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My post about Histories the other day sparked a discussion on Twitter that ended up revolving around ‘The Cold Equations’ by Tom Godwin. It seems appropriate, therefore, to reprint this piece about the story that formed one of my ‘In Short’ columns in Vector. The column was first published in Vector 271, Winter 2012.

And so we come to the story that virtually defines hard sf. Which means, in turn, that for many people it virtually defines science fiction. As James Gunn declared: ‘If the reader doesn’t understand it or appreciate what it is trying to say about humanity and its relationship to its environment, then that reader isn’t likely to appreciate science fiction’ (The Road to Science Fiction Volume Three: From Heinlein to Here). It is a story that, for much of its history, attracted little but praise, and yet it has become, over the last decade or so, highly controversial. Within the pages of The New York Review of Science Fiction a fierce argument pro and con the story raged over several issues. In ‘There is no such thing as science fiction’ (Reading Science Fiction edited by James Gunn, Marleen S. Barr and Matthew Candelaria), Mark Bould and Sherryl Vint use a close analysis of reaction to the story to undermine the notion that there is one readily identifiable thing that is science fiction. After all of that, what more can there be to say?

Tom Godwin’s ‘The Cold Equations’ was first published in Astounding Science Fiction in 1954. Godwin had begun placing stories with John W. Campbell only the year before, so this was a very early work; but though he would go on writing into the 1970s, he never again achieved either the affect or the renown of ‘The Cold Equations’. But then, no-one else ever wrote a story that so perfectly encapsulated what hard sf was all about.

It is a story that has been anthologised so many times that it is probably safe to assume that anyone with an interest in the history and development of science fiction will know it. It is quite simple in structure (which is part of the point). Our protagonist, Barton, is the pilot of an EDS (Emergency Dispatch Ship), ferrying urgently needed medical supplies to a remote outpost, when he discovers a stowaway. The stowaway’s extra weight means that the ship will use up too much fuel and therefore will not be able to reach its destination. The stowaway, however, turns out to be an innocent young girl trying to reach her brother. Nevertheless, she must be jettisoned, or the medical supplies will not reach their destination and too many other people will die. There is, in this, a sort of perverse form of Utilitarianism, the greatest good for the greatest number; but it isn’t this that makes it the archetype of hard sf.

Hard sf is, essentially, a right-wing form. By that, I mean that the underlying principle of all hard sf is that the law is all, the law of nature is inflexible and must be obeyed at all times. There is no appeal; Marilyn must die, because absolute and unquestioning obedience to the law is the be-all and end-all of existence in a hard universe. The relationship between humanity and its environment that James Gunn talked about is one of subservience, the individual, one’s self, does not matter in this universe, ignorance of the law is a capital crime. Although ‘The Cold Equations’ is one of the very few hard sf stories that makes it explicit; more usually some competent man (and it is invariably a man) will find some way to bend the law, like a cosmic Dirty Harry. But when it comes right down to it, for most people you either do as you are told, or you die. And in this instance, it is no coincidence that it is a girl who must die.

The equivalence between the law of nature and the law of man is made explicit right at the start of Godwin’s story: ‘It was the law, stated very bluntly and definitely in grim Paragraph L, Section 8, of Interstellar Regulations: Any stowaway discovered in an EDS shall be jettisoned immediately following discovery.  It was the law, and there could be no appeal.’ (443, Godwin’s italics) And, even though ‘she could not be blamed for her ignorance of the law’ (445), the consequence is made explicit when the girl learns her fate: ‘“You’re going to do it – you’re going to make me die?” “I’m sorry.” He said again. “You’ll never know how sorry I am. It has to be that way and no human in the universe can change it.” (447)

All of this is established in the first few pages, and that is the entire story. The piece actually continues for another 10 pages before the girl dies, pages of delay, pages of trying to find some other solution, pages of gathering resolution. All of this is futile, we know right from the start that there can be no exception. The law is the law. The rest, in a very real sense, is just aftermath. And when, at the end, Marilyn walks into the air lock ‘with her head up and the brown curls brushing her shoulders, with the white sandals stepping as sure and steady as the fractional gravity would permit and the gilded buckles twinkling with little lights of blue and red and crystal’ (458), we know that she has accepted the law also. She has, in James Gunn’s terms, understood her relationship with the environment. We may regret the necessity – ‘You’ll never know how sorry I am’ – but when it comes down to it, we are all subservient to the cruel dictatorship of nature. And of course it is right and proper that we obey without question the great lawmaker.

Or so Godwin would have us believe. Or perhaps it might be more appropriate to say that so John W. Campbell would have us believe.

Because ‘The Cold Equations’ isn’t really a story, it is an expression of formal logic:

A → B, B → C, A  C

(If A then B, if B then C, A therefore C.)

We are swept along by ‘The Cold Equations’ because the logical structure is so simple and seems unassailable. Let us put in the values for A, B and C that constitute the story.

For A, Godwin tells us that the EDS is so finely calibrated that it carries only enough fuel to get the pilot to his destination.

Consequently, B, any stowaway would use up too much fuel and prevent the pilot completing his mission of mercy.

Thus, in turn, C, any stowaway must be removed from the ship.

Accept those simple propositions, and Godwin states them so firmly and so quickly right at the start of the story that we do not think to question them, then anything else is merely window-dressing. Godwin makes the stowaway an innocent young girl to play on our emotions, but in fact you could substitute any number of others in that role without changing its basic shape one iota.

Consider, for example, how the story would read if the stowaway was Barton’s wife or mother. What about an innocent young boy? Or a doctor who may have discovered a better cure for the sickness than the serum Barton carries? Or the first and only alien being humankind had ever encountered?

You can go on playing this game ad infinitum. Each variation on the character of the stowaway gives a slightly different emotional charge to the story, but the logical structure, which is the whole point of the piece, is not affected one bit. The resolution is known before we have the slightest inkling of who or what the stowaway might be, and the sense of the story is such that the identity of the stowaway cannot have the slightest effect on the inevitable sequence of events. The iron law of nature, and the even more rigid law of ‘Interstellar Regulations’, could not demand our unquestioning obedience if they could be circumvented to suit the individual. (Actually, John W. Campbell clearly understood the logic of the story, but it is possible that Godwin did not. The legend has it that Godwin re-wrote his story time and again to try and find a way in which the girl might be saved, but each time Campbell insisted that she must die. This may go some way towards explaining why Godwin never achieved the same success again.)

Of course, the fact that the victim is a girl – and Godwin goes to considerable lengths to emphasise her youth and her innocence – is clearly sexist and leaves an unpleasant taste in a more modern mouth. Especially as she is without agency throughout the story. The only active thing she does is to stowaway on the ship before the story opens, and even that is curiously passive: ‘I just sort of walked in when no one was looking my way’ (445). She is oddly inert even after being told she has to die; though she protests to the end – ‘I didn’t do anything to die for – I didn’t do anything –‘ (458, Godwin’s italics) – she doesn’t act. In the end she simply accepts her fate. Of course, the logic of the story demands that she should, because if the laws are all powerful then we must accept their decree. She is a ‘girl who had not known about the forces that killed with neither hatred nor malice’ (458), but once introduced to those forces she can do no other than bend her knee before them.

However, to protest that the story is sexist, to attack it because it is a girl who must die, to argue that she might be saved by throwing out the furniture or some such, is to miss the real fundamental problem with ‘The Cold Equations’, which is that its logic is faulty. Let us go back to that quotation from James Gunn: ‘If the reader doesn’t understand it or appreciate what it is trying to say about humanity and its relationship to its environment, then that reader isn’t likely to appreciate science fiction’. The simple truth of the matter is that Gunn is wrong, because the story is absolutely nothing to do with humanity’s relationship to its environment. Everything that conspires in the death of the girl is directly traceable back to human agency, not to the law of the universe.

Value A in the logical statement that is the structure of ‘The Cold Equations’ – the EDS is so finely calibrated that it carries only enough fuel to get the pilot to his destination – is the least questioned part of the story. Godwin passes over this point in less than a paragraph. We accept it because it is stated so simply, as a given: ‘The cruisers were forced by necessity to carry a limited amount of the bulky rocket fuel and the fuel was rationed with care’ (443). Who would question that? It is the key point upon which we suspend our disbelief in order to accept the rest of the story. And yet it is upon this precise point that the story stumbles and falls.

Let me make this absolutely clear: it is human agency that designed and created these ships; it is human agency that decided the ships should operate this way; it is human agency that wrote the computer program that rations the fuel for each ship; it is human agency that wrote the Interstellar Regulations that govern the ship; it is human agency and human agency alone that determines the situation in which the girl must die. This has nothing to do with the law of nature, nothing to do with our relationship with the environment.

If hard sf has one characteristic hero, it is the competent man, and that competence is most often displayed in a knowledge of engineering or of science. And yet the thing that lies behind this situation in this most archetypal of hard sf stories is incompetence. Because the EDS is a prime example of bad engineering, and if the engineering wasn’t bad there wouldn’t be a story.

The ships are deliberately designed to have no provision for anything that might go wrong. If this truly were a story about humanity’s relationship with its environment, then humanity should show a damned sight more respect for the dangers of cold, hard vacuum. If you were to design a ship that had one shot, and one shot only, to meet life-threatening emergencies across the universe, would you make certain that any slight variation in the original plan would doom the ship, the pilot, the cargo and, of course, those waiting at the other end? Of course not, that would be to display such a cavalier attitude to the laws of nature as to amount to criminal negligence. But that is what we are asked to accept as the basic premise of this story.

There are other oddities in the situation Godwin presents. ‘Each cruiser carried four EDS’s and when a call for aid was received the nearest cruiser would drop into normal space long enough to launch an EDS with the needed supplies or personnel, then vanish again as it continued on its course’ (443). Think about what that implies. The amount of ‘bulky rocket fuel’ the cruisers carry must be finite, but it can’t be that limited if they are to be able to respond to any emergency, no matter how far the EDS will have to travel or how much it will need to carry. And there is no obvious provision here for the EDS to rejoin the cruiser. The cruiser continues on its way through non-normal space driven by its nuclear converters, but it surely cannot scatter EDS’s and pilots carelessly across the universe, particularly if it only has four EDS’s to start with. So, once the mission of mercy has been completed, however long that might take, the pilot faces a long and fuel-costly chase in order to catch up with the parent cruiser. This is not a situation in which a Spartan attitude to fuel is desirable, or even possible.

In contrast to what James Gunn says, therefore, I cannot help but feel that ‘The Cold Equations’ is, however unintentionally, a story about inhumanity used to disguise a failure to relate to the environment. The laws of the universe may be rigid, but in this story humanity has not learned how to live within the law.

Quotations taken from ‘The Cold Equations’ by Tom Godwin in The Ascent of Wonder: The Evolution of Hard SF edited by David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer, London, Orbit, 1994, pages 442-458. The quotation from James Gunn is cited in the introduction, page 442.