of when they're tweaking the parameters of their settings in order to make their favored policies or attitudes seem like the only reasonable course of action.

The good ones (Your Iain M. Bankses, your Kim Stanley Robinsons, your Ursula K. LeGuins, say) at least come by their conceits honest.

The irony, of course, is that Doctorow himself is at least a little notorious for crafting DRMed strawmen for his maker-heroes to righteously hack.
posted by Sokka shot first at 11:33 AM on March 3 [12 favorites]


‘‘The Cold Equations’’ never asks why the explorers were sent off-planet without a supply of vaccines. It never asks what failure of health-protocol led to the spread of the disease on the distant, unexplored world... ‘‘The Cold Equations’’ shoves every one of those questions out the airlock along with the young girl...
So can someone that read "The Cold Equations" confirm that's the tone of the story? Because that honestly sounds like one of those conspicuous absences meant to have you contemplate such factors after reading the story, rather than take credit for "discovering" them and blame the author for not pointing them out with a neon marquee.
posted by griphus at 11:35 AM on March 3 [3 favorites]


Today, we might ask the SF writer to also predict how convincing the nation’s teenagers to carry a piece of government-issued photo ID (a driver’s license) as a precondition for participating in the sexual revolution set the stage for the database nation

I'm pretty sure you can more accurately go back further to the creation of Social Security and the national Income Tax, if you want to point to precursors of the database nation. But, it's more fun to paint pictures of kids boinking in the back of cars, I guess.
posted by Thorzdad at 11:36 AM on March 3 [2 favorites]


No, no, I've read The Cold Equations. It's been built specifically to make sure that the girl must die and that it must be her fault. The whole point of the story, the point that Campbell was dead-set on making, was that in space, stupid people die, and the girl is stupid for not knowing the rules, and space is merciless, etc etc watch me jerk off at how brutal and hard-nosed I'm being.
posted by Pope Guilty at 11:38 AM on March 3 [14 favorites]


Why is Cory trying to pull a Kobayashi Maru on Godwin’s “justifiable murder” thought experiment? Of course it’s a contrivance: all fiction and all thought experiments are.
posted by davel at 11:39 AM on March 3 [5 favorites]


Where are the the giant spaceships engaged in anachronistic naval combat in this? Does this guy understand anything about science fiction?

Oh, man. Flashing back to the Wing Commander movie, where they're all trying to hold their breath during a starship battle because the other ship might be able to hear them. In space.

So terrible.
posted by mhoye at 11:45 AM on March 3


He's drawing a parallel between the way that people construct these kinds of fictional narratives and the way politicians or other powerbrokers construct narratives that justify their own actions in times of crisis. His point is that both are contrivances.
posted by teh_boy at 11:46 AM on March 3 [7 favorites]


Of course it’s a contrivance: all fiction and all thought experiments are.

I think the question is not whether it's a contrivance, but whether as a contrivance, it justifies itself. Which is a fair question to ask, at least.
posted by Sokka shot first at 11:47 AM on March 3 [2 favorites]


All fiction is contrived, but that doesn't mean that it's somehow immune to criticism. Either there's no reason for it being that way, which is one thing to criticize, or there is a reason for it being that way and we should be asking what that reason is and whether it's valid and whether that was the best way to make a point. A situation in which a spacecraft is so overloaded with a hundred some extra pounds that it's not going to be able to safely reach its destination? Probably not the best way to make that point, if it needs to be made at all.
posted by Sequence at 11:47 AM on March 3


stinkfoot: I think SF can teach us how to think about the future but it would be boring as hell if that was always done in a prescriptive fashion.

Sci-fi can also discuss current events and realities in ways that make them make more sense, by encapsulating the story or highlighting certain aspects, shifting the reader to show the scene from a different perspective.

Sci-fi is not one unanimous thing. Sometimes the current day is more complex than we comprehend, and we don't need to look at the future to think "what if...."
posted by filthy light thief at 11:49 AM on March 3


I don't understand why he brought Gravity into this. It does mess around with the space will kill you trope, has a completely different theme and tone than 24, Farnham's Freehold and the Cold Equations.
posted by nooneyouknow at 11:54 AM on March 3


"I Will Fear No Evil" is the only Heinlein novel I've ever read and it instantly (okay, over the course of several hours) disabused me of the idea that I'd ever want to read more.

IWFNE was sort of published unfinished by his wife while Heinlein was near-dead from *google* peritonitis and they needed money NOW. Hard to see how it could have been finished as something not an excrescence, but still.

You might give The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress a try.

So can someone that read "The Cold Equations" confirm that's the tone of the story?

I do so confirm.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:57 AM on March 3 [1 favorite]


The whole point of the story, the point that Campbell was dead-set on making, was that in space, stupid people die, and the girl is stupid for not knowing the rules, and space is merciless, etc etc watch me jerk off at how brutal and hard-nosed I'm being.

Well, in space, stupid people *will* die. Smart people have died repeatedly.

The real problem with The Cold Equations is that in realistic rocketry, both the characters are dead, dead, dead. The ΔV was lost when they boosted the mass, and with the extra mass of the stowaway, they're sunk at that point. If they had exactly the fuel the needed to boost the pilot and the medical supplies, then slow them and dock them at the end of the trip, when they boosted the ~50kg of extra mass, they don't have enough fuel to slow into orbit and dock. Basically, our hero is going to slingshot right by the planet, then die. Hopefully, he walks out the airlock right behind her.

Oh, and in realistic rocketry, we try to have a reserve, in case things don't go quite right. Because, well, a system that need everything to go right will go wrong.
posted by eriko at 12:09 PM on March 3 [19 favorites]


Have my earlier comment stricken from the record- my opinion has changed based on what others have said about "The Cold Equations" (i.e. that Godwin's delivery is dickish, graceless).

Filthy Light Thief: can you talk about that a little more? The point I was trying to make was, SF authors aren't obligated to show the future (or present, or past) as it should be.
posted by stinkfoot at 12:09 PM on March 3


eriko: Oh, and in realistic rocketry, we try to have a reserve, in case things don't go quite right. Because, well, a system that need everything to go right will go wrong.

If I remember correctly, they did have a reserve, but it was only enough to ensure the pilot wasn't already doomed, not enough to make it possible for both of them to land.
posted by Mitrovarr at 12:12 PM on March 3 [1 favorite]


So can someone that read "The Cold Equations" confirm that's the tone of the story?

Read it yourself here.
posted by flug at 12:13 PM on March 3 [2 favorites]


I'm pretty sure you can more accurately go back further to the creation of Social Security and the national Income Tax, if you want to point to precursors of the database nation.

Ellis Island, the Census of 1790, possibly all the way back to Caesar Augustus.
posted by octobersurprise at 12:13 PM on March 3


There were a few reaction stories published to "The Cold Equations." I always liked Don Sakers' "The Cold Solution" since it kinda matched the gleeful brutality of the original (and Tom Godwin was awesome for gleefully brutal SF; I have a soft spot for his novel Space Prison, and ooh, it's available free nowadays!)
posted by asperity at 12:20 PM on March 3 [2 favorites]


Zoom out beyond the page’s edges and you’ll find the author’s hands carefully arranging the scenery so that the plague, the world, the fuel, the girl and the pilot are all poised to inevitably lead to her execution

I felt the same way about Billy Budd: Foretopman.
posted by shothotbot at 12:20 PM on March 3


Hopefully, he walks out the airlock right behind her.

The first time I read The Cold Equations, I thought this was going to be the solution.

The situation might not be irretrievable depending on how they did the initial transfer-orbit burn: either they burned until they reached the proper velocity and transfer orbit (determining this would be hard, though), meaning they consumed more fuel than budgeted and can't slow down at the far end; or they burned a preset amount of fuel but didn't get into the correct orbit as a result of the extra mass (this is more likely based on how actual rocketry works). In the latter case they're screwed, you can't just fix that problem halfway through the orbit. Mission failed, so you might as well toss the vaccine out and head for home and a board of inquiry.

But in that first case, which is what I thought the author was going for, you could potentially fix things by tossing extra mass overboard, so that you'd have enough fuel to successfully slow down and park. So the pilot, being heavier, would either teach the girl to drive and toss himself out, or toss both of themselves out right before the final burn starts.

It's always bugged me that a story that relies so much on the supposed "hard science" of space travel doesn't get the details right.

If you want to moot out a lifeboat scenario, or the three-guys-trapped-in-a-cave cannibalism scenario, then you just say that's how it is and you play out the details. But you don't go into the details of why things are that way unless you're really sure they have to be.
posted by Kadin2048 at 12:22 PM on March 3 [2 favorites]


"I Will Fear No Evil" is the only Heinlein novel I've ever read and it instantly (okay, over the course of several hours) disabused me of the idea that I'd ever want to read more.

Heinlein hasn't worn well for me, but the one novel I still read is The Door Into Summer, which contains some pretty interesting pre-computer tech predictions, including a mechanical CAD table (without the C, obviously... I guess MAD would be the acronym). It also doesn't contain much "Heinlein," which is what kills much of his later work for me.
posted by Huck500 at 12:22 PM on March 3


Doesn't the story end up teaching us how to think about the future BETTER when bad shit goes down in the story? When hard decisions have to be made? When characters we like suffer?

Yeah, but there's a meta level, non? And that's what Docterow is questioning....every story has a base case, ground conditions you must accept, suspend your disbelief regarding, in order to move on...from that point, only if the base conditions are altered will the story break; so long as you stick to the rules of the universe you set up in the beginning most people will be inclined to accept the moral (or at least ponder the question raised) by the end.

So, Docterow argues, setting up your base case loads the dice. Really, he would have been better served to draw his analogy from the world of contemporary politics than 50s sci-fi ---- somehow every debate about the use of torture seems to include a captured terrorist and a loose nuke set to detonate within hours....but is that ever really something that happens? An enemy you are certain has the information you desire, millions of people who a certain to die within hours? Or isn't it really: a man who is likely to be an enemy, who may or may not have the information you desire, a bomb that may or may not exist, a man who may or may not lie?

It's cheap, loading the dice. Far cleverer and harder and more honest and better art to walk your characters through a grey world, and try to justify their ways to your readers when there are choices they didn't make, that you didn't make for them...
posted by Diablevert at 12:24 PM on March 3 [8 favorites]


The Cold Equations was about how good people can bring bad things to themselves and others. My 14 year old brain loved this story. Nowadays I still look back on it fondly, with appropriate indulgence regarding the contrived setup.

Bad science is fair game, but good plotting covers bad science well enough. Science Fiction is all about "What if?" The WI factor could be tangential, like Marty's hoverboard, or it could be central, like Kirk's warp drive.

We can suspend our disbelieve willingly, or else the writer can seduce us into going along with him. I'm willing to go along with gravity plate technology and warp drives for the space operas...just get along with the plot. A different story may require a more rigid science underpinning.

For another version of this theme--the cold equations, I mean--try "Think Like a Dinosaur."
posted by mule98J at 12:24 PM on March 3 [1 favorite]


I always liked Don Sakers' "The Cold Solution"

Well, that was nauseating. I suggest you don't google it, but if you really want to know...
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 12:31 PM on March 3


... Maybe I didn't warn clearly enough about the gleeful brutality.
posted by asperity at 12:36 PM on March 3


At the time there was a lot of "the math says I should act like a dick" thinking afloat in Real Life. At least the science fiction authors weren't in control of actual hydrogen bombs.
posted by localroger at 12:37 PM on March 3


‘‘The Cold Equations’’ never asks why the explorers were sent off-planet without a supply of vaccines. It never asks what failure of health-protocol led to the spread of the disease on the distant, unexplored world... ‘‘The Cold Equations’’ shoves every one of those questions out the airlock along with the young girl...

From the story:

"The Stardust had received the request from one of the exploration parties stationed on Woden, the six men of the party already being stricken with the fever carried by the green kala midges and their own supply of serum destroyed by the tornado that had torn through their camp."
posted by stinkfoot at 12:39 PM on March 3 [2 favorites]


Richard Harter has a lengthy take on it: "Perhaps the real tragedy (to use the term loosely) of the story is that no better story could have been written given the circumstances of its composition."
posted by asperity at 12:49 PM on March 3 [3 favorites]


The universe wasn’t punishing the girl, though. Godwin was

You know who else didn't understand SF?
 
posted by Herodios at 1:03 PM on March 3 [1 favorite]


Which is the point - Campbell wanted a heavy handed polemic, and that's exactly what he got, along with plot holes you can drive a semi through.
posted by NoxAeternum at 1:04 PM on March 3 [1 favorite]


There's a fairly involved tvtropes "headscratchers" page about The Cold Equations. Pretty much every objection to and defense of the story seen in this thread can be found there, and then some.

That's pretty cursory, though. If you want a really detailed description of why the story rubs some people the wrong way, I recommend Richard Harter's "indictment", which compares the attitude of the story to that of a 19th century factory owner: "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..."
posted by baf at 1:04 PM on March 3 [2 favorites]


The whole point of the story, the point that Campbell was dead-set on making

Backing up Pope Guilty's take on this, Wikipedia claims that "[t]he story was shaped by Astounding editor John W. Campbell, who sent "Cold Equations" back to Godwin three times before he got the version he wanted, because 'Godwin kept coming up with ingenious ways to save the girl!'"
posted by lord_wolf at 1:05 PM on March 3 [1 favorite]


I'm glad to see an sf writer tearing into "The Cold Equations", which is highly memorable and highly cooked. I ranted about it here.

Bottom line: don't physics or the girl, blame poor design. The warning notice is fatally misleading. Why did the closet even have a door?

The frustrating thing about the nerd machista defenses of the story is that the target is wrong. By now we have actual space disasters to look at, and they weren't caused by naive civilian girls. They were caused by engineering failures— that is, by engineers and their managers, the very people that sf glorifies.
posted by zompist at 1:12 PM on March 3 [7 favorites]


Zomp, I'm pretty sure I got my perspective from your page way back when.
posted by Pope Guilty at 1:15 PM on March 3


Well, in space, stupid people *will* die. Smart people have died repeatedly.

This is true, but by itself, it's just not that interesting, narratively speaking. Which is another problem with The Cold Equations. I remember reading it in high school and again some years later and being so unmoved by the characters that I didn't care who died. Which is to say what others have said; it's a tract masquerading as a story.
posted by octobersurprise at 1:22 PM on March 3


You know who else wanted to justifiably kill Hitler?
Godwin.

posted by davel at 1:43 PM on March 3


The Cold Equations II: The NTSB Investigation

Thrill as the contractor who designed the ship negotiates a settlement with the stowaway's family and is rewarded by investors! Marvel at the in absentia trial where the stowaway is sentenced to 90 years due to mandatory minimum laws! The equations are back, and they're colder than ever! [THXSound.wav]
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 1:43 PM on March 3 [11 favorites]


I think there's an interesting analogy to be made between "The Cold Equations" and when people stow away in passenger aircraft landing gear in the real world.
posted by Mitrovarr at 2:05 PM on March 3


Except that to stow away in the gear requires beating a number of security layers in most places. You're not going to just wander through a door on a lark.
posted by NoxAeternum at 2:20 PM on March 3


It's like that here, but I'm not sure it's like that in all of the countries where most of those people come from. And they might not be able to read a lot of the signs and warnings they bypass due to either language or illiteracy issues.
posted by Mitrovarr at 2:24 PM on March 3


Except that when you actually hear one of these people who survives talk about why they did it, you never hear that it was a lark - they're pretty much desperate people who are willing to risk everything across the board. Which continues to illustrate why The Cold Equations is such a bad story - when your plot demands that everyone gets an idiot ball for it to work, it's time to toss the plot out.

Also, I think Doctrow talking about loading the plot die is a bit pot-and-kettle, though he prefers Randian loading to Campbellian loading.
posted by NoxAeternum at 2:48 PM on March 3 [1 favorite]


I read "The Cold Solution" as being in the spirit of "Hey, bro, if you're gonna construct this highly artificial and unbelievable situation in order to justify acting like a brutal motherfucker, don't skimp on the brutal motherfuckery alright?"
posted by localroger at 3:08 PM on March 3 [2 favorites]


One day, Blank Reg will be thought of, and prayed to, like a saint.
posted by Catblack at 3:33 PM on March 3 [3 favorites]


At the time there was a lot of "the math says I should act like a dick" thinking afloat in Real Life.

This is the real problem with the story, not that the plot has holes in it, but that the mythological uses of the story are bad.

What sucks about this story is that some people see it as a true myth, illustrating The Way The World Works. What do we do when a poor person needs health care? Well, sometimes we have to let that person die because there's just not enough money to treat everyone, and it's nothing personal, that's Just The Way The Math Works.
posted by straight at 3:42 PM on March 3 [5 favorites]


...highly artificial and unbelievable situation...

Well, yes, it's an utterly contrived scenario. But, the momentum of technology (and commerce, and bureaucracy) don't always slow down to design-in the fuel reserve (or the right O-Ring, or oxygen system, or do foam-impact analysis). Then shit happens that 'nobody could have foreseen'. To me, less about the brutality of the pilot and more about how the brutality was built into the system. Like with other empires. My 2¢.
posted by j_curiouser at 3:50 PM on March 3


I presume the existing stowaway protocol was designed for abused native servants trying to run away from oppressive conditions. No pilot is going to lose any sleep blasting one of them and tossing them out of the airlock. Heck, we were doing them a favor by giving that subhuman filth the opportunity to be our servants in the first place. The ships keep the respectable folks from wandering on by storing the emergency transports in the servant areas, and everything's hunky-dory until some blue-eyed girl goes down there to practice her Gelanese.
posted by ckape at 4:21 PM on March 3 [2 favorites]


The inspiration behind stowaways and their frequency is directly addressed in the story.

Why couldn’t she have been a man with some ulterior motive? A fugitive from justice hoping to lose himself on a raw new world; an opportunist seeking transportation to the new colonies where he might find golden fleece for the taking; a crackpot with a mission. Perhaps once in his lifetime an EDS pilot would find such a stowaway on his ship — warped men, mean and selfish men, brutal and dangerous men

There are certainly problems with this short story, even beyond the ones people dream up for it while ignoring the actual text, but I've always appreciated it as an antidote to all the scifi where the engineers suddenly realize they can just Reverse the Polarity of something and fix the problem.
posted by dragoon at 4:41 PM on March 3 [3 favorites]


But is that ever really something that happens? An enemy you are certain has the information you desire, millions of people who a certain to die within hours?

There's actually a term for this, and one that seems relevant to this discussion: The Ticking Time Bomb Scenario. It enters the political conversation first in a (pretty dumb) novel called The Centurions that's basically a fantasy about how the French colonial war in Algeria should have gone, played out in Indochina, and which has had a weirdly outsize role in counterinsurgency and military doctrine (and the popular imagination) ever since it came out in 1960. Basically, as Darius Rejali puts it, it tells us that "democracy has made us weak, and real men know what to do." It's a fantasy of optimal knowledge (you know this dude is the terrorist who knows where the very real bomb is, etc etc) that's basically "The Cold Equations" in practice for torturers.
posted by the brave tetra-pak at 4:55 PM on March 3 [1 favorite]


The situation might not be irretrievable depending on how they did the initial transfer-orbit burn: either they burned until they reached the proper velocity and transfer orbit (determining this would be hard, though), meaning they consumed more fuel than budgeted and can't slow down at the far end; or they burned a preset amount of fuel but didn't get into the correct orbit

Either way fails, if your don't have enough reserve. Either you made your transfer orbit, but spent too much fuel doing so, or you cut off the burn early and didn't make the transfer orbit.

If it's the second, spacing the stowaway simply killed one more person than not delivering the cure did. The former? They both die and the cure isn't delivered.
posted by eriko at 6:13 PM on March 3


Well, yes, it's an utterly contrived scenario. But...

But the story isn't about O-rings and cracked composite panels and stuff like that; it's about having to very personally and up-close murder a pretty much innocent person to avoid a lot more death. And it's very carefully constructed to allow no other outcome.

A less precise version of this is offered to intro philosophy students as, as it was named when I got it and without a hint (snicker) of racism, the "Pedro Paradox." Pedro is a brutal guerrilla who has captured you and has given you an ultimatum: You can shoot one guy for him, or he will shoot ten. Your call.

There are other formulations, most about as believable as the situation in The Cold Equations but the upshot is that most people seem to find it preferable to watch ten people die even if it is an indirect result of their own intransigance than to actively and personally kill a person themselves. TCE is just playing with this, and rather ham-handedly.

The bad thing about it is that real people with real power over other real people caused those other real people to really suffer and even die because they heeded the "lessons" learned from these dubious morality plays. They learned that compassion is bad and a sensible and necessary fortitude is good. They learned what seems to have been the take-away lesson from World War II by both victorious sides, that hey those loser assholes had a pretty good run and might have even won with a bit of luck so we need to be more like them.
posted by localroger at 6:34 PM on March 3 [1 favorite]


Having had my curiosity piqued, I read both the original story and Harter's critique...he's basically sound, but I think he misses why it's stuck, really --- the little frisson that gives the thing its staying power isn't just the absence of a deus ex machina where one would be expected, it's the reverse of the chivalric ideal: The Knight must kill the Maiden. It's important that she's a young woman, and not a child; a kid he'd have to either lie to or wrestle with, and that would taint him a little. A young girl, but old enough to understand the consequences, old enough to understand the message --- Out here, you do not deserve protection --- that's what's necessary for it to work.

600 years of Mallory, right out the space window. That's what makes it "powerful". And yet our man stays noble; hell, he spends half the damn story staring mopily out the into the distance thinking stern space thoughts about the nature of fate, like a goth space cowboy. For truly this is a new world, with new, stern and ruthless rules...

After reading a thing like that you do begin to think that Wilde was right after all...
posted by Diablevert at 7:00 PM on March 3 [5 favorites]


"There are other formulations, most about as believable as the situation in The Cold Equations but the upshot is that most people seem to find it preferable to watch ten people die even if it is an indirect result of their own intransigance than to actively and personally kill a person themselves. TCE is just playing with this, and rather ham-handedly."

I've reread it recently and I was struck by how it reads to me, now, as a parable for the human cost of learned helplessness, or possibly the inevitable consequences of repeatedly caving into institutions that value human life at zero. That's the refrain, over and over again: "I'm powerless to help you." If there's a morality play going on here, it's that The Cold Equations is 1984 In Space. We can't turn a cruiser aside to help our deal with this, it is explicitly stated, because the trains have to run on time.

That's the real lesson of these things, I suppose - they're carefully constructed to deny the existence of systemic problems. There is no such thing as a structural issue, there are only individuals making individual decisions. We have to follow the rules at all times, but we can't question them because they're Rules, by god, and we must simply suffer under them before we die.

You can infer a fair bit from the author here, particularly from this passage: "The computers considered the course coordinates, the mass of the EDS, the mass of pilot and cargo; they were very precise and accurate and omitted nothing from their calculations" from which you can immediately guess that he's not an engineer, and that he's writing in a time when computing and aviation were barely out of diapers. Computers with perfect knowledge that make no mistakes! Aviation build with little or no safety margins or redundancies!

All this crap we just don't think or do anymore, because it just straight-up doesn't work. It's not about morals or ethics or anything, this is just shitty risk management. Planes fly with redundant computers and extra fuel, not because we don't know how much fuel it takes to get across the Atlantic, but because Sometimes Shit Happens. What does this expedition to Woden actually cost? What's the prospective value of their research, compared to an extra tenth of a tank of rocket fuel? What are six lives worth, compared to a tenth of a tank of rocket fuel?

And how does an EDS even get launched? They're incredibly skimpy on mass, but there's still hiding places with doors in them? Once in a lifetime, they say, an EDS pilot will have to deal with a stowaway, but there's no pre-flight checklist with a box on it that says, "look behind that door and hey why do we even have that door there anyway"?

Sure.

Oh, and about that door. What do that door weigh, do you think? Or the pilot's chair he steps out of, with the implication, in specifying, that there's at least one other chair on board? Do they weigh anything? How about the rich atmosphere in a ship big enough that it takes a moment to walk across, can we sacrifice a few pounds of that? Why aren't we throwing them out the airlock? Oh, right, because we don't have the tools, because we don't have the fuel to carry tools, because we don't value human life as much as we do an equivalent quantity of propellant.

But we're shipping the guy with his blaster, though, can't forget that. That's worth the fuel cost for sure. But not a pre-flight checklist or whatever.

Godwin gives it away in the opening page - this is a Stern Manly Frontiersman who has to do a Stern Manly Frontiersman thing, in a scenario carefully constructed so that the girl gets fridged. In that, in fact, it's got a lot in common with Atlas Shrugged - utterly implausible in any context in which humans are connected to other humans, but a certain kind of asshole will love it for justifying their acting like an asshole regardless.
posted by mhoye at 7:06 PM on March 3 [11 favorites]


I think of "The Cold Equations" as a response to the "problem stories" that were so common in Campbell's Analog. The protagonist is faced with a seemingly impossible problem that he cleverly resolves through SCIENCE! But what happens when SCIENCE pisses back, eh? (I watched "Gravity" for the first time, the other day, and you know that SCIENCE says that Sandra Bullock has no way down from the Hubble, right?)
posted by SPrintF at 8:15 PM on March 3 [3 favorites]


(Actually, now that I think on it, there is a connection between "The Cold Equations" and "Gravity" that you might consider. Bullock's character is as completely screwed over as the stowaway in Godwin's story. Clooney is the [illogically] self-sacrificing pilot. But even him [figuratively] throwing himself out the airlock won't save Bullock. Bullock is stranded in high orbit and the Big Blue Bitch will never let her come home. Because of gravity, velocity and the cold equations of orbital mechanics.)
posted by SPrintF at 9:18 PM on March 3 [1 favorite]


Also, I think Doctrow talking about loading the plot die is a bit pot-and-kettle, though he prefers Randian loading to Campbellian loading.

My go-to description of Doctorow's novels is "Imagine if Ayn Rand wasn't a complete piece of shit, but was still Ayn Rand."
posted by Pope Guilty at 10:31 PM on March 3 [5 favorites]


Lifeboat rules.
posted by homunculus at 11:33 PM on March 3


Bottom line: don't physics or the girl, blame poor design. The warning notice is fatally misleading. Why did the closet even have a door?

Apollo and STS both have doors on cabinets, because things floating around in microgravity environments are a real hazard. However, they also kept a very good inventory, and they certainly didn't have any large hunks of empty space that need to be pressurized.

Or the pilot's chair he steps out of, with the implication, in specifying, that there's at least one other chair on board? Do they weigh anything?

You'd be surprised how light they are. But still, you have a point. There is certainly mass to be shed -- food alone, if the trip is short. However, if you boosted an extra 50kg, you're going to need to dump more than 50kg to get the ΔV back. Having her walk out the door simply isn't enough to get back on orbit. Apollo, coming back from the Moon, would have had it easy -- dump the rocks. Going to the Moon is even easier -- dump the LM.*

But, as written, one person in The Cold Equations doesn't die. 8 do -- the girl, the pilot, and the six people who will never get the vaccine as the ship slingshots by the planet.

* NASA, however, would try like hell to keep the LM, because it has its own fuel and motors -- this means that, on the way to the Moon, the LM is both a source of ΔV and a backup to the SPS engine. Apollos 8-11 flew a free-return trajectory, that meant an SPS failure would result in the spacecraft flying around the Moon and coming back to Earth. But that trajectory seriously limited where they could land, so later missions used a hybrid trajectory -- they were launched into a very high Earth Orbit that would return, and after they had the LM checked out, they'd burn into the final, non-returning trajectory. NASA was willing to do this because they now had two engines -- the SPS on the CSM and the DPS on the descent stage of the LM, so if the SPS failed, the DPS could get them home.
posted by eriko at 9:03 AM on March 4 [4 favorites]


You Never Think You’re Going to Be the Type of Space Captain to Throw Someone Out the Airlock.
posted by homunculus at 5:55 PM on March 4 [1 favorite]


Has Naive Cynicism Become A Literary Problem?
posted by homunculus at 11:22 AM on March 18 [1 favorite]


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