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Godwin, Tom – “The Cold Equations” (1954)

09/10/2013

Where to even start with this story, surely one of the most-discussed short stories in the genre (and, at least at one point, tied for 5th-most-reprinted)? To begin, a quick summary: the male pilot of a small “Emergency Dispatch Ship” discovers he has a stowaway, prepares himself to shoot a crazy (male) interloper, and then finds himself at a loss when it turns out to be an “innocent girl” who was hoping to visit her brother. After explaining to her that her additional weight dooms his mission to deliver a vaccine to a small colony, she willingly walks out of the airlock into space.

Apparently, (apocryphally?) Godwin intended to have the protagonist figure out some ingenious way to save her, but editor John Campbell decided this story was not going to fall prey to such sentimentality, and forced Godwin to bow to the so-called inexorable logic of physics. This becomes the relentlessly over-emphasized message of the story: “It was a law not of men’s choosing but made imperative by the circumstances of the space frontier… It has to be that way and no human in the universe can change it.

It is, of course, very telling that the sacrificial victim in this tale of humanity’s abasement before the universe is a “girl” who is both “innocent” and “small” whose only fault was ignorance. The execution takes place through no fault of the man, either – the math simply doesn’t allow her to live. The idea that this was an unprecedented development pushed by Campbell doesn’t stand up to the fact that 1951’s “Balance” also featured a male protagonist forced to kill a woman for the greater good.

The cold equations themselves, meanwhile, are not the product of physics, as the text would have us believe, but of economic/social conditions and illogical bureaucracy- and if Godwin was conscious of that fact then this could have been an excellent story. The story acknowledges early on that the hyperspace drives that allow interstellar travel are _expensive_ and therefore outside the means of most colonies. Hence the “Emergency Dispatch Ship” – a bare-bones, one-way, one-man vehicle that is launched from an interstellar ship when a problem arises. In order to make sure that his point about gravity stands, these ships are built and equipped with no safety margin whatsoever, and are further unguarded and unsearched before their launch. This stacking of the deck aside, though, readers still insist that this is the ur-text of “hard science fiction,” as when John Clute at the SF encyclopedia says:

The story itself is precisely told in accordance with the constraints described above, which are described as absolutely binding (no miracle solution, like jettisoning ship innards, or slingshotting around the target planet as a braking manoeuvre, is permitted); “toughminded” readings of the story, which have been frequent, tend not to reflect upon these minutely worked-out constraints… It is this double-edged “hardness” – minute obedience to minutely circumscribed premises – that may have inspired David G Hartwell to suggest that the tale is a metaphor for reading Hard SF in general.

Take note: genre experts say that this tale of a man sacrificing a woman at the unfeeling altar of science is a metaphor for the field. There is something deeply Lovecraftian about this, in more ways than one.

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