Despite being an incredibly respected science fiction writer, not much is known about the life of Tom Godwin (1915-1980). The author of three novels and around thirty short stories, according to some sources, dropped out of school in the third grade. Still, he managed to write one of the most famous and controversial short stories in the science fiction genre. “The Cold Equations” was originally published in Astounding Magazine in 1954, and was Godwin’s fourth published story.
John W. Campbell, the editor of Astounding, greatly influenced the ending. In the original version of the story, Barton, the commander of the Emergency Dispatch Ship, figures out a way to keep Marilyn, the stowaway, alive. It was Campbell that requested that the girl die, and it is due to, in part, this changed ending that the story has made such an impact on readers. In a letter to Robert E. Graham, Campbell wrote, “Only once did I send a story back six times for revisions—and that was not a commissioned story, but an author who had an idea, a good one, and could write—but simply couldn’t accept the underlying honest answer to the story-idea he had come up with. ‘The Cold Equations’ by Tom Godwin is now one of the classic shorts of science fiction. It was Tom’s idea, and he wrote every word of it, and sweated over it … because he simply couldn’t accept that the girl simply had to die.”
With Campbell’s changes, the story transforms from a typical 1950s science fiction story to one that acts as a commentary on the genre itself. There is no miraculous way to solve the problem of the ship’s fuel, nor can Barton sacrifice himself. Marilyn’s only fault is that she has been raised in a world that has sheltered her to the point of ignorance. She does not realize the perils of space and she pays for it. She does not die because she is a child, or even, as some have suggested, because she is female. She dies because she is uninformed, and idealizes the hazards of space. “I always thought danger along the frontier was something that was a lot of fun; an exciting adventure, like in the three-D shows,” she says. “Only it’s not, is it? It’s not the same at all, because when it’s real you can’t go home after the show is over.”
Likewise, this story made many critics realize that science fiction was not all warp-speed and flashing lights. Godwin proved that the genre could be deep and dark and scary, and, in a strange way, real. In reality, advancements in science and society involve sacrifice. Sometimes, in order to move forward, we must leave a part of ourselves behind. In Godwin’s own lifetime, Einstein gave up his pacifism to support the creation of the atomic bomb, and countless soldiers gave up their lives in World War II and the Korean War.
Did Marilyn have to die? Despite solutions drawn up by other writers (as well as by Godwin himself), the answer is yes. Not because she deserved it, but because life is, sometimes, more often than not, unfair. Barton and the others simply couldn’t think of an acceptable solution in time. We can’t let ourselves become too content in our own worlds. We need to learn to become smarter, faster than before in order to compete and survive. Marilyn was too wrapped up in her own world to know anything about the universe or its potential dangers, and Barton was, perhaps, too closed-minded to think of a solution to the problem at hand.
Though the story was written and published in the ’50s, the concept of the story grips us still. The bleak, uncaring nature of the universe, the unjust punishment of the stowaway, the guilt that Barton knows he’ll feel for the rest of his life. This is what great stories are made of. Stories should make us think, and argue, and debate. Because at the end of the day, it’s stories like this one that enlighten us—and make us more likely to know what lies behind that door that says “UNAUTHORIZED PERSONNEL KEEP OUT!”
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