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.

11 Responses to “Musings on the Cold Equations”

  1. AshleyRPollard October 31, 2019 at 7:33 pm #

    The explosion of incandescent hate that permeates so much of our current zeitgeist seems pointless beyond necessity. Criticism for criticism sake about stuff that you can’t change or fail to understand the context of the time it was created.

  2. Warren The Ape October 31, 2019 at 9:37 pm #

    “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.”

    Not in America. The whole point of the Tort system is simply to legally steal from those with the deepest pockets.

    That is not some facetious statement. That is established fact.

  3. Robert Kaliski November 1, 2019 at 12:31 am #

    Pilots preflight airliners and mechanics see the plane off but people still manage to stow away in the wheel well. Nobody usually finds their lifeless body until either the plane lands and post flight inspections find a crushed, frozen corpse or it falls out when the gear goes down and lands in someone’s yard. You would think anyone would know it is folly to try being an external stowaway but they happen way too often.

    You could also wonder if Marilyn knew the dangers but figured she could talk her way out of dying. She seems very naive but no more than teenagers who post very stupid things on facebook only to have it come out years later and ruin a promising career.

  4. Reader November 1, 2019 at 9:46 am #

    It’s a Trolley Problem of a story. I.e. it takes a string of bad decisions (not all of them on Marilyn’s part) for the drama to happen. No medical specialists/equipment/vaccines in a colony (a plague is a foreseeable event – it’s stupid to not to have enough healthcare resources to handle it), very little fuel (even if it’s expensive, there are thousands of things that could happen with a spaceship; surplus fuel is a must. It’s not like the excess will be wasted or lost – it’s still in the fuel tanks, if it happens to be unneeded), etc, etc. There’s a reason engineers design systems with tolerances, and there’s a reason social systems have failsafes. So – yes, “designed by robber barons” (or, in a more modern parlance, “designed by greedy corporations that try to cut expenses wherever possible”). This is something that could happen in “The Outer Worlds”, but not in real life.

    The Trolley Problem is still known, after, what, 50+ years? Yet it’s not a good problem. The focus is to prevent such situations from ever arising, not on making ahead-of-time decisions on how to act in such situations. Because they have no good outcomes.

    • Reader (again) November 1, 2019 at 10:41 am #

      Compare this with the CSI episode “Chaos Theory”, where a string of bad [design] decisions and a coincidence leads to a girl being dead. She didn’t deserve to die, and no one did anything malicious – just a sum of small bad decisions (maybe a bit negligent) by various people. While her death is tragic, there’s no cold calculation behind it. No drama, no ethical conundrums. She just dies.

      The difference is that even after the fact there’s no one to blame. All the negligence that led to her death is perfectly understandable and “normal”. No one watching this episode would cry out “how could you people possibly design things in such a stupid way?”. And aside from “be less negligent”, there’s really no prescription to help avoid similar cases in the future (well, you *could* massively overregulate garbage disposal…), as no one really screwed up in a particularly bad way.

      TL;DR, if you create a story with a string of inexcusable bad decisions and then try to milk the inevitable result for drama or ethical epiphanies… well, you deserve all the flak you get for that. The only way to avoid that is to create reasonable excuses (“it seemed like a good idea at the time” works wonders here – this is how the real world works after all) for all the bad things building up to the end result.

      • Simon John Norburn December 2, 2019 at 12:53 am #

        Yes – easy in retrospect when you are applying future knowledge to the past. But the Trolley Problem was first postulated before this story was written. So case proven.

        Except – it is not a trolley problem. In a trolley problem there is a choice between two options, each of which will have a successful outcome for whichever branch is chosen. Just too bad about the other. But in this case there is not a successful choice on one branch – everyone dies. So in Boolean terms it is a problem that has to resolve to true; and one branch involves an AND with a false.

        This is not an ethical dilemma – it is, to copy a phrase that most people are probably aware of, a proof that “shit happens”.

    • chrishanger November 3, 2019 at 3:39 pm #

      I think by the time you get to the trolley problem – everyone is in place – its really too late to start assigning blame.


      • Reader November 3, 2019 at 6:03 pm #

        For the characters? Yes, it’s too late. For the readers? Hell, no!

        What I meant to say is that people don’t like it when an author strong-arms the story in a particular direction. The events should flow naturally from the original premise, and character should act in a way that is consistent with their…well, characters. “Cold Equations” is a [very] short story. It has no buildup, no context. In absence of that readers fall back to defaults – i.e. “just like our reality, unless noted otherwise”. And in our reality the premise sounds forced. The characters didn’t just happen to be in a bad situation, they were forced into a bad situation. And readers resent that.

        Hopefully, this time I was a bit more coherent.

      • chrishanger November 30, 2019 at 10:46 am #

        I think it does flow fairly natually. But that’s just me.


  5. Dan November 2, 2019 at 10:20 am #

    Wow I guess your as “cold” as ever eyyyyy

  6. Charles R Harris November 2, 2019 at 6:01 pm #

    And so Sixth dies 🙂

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