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The Cold Legacies

Tom Godwin’s classic story, “The Cold Equations” was first published in the August 1954 issue of Astounding Science Fiction. Astounding editor John W. Campbell, Jr. asked for revisions of “The Cold Equations” until he got the version he wanted, turning a run-of-the-mill hard science fiction puzzle story into something of deeper meaning. The equations governing the universe don’t care how young, cute, or innocent someone is; they’re cold and heartless, and on the frontier, ignorance of them is a good way to get yourself killed.

That’s a profound statement about nature; that the laws of the universe don’t care about us. It’s also a profound statement about our assault on conquering the universe. Only preparation and knowledge can protect us. Ignorance leads to loss, perhaps the ultimate loss: Death.

That’s clearly the intended meaning of the story, but there has been plenty of controversy over how to interpret “The Cold Equations.” Many critics focus upon technical flaws of the story. For instance, science fiction legend Damon Knight purportedly compiled a list of objects on the ship that massed enough to have saved the girl’s life. This and similar objections could perhaps be fixed with some minor revisions, but there exists a more fundamental issue perhaps related to people’s varying instinctual feelings about justice.

Exactly who is to blame for the unfortunate situation? A universe operating according to the cold equations of physics? A girl who ignored a warning out of innocent ignorance? Or a system that fails to do more than post a warning and only supplies minimal fuel without a meaningful safety margin? Imagine the circus a wrongful death lawsuit would bring in today’s courts!

“The Cold Equations” is a story notable for trumping the puzzle with a more fundamental theme, as well as hitting on a basic ethical dilemma concerning responsibility that society as a whole has failed to come to grips with in an absolute sense, as well as notions of self-sacrifice for the greater good. While the story has spawned a variety of responses, first let us examine some tales that came before. No idea is completely original.

Precursors

Popular comic book writer Kurt Busiek, among others, has alleged that the idea behind “The Cold Equations” was borrowed from an EC Comics’ Weird Science tale, “A Weighty Decision,” by Al Feldstein, as it possesses many similar elements. A rocket, insufficient fuel, and too many passengers who weigh too much—the female who cannot land the ship nobly sacrifices herself by going out the airlock. Also similar is the aptly named “Precedent,” a story by E.C. Tubbs published several years before “The Cold Equations.” In that tale, the male stowaway is tossed off the rocket.

The account of Campbell’s rewrite requests suggests that Godwin had initially set out to pen a simple story requiring a clever solution to save the stowaway. Only during subsequent edits did it come to resemble some famous existing fiction. However, even if Godwin didn’t borrow elements of the story from another source, it cannot be denied that rockets were very popular in the years following World War II and leading into the space race. The high-profile 1950 movie Destination Moon, based on a Robert Heinlein novel, featured issues of a heavy rocket and too little fuel, coupled with the possible solution of leaving behind a crew member. A story akin to “The Cold Equations” was ripe to be born in those days.

The theme of the importance of knowing the rules of survival in a frontier’s harsh environment was not new, either. Jack London’s “To Build a Fire” illustrates how there is no margin for error in the sub-zero Yukon. Any mistake can lead to death, and does in that story. The protagonist rationalizes that he might lose a toe to frost bite in an isolated forest on a cold day. Then he believes he might lose an arm, or a leg, not accepting that he’s made a fatal mistake and will lose everything.

Godwin’s “The Cold Equations” seems to have been at the right place at the right time, with its special combination of themes and flaws, to strike a chord with readers of the time that still resonates today.

Responses

There have been two adaptations of “The Cold Equations” on American TV. The 1980s incarnation of The Twilight Zone did an episode that followed Godwin’s story pretty closely.  Maybe better, fixing some technical issues, as there weren’t a lot of extraneous items to toss off the ship. It’s worth tracking down.

In the 1990s, the Sci-Fi Channel (now Syfy) aired a made-for-TV movie that took some liberties. While the storyline was basically consistent with the original, a lot was added to pad out the length and to change the theme. This was a version where the evil corporation prioritizing profit over human life was to blame, without a doubt, as they’re even the cause of the need for the emergency medical mission (safe working conditions were too expensive to maintain). Unfortunately, this version, whatever perspective someone might have on “The Cold Equations,” was heavy handed, slow, and not terrific.

It can be argued that one of the most classic scenes in science fiction film, the death of Spock in Wrath of Kahn, was inspired by “The Cold Equations.” Cold-blooded Mr. Spock was not an ignorant stowaway, but given the choice to sacrifice himself to save many others, he logically solves the moral equation and calmly walks into a radiation zone and his own death. Maybe that’s a stretch, but the themes inherent in “The Cold Equations” are universal and endlessly interesting.

There have been a number of literary responses in the science fiction field, some quite direct and others more subtle. One straightforward attempt to force “The Cold Equations” back into puzzle mode was Don Saker’s effective tale “The Cold Solution.” This story recognizes that Godwin’s characters didn’t try every possible solution to resolve their problem, and that an arm or a leg weighs more than you might think.

Michael Burstein’s “The Cold Calculations” is another riff, featuring a spaceship with limited fuel reserves on an emergency rescue mission to Titan. The pilot makes a hasty decision to avoid a meteoroid, and then there’s not enough fuel to land safely. No stowaway in this case, but again not enough stuff that can be thrown overboard. There’s an artificially intelligent computer that can land the ship without the pilot if necessary, and its existence opens the door to a science fictional solution: Upload the pilot’s brain into the computer, so his mind lives on even if his body doesn’t. However, there isn’t enough memory in the system for the pilot’s mind and the existing A.I., so it’s the existing A.I. that exists the metaphorical airlock.

One of the most interesting responses is James Patrick Kelly’s Hugo-winning “Think Like a Dinosaur,” which was also adapted for TV in an episode of the latest incarnation of The Outer Limits. Kelly appears interested at getting at certain ideas in the original story, and creates a situation to highlight just those, so gone are the rocket and its mass/fuel issues. Reptilian aliens, the “Dinosaurs” of the title, have come to Earth and shared their interstellar teleportation technology, but under one restriction: A human must press a button to “balance the equation” after teleportation is successful. Their teleporter is actually more like a fax machine, which leaves the original behind, and multiple copies of someone in the universe is apparently unbalancing to Dinosaur logic. All travelers know this and agree to the procedure, and the mechanics of pressing the button is a distant, emotionless task, until one day, something goes wrong. There is a glitch at the other end, and the traveler, an intelligent and well-informed young woman, decides not to go through with her trip. When confirmation comes through that the copy was successful, the aliens insist that “the equation must be balanced.” Obeying these cold masters is the price of exploring the universe, and our protagonist (it is difficult to call him hero) tricks the woman into an airlock and expels her into space despite her anguished pleas to live.  His blood thereafter chilled, it is a bittersweet irony when the woman teleports back a few years later, stronger and wiser, and tells him how kind he was when she was so frightened on her outbound journey.

Add to that the newest response, “The Old Equations” by Jake Kerr, which will be the next fiction story in this issue of Lightspeed. Ignorance comes in many forms, and when challenging a new frontier, ignorance can extract a high price, in one unexpected way or another.

The Rich Equations

Just as a single important equation in physics can hold a myriad of solutions and describe a dazzling array of behavior, so too a sufficiently rich story. In part because of its flaws, its fundamental themes, and its challenging moral calculus, “The Cold Equations” is still spawning discussion and new stories six decades after its original publication.

If that’s not quite cold, it is still pretty darn cool.

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Mike Brotherton

Mike-BrothertonMike Brotherton is the author of the science fiction novels Star Dragon (2003) and Spider Star (2008), both from Tor books.  He’s also a professor of astronomy at the University of Wyoming and investigates active galaxies using the Hubble Space Telescope and nearly every observatory that will give him time on their facilities. He is the founder of the NASA and National Science Foundation funded Launch Pad Astronomy Workshop for Writers, which brings a dozen award-winning professional writers to Wyoming every summer. He blogs about science and science fiction at www.mikebrotherton.com.