Archive | October, 2019

Musings on the Cold Equations

31 Oct


It seemed, almost, that she still sat small and bewildered and frightened on the metal box beside him, her words echoing hauntingly clear in the void she had left behind her:

I didn’t do anything to die for—I didn’t do anything—

-Tom Godwin, The Cold Equations

Say what you like about him – and a great deal has been said, as is the wont of our woke-world, over the past few months – John Campbell was one hell of an editor.  He understood, at a primal level, what made a story actually work; he understood how to subvert expectations to make The Cold Equations a story that is still talked about nearly seventy years after it was written.  Indeed, it is the ending – so unexpected, by the standards of the time – that caused most of the comment.  At base, we don’t want an innocent girl to die.  And yet, die she must.

The basic plot is relatively simple.  On a colony world in an otherwise empty star system, in a universe where spaceflight and FTL travel is possible but expensive and difficult, a disease is spreading.  A vaccine must be delivered immediately or six men will die.  In order to do this, an interstellar transport ship must drop out of FTL and launched an emergency dispatch ship (the EDS) to the colony world.  Because fuel is expensive, there is only a limited supply on the EDS; the pilot, Barton, is going to have to remain on the colony world until he can be recovered later.  Because of the cold equations of interplanetary spaceflight, the ship cannot take on more mass (such as a stowaway) or it will miss the planet, condemning the pilot and the colonists to death.  As stowaways will always try to space the pilot first, the pilot has a blaster and orders to shoot to kill before he is killed himself.  And Barton discovers, when he is committed to his flight, that he has a stowaway.

But this is no desperate man, condemned to kill or be killed.  The stowaway is Marilyn Lee Cross, an eighteen-year-old girl.  She doesn’t want to steal the fuel, she just wants to see her brother … a colonist.  She’s an innocent abroad.  She doesn’t realise – unlike everyone else in the story – that she has not only walked into danger, she has walked into certain death.  If she stays on the ship, it will crash and eight people will die.  Her presence guarantees it.  Barton tries, desperately, to work the figures so everyone might live, but he draws a blank.  There’s no way to cheat the cold equations.  She says goodbye to her brother, then walks into the airlock.  Her death saves seven other lives.

Godwin works hard to tug on our heartstrings throughout the story, building up an expectation that – at the end – Marilyn will be saved.  She’s an innocent girl; she’s no spoilt brat, she declares herself ready to face the consequences … unaware, all too unaware, that those consequences include certain death.  (By the standards of the story’s era, when men were expected to protect women, she’s the last person anyone would want to die.)  She talks of her hopes and dreams, slowly realising that they’ll never come to pass.  And in the end, she redeems herself the only way she can … by walking to her death.  Her suicide saves Barton from having to kill her in order that seven other men might live.

It is no surprise that the story is controversial, both when it was published and now.  By the standards of the time, Barton would have found a solution – probably with undiscovered super-science – and the story would have been forgotten.  By now, with more advanced technology and different social attitudes, the story has been branded sexist and misogynist, with Godwin (or Campbell) choosing to overlook possible solutions so the girl must die.  (One commenter, according to the foreword to the Baen edition, included a suggestion of pederasty.)  And yet, without the grim ending, the story would not be so well known.  I would kill to write a story that remained in the public mind for sixty years.  Campbell knew his job and he did it very well. 

Half of the story, naturally, rests on the technical limits, as they were known in those days.  The EDS apparently cannot be flown on automatic (although that would have made matters worse, as there would be no one on the ship to explain to Marilyn that she had to die; worse, perhaps, she might suffocate on an airless ship, her body still adding its weight to the load and ensuring certain doom.)  There would also be obvious limits to how much fuel the mothership could carry (regardless of the cost factor) and how much they could risk giving to the EDS without cutting their own safety margin to the bone.  Indeed, many of the little quibbles with the story can be resolved by bearing in mind that the EDS was not designed to carry the vaccine; it was pressed into service on an emergency basis. 

The other half rests on social attitudes and awareness.  Everyone in the story, except Marilyn, understands the dangers of stowing away on a spacecraft.  They know this because they live in space, they work in space; they understand, at a very primal level, the dangers of space.  A sign marked ‘UNAUTHORIZED PERSONNEL KEEP OUT!’ is more than enough for them, on the grounds that no one would erect such a sign without good reason.  Marilyn, on the other hand, was born on Earth and was a mere passenger on the mothership, unaware of the dangers except at an intellectual level.  On Earth, perhaps within the Sol System, she could be rescued.  Outside Earth, the technology and resources to save her simply don’t exist.  Indeed, this may also explain why Barton didn’t bother to search the ship for stowaways before casting off, reasoning – correctly, from his point of view – that no one would be stupid enough to hijack the EDS when there was literally nowhere to go.  The empty colony system has no place that can and will take the fuel and hide the pilot with no questions asked.  (The downside of asking ‘who would be stupid enough to do [whatever]?’ is that there are people too ignorant – like Marilyn – to realise that they’re doing something incredibly stupid.)

There are no easy ways out of the problem, as far as I can see.  And indeed, most of the proposed solutions are simply impractical.  For example:

Point: Marilyn could land the ship herself, perhaps following directions from the planet or the mothership (or simple remote control).  Indeed, a fertile young girl might be more important to the colony than the older pilot.  Barton can commit suicide to save her life.

Counterpoint: There’s no suggestion that Marilyn can fly the ship (if she had pilot training, she would have understood the dangers), nor is there any suggestion that the ship can be guided from the ground/mothership.  The mothership would presumably have other pilots, but the speed-of-light delay would make it impossible to guide the ship safely; there might not be a pilot on the ground.  (This also raises the issue of why Barton should die to save Marilyn from the consequences of her own mistake, but it’s fairly clear that Barton would have done so if that was an option.)

Point: There are plenty of items on the EDS that could be jettisoned instead, balancing the cold equations.

Counterpoint: The items may be vitally important (an acceleration couch, for example), too small to make a difference (pen and paper) or simply impossible to dismantle and remove in time. 

Point: Marilyn and Barton could amputate themselves, throwing out their limbs to balance the cold equations.  Marilyn could survive without her arms and legs …

Counterpoint(s): First, there is no suggestion that either of them have the medical training and equipment to perform several amputations successfully.  (My wife, a doctor, said she’d be very hesitant to try, even if things really were desperate.  Second, what sort of life would Marilyn (and Barton) have on the colony world, if they were literally limbless?  Death might be preferable.

As far as I can tell, giving the setting, the outcome is inevitable.  There simply isn’t any solution that will allow everyone to live.  It is for that reason, I suspect, that most negative commenters choose to nitpick the setting itself, pointing out that the whole universe seems designed by criminally-negligent robber barons.  There may be some truth in this, although – again – we tend to run up against hard limits.  If fuel is so expensive, for example, it is unlikely there will be much of a surplus.  (It’s also possible that the real reason for the blaster is not for the pilot to shoot stowaways, but for him to shoot himself if something goes seriously wrong and he’s condemned to die in interstellar space.)  There’s also the blinkered mindset, as I noted above, that comes from thinking inside the box – you might know the dangers, but there’s no guarantee that someone from outside will also know.  It’s quite easy to fall into the trap of assuming that everyone shares your understanding, a trap that can be extremely dangerous.

It’s also true that a bunch of places I’ve worked had stupid rules because there was an answer to ‘who would be stupid enough to do [whatever]?’  Most of them were quite idiotically stupid; indeed, trying to carry them out bred contempt for the bureaucrats who wrote them, rather than alertness.  Indeed, in this case, Barton might have skimped on checking the EDS because he assumed that no one would try to steal something he couldn’t actually do anything with.  (Ironically, a rule that the EDS had to be checked and then locked would be very far from ‘stupid’ in hindsight.)  But those rules did not exist until someone broke the laws of common sense and forced the bosses to write the rules. 

These days, all too many people ask – when confronted with a catastrophe –  who can be blamed?  Who can be sued?  And The Cold Equations continues to resonate because of it, with one faction using the story as an example of someone who did something stupid and therefore condemned herself to death and the other pointing out that Barton and his superiors were negligent and therefore could rightfully be punished (i.e. sued) for Marilyn’s death.  I find myself caught between the two viewpoints – both sides have a point – and there is no good answer.  Barton should have checked the ship, it really should have been locked … but Marilyn was also in an environment she didn’t understand, while being more than old enough to ask why rules and regulations exist.  There are limits to just how many precautions we can take to deflect stupidity and/or ignorance.  At some point, we must ask why the zoo – for example – is to be blamed for the idiot who climbed two fences to get into the tiger pit and promptly got eaten.  At some point, we must acknowledge that the zoo took all reasonable precautions and cannot be blamed for the person who didn’t stop to ask why the fence was there before they started to climb it.

The blunt truth is two-fold.  First, warning signs generally exist for a reason.   Sometimes, they explain the danger (WARNING: FLOOD).  Sometimes, they don’t.  It is simple common sense to be wary when someone posts a sign, particularly if it’s on a door you have no business entering.  If you don’t know what the danger is, you should find out before you put your life at risk.  (Or, as Niven and Pournelle put it in Oath of Fealty, which touches on similar themes, you run the risk of everyone else commenting ‘think of it as evolution in action.’)

Second, there are limits to just how many precautions one can take against someone who is determined to ignore them.  In The Cold Equations, Marilyn knew she was doing something wrong.  She assumed the worst she’d be facing was a jail term and willingly chose to ignore a warning sign, accepting that she might go to jail.  But her ignorance sent her to her death instead.  In Oath of Fealty, a politically-connected teenage boy gets killed in a power plant … after he and his friends ignore a set of warning signs and break through, IIRC, a locked door.  It may be heartless to say that he brought it on himself – and he’s a lot less sympathetic than Marilyn – but it’s fundamentally true.  Sure, some warning signs are only there because some barmy bureaucrat thought they were a good idea.  You shouldn’t assume that’s true unless you know how things actually work.

It’s easy to say, from the comfort of one’s armchair, that the people involved should have done something different.  It’s easy to proclaim that it should be possible to win a war without taking a single life, for example, but much harder to do it in real life.  The people at the sharp end know it’s simply not possible.  Accidents happen.  Sometimes, you do everything right – and/or everything you’re legally required to do – and accidents happen anyway.  And when they do, all you can reasonably do is pick up the pieces, learn from experience and turn the whole affair into a cautionary tale.  Sometimes, there’s no good choice.  You have to take the least bad option and cope with it as best as possible.

We have a habit of forgetting that, these days.  We like to think that perfection is possible – and, when we don’t get it, we waste time trying to find someone to blame.  Our society is practically structured to allow us to put off the hard decisions for quite some time, until they catch up with us and drag us under.  Marilyn made a string of mistakes – as did everyone else – that ended in tragedy.  You cannot cheat the cold equations.  Godwin and Campbell did us a vast favour by reminding us of that, well before the rot really started to set in. 

And frankly, their story is one that should be read by everyone.

OUT NOW – Mirror Image (Schooled in Magic 18!)

31 Oct

Years ago, Heart’s Eye, a school built on top of a nexus point, was attacked and captured by a necromancer.  The nexus point was snuffed out, the handful of survivors forced to flee and the once-great school turned into a forward base for a necromantic invasion.  All seemed lost, until Emily killed the necromancer and retook the school.  Now, she intends to lay the building blocks for a university, a place where magical knowledge and mundane technology are brought together for the benefit of all.

But dark secrets lie within the shadowed school.  What happened when Heart’s Eye fell? What were the tutors doing when the wards fell and the necromancer invaded the school?  And, as power flows back into the school, Emily finds herself caught between power struggles and a threat from the past, a shadow that has walked beside her for the last six years.  It might bring about the end of everything.

In a school full of mirrors, who knows what they reflect?

Download a FREE SAMPLE, then purchase the books from the links here (and purchase the audio version of Cursed here).


29 Oct

Hi, everyone

Mirror Image is working its way through publication – if you can’t see it already, you should be able to see it in a day or two.  I’ve also finished the first draft of The Ancient Lie, so hopefully you’ll see that one in a month or two too.

The rough plan is:

NOV – Their Last Full Measure (ALE6)

DEC – Debt of War (Kat Falcone)

JAN – The King’s Man (Zero 7)

FEB – The Artful Apprentice (SIM 19)


Great News!

5 Oct

Hi, everyone

As you know, ten or so days ago I went for a biopsy after the MRI scan revealed traces of something where the cancer was, a year ago.  (This area was treated with chemo, then blasted with radioactivity.)  The biopsy revealed that it was just dead flesh!  WhoHoo!

Obviously, the doctor was at pains to tell me that there might be something tiny left behind – I’m due for another CT scan in January – and there is a possibility that it might come back at a later date, but for the moment I’m clear.  As you can imagine, this is wonderful news!

And, in other news, I’m 13 chapters into The Ancient Lie.  Hope to get it done by the end of the month.