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Old 11-04-2023, 11:56 AM   #1
Critteranne
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"The Cold Equations" -- Yay or Nay

"The Cold Equations" by Tom Godwin is a famous hard science fiction story from the 1950s -- but it's also controversial. It appeared in the famous Astounding Magazine (in digest form) in the 1950s. Of course, it was edited by John C. Campbell -- and he had a strong hand in the way the story turned out.

SF author and essayist James Gunn (not the director!) said “The touchstone story for hard-core science fiction is Tom Godwin’s ‘The Cold Equations’.” But others look at the story's flaws -- the way it was constructed, the writing, etc. (Is it great physics but lousy engineering? Is it about the dangers of the frontier, or is it a poorly constructed trolley problem?)

So I was wondering what the readers on this site think of it.

Thanks to Lightspeed Magazine, you can read it here.

There is an essay plus an energetic discussion about it on File 770.

There are many more essays online about it, probably too many to collect in one post. I wrote about it for Medium here, and I included links to more essays.

Let me know if you find any new essays!

There have also been new stories that were written in response to this tale. Like The Cold Crowdfunding Campaign by Cora Buhlert. Filled with lots of in-jokes.
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Old 11-05-2023, 07:59 AM   #2
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Also, a nice, CLEAN PDF copy of the entire magazine for free at Archive.org:

https://archive.org/details/Astoundi...ge/n5/mode/2up

--------

This is a short story, so I'm going to pick up a copy and read it.

Thank you!

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Old 11-05-2023, 10:44 AM   #3
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I first came across this story when it was dramatized in the "Out of this World" TV series in the 1960s? on British television. Soon after I found an anthology in the library which contained the story an I read the original text.

I enjoyed both and found it to be quite quite well written at the time (I was about 14 at the time).

On reflection the "dilemma' is plausible. My feeling is though that in the situation the pilot of the courier could only act as he did and "space" the stowaway. I do not think it was a real dilemma but more a case of psychologically did the pilot have the moral strength to space the girl.
If he did not then many more would die on the colony world he was delivering cures for a plague to. The girls brother was on the colony hence her stowing away.
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Old 11-05-2023, 02:42 PM   #4
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On reflection the "dilemma' is plausible. My feeling is though that in the situation the pilot of the courier could only act as he did and "space" the stowaway. I do not think it was a real dilemma but more a case of psychologically did the pilot have the moral strength to space the girl.
If he did not then many more would die on the colony world he was delivering cures for a plague to. The girls brother was on the colony hence her stowing away.
One complaint people have is that the pilot (and the people he talked to) didn't seem to do enough to try to find a solution. It might have been even more powerful if he had tossed out unneeded equipment -- and then found it still wasn't enough mass.

Some modern takes see this more as a sign of a greedy corporation cutting corners rather than "physics" or "the dangers of space." Others still see this as an example of"Stupid people die in space." (OTOH why didn't they lock the door so nobody could sneak onto the ship? Why didn't the pilot check the closet before taking off?)
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Old 11-07-2023, 04:47 PM   #5
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Like you, I'd heard about the story, but only just now read it. And I have many thoughts. Instead of writing a crazy long post, I'll just put some basic thoughts down.

I don't think the criticisms are fair and likely have more to do with (valid!) dislike of John W. Campbell as a person than what is inherent in the story.

Quote:
One complaint people have is that the pilot (and the people he talked to) didn't seem to do enough to try to find a solution.
They say he could have thrown out the girl's seat. But if you read the story, she doesn't have a seat. She sits on 'on the boxlike bulk of the drive-control units that were set against the wall'.

The ship is small and collapsible, like a lifeboat. Imagine that ship as your car. Would you be able to dismantle unnecessary components in your vehicle with what is onhand in your vehicle at the time? And the whole story takes place within an hour or so.

Quote:
Some modern takes see this more as a sign of a greedy corporation cutting corners rather than "physics" or "the dangers of space."
But there is no sign in the story that the ships were owned by any corporation. So those takes aren't spun from anything within the story itself.
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Old 11-08-2023, 04:12 PM   #6
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I read it in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume One, 1929–1964. The story is perfectly fine, IMO. I understand it bothers some people nowadays because female characters should have agency or something, and why oh why the writer did not allow a workaround. But the story is powerful, and the decision not to find any workaround is 100% the right one for this story. With a workaround, it would be one more SF story about engineering problem solving, perfectly forgettable. As it is, it has impact.

The writer loads the dice so that there's no way out? Sure, so what, that's why there is a story to tell. That's the whole point. If they had ballast to throw out just in case, there would be no story.

As for why they did not explore in more details other possibilities... I assume they did not overlook anything obvious, but it's not explored in detail because the story is just not about that. I feel like we are so unused to short stories nowadays that people can not conceive of a story getting to the point, but this is how many of these old SF stories used to be: Just an idea (math doesn't care about your feelings) and go for it. If you don't like it, well, move on, it's not like there aren't plenty of stories where math cares about your feelings.

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Old 11-09-2023, 09:36 AM   #7
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Originally Posted by db105 View Post
I read it in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume One, 1929–1964. The story is perfectly fine, IMO. I understand it bothers some people nowadays because female characters should have agency or something, and why oh why the writer did not allow a workaround. But the story is powerful, and the decision not to find any workaround is 100% the right one for this story. With a workaround, it would be one more SF story about engineering problem solving, perfectly forgettable. As it is, it has impact.
It's remembered today because John W. Campbell made Tom Godwin revise the story so that it had that ending. Reportedly, Godwin wrote it so that she lived. And for whatever reason, JWC decided he was going to use this story to go against the grain of the typical problem-solving story of the time. I don't know why he chose that story -- maybe because Heinlein or Asimov would have fought back if this was not the story they wanted to tell.

I also think that the story works best because that character is a young woman. That brought out the protective instincts in readers at the time it came out. But that can also be read different ways.

Even without the help of JWC, Tom Godwin could write brutal stories even when there was a way out. His story "The Survivors" has a huge body count. (The original story was published in Venture.)

At the same time, I wonder what an editor like H. L. Gold, Edward L. Ferman, or Anthony Boucher could have molded this story into -- with or without the original ending.

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The writer loads the dice so that there's no way out? Sure, so what, that's why there is a story to tell. That's the whole point. If they had ballast to throw out just in case, there would be no story.
One of the movie adaptations had them throw out ballast -- but there wasn't enough. Maybe on paper, that would have dragged the story out too long. As it is, some of the paragraphs of dialogue... Phew.

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As for why they did not explore in more details other possibilities... I assume they did not overlook anything obvious, but it's not explored in detail because the story is just not about that. I feel like we are so unused to short stories nowadays that people can not conceive of a story getting to the point, but this is how many of these old SF stories used to be: Just an idea (math doesn't care about your feelings) and go for it. If you don't like it, well, move on, it's not like there aren't plenty of stories where math cares about your feelings.
For what it's worth, there is a critical article that says the story got the math wrong.

I don't know if that's true because when I look at an equation, I do so as a copyeditor and not a mathematician. (Yay, he didn't incorrectly italicize "ln"!)

Also, I can't believe I forgot to link to this detailed article by Richard Harter, based on what he originally posted in some form on Usenet.
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Old 11-09-2023, 11:25 AM   #8
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Originally Posted by Critteranne View Post
It's remembered today because John W. Campbell made Tom Godwin revise the story so that it had that ending. Reportedly, Godwin wrote it so that she lived. And for whatever reason, JWC decided he was going to use this story to go against the grain of the typical problem-solving story of the time. I don't know why he chose that story -- maybe because Heinlein or Asimov would have fought back if this was not the story they wanted to tell.
John W. Campbell's editing of that story is the best thing to ever happen to Tom Godwin. He is remembered today because of that story. With a different ending, it would have been forgotten.

Quote:
I also think that the story works best because that character is a young woman. That brought out the protective instincts in readers at the time it came out. But that can also be read different ways.
For sure. In the end, you do have to remember the time it was written. And from what I can see, Godwin wasn't the most subtle writer.

Quote:
One of the movie adaptations had them throw out ballast -- but there wasn't enough. Maybe on paper, that would have dragged the story out too long. As it is, some of the paragraphs of dialogue... Phew.
Yeah, it definately could have been better written. But the author seemed to take pains to show there is no ballast. This is a small collapsible vessel. It isn't exactly built with a bunch of expendable stuff.

And as I mentioned upthread:
  1. There was a time limit. The entire story takes plane in about an hour.
  2. Think of the story taking place in your car, in the middle of the freeway. Would you have the necessary tools on hand to dismantle your car to have the seat able to be thrown out?

Quote:
For what it's worth, there is a critical article that says the story got the math wrong.
Worrying about the math feels like someone looking for an excuse to pick on the story. There were similar complaints about how the setup of the suns in Nightfall would work
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Old 11-09-2023, 04:30 PM   #9
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When you're reading a book by some author, you are reading that authors story. If you don't like the story and would have written it differently yourself, go ahead and write your own. I've read many books - probably every book I've ever read - where I personally might have done something differently than was described in the book. Too bad - I didn't write the book, so I have no say in the story.

I read this short story about a year ago. I had not read it before. I enjoyed it. It was memorable. It was a story about a moral dilemma. It was not a story about engineering your way through a problem. Sophie's Choice between which child gets to live vs. MacGyver's choice to use an ax or a saw to cut a tree branch. Two totally different plot lines that are not interchangeable in a story.
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Old 11-09-2023, 11:04 PM   #10
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When you're reading a book by some author, you are reading that authors story. If you don't like the story and would have written it differently yourself, go ahead and write your own. I've read many books - probably every book I've ever read - where I personally might have done something differently than was described in the book. Too bad - I didn't write the book, so I have no say in the story.

I read this short story about a year ago. I had not read it before. I enjoyed it. It was memorable. It was a story about a moral dilemma. It was not a story about engineering your way through a problem. Sophie's Choice between which child gets to live vs. MacGyver's choice to use an ax or a saw to cut a tree branch. Two totally different plot lines that are not interchangeable in a story.
I wish someone had written a sequel about what happened after the pilot landed on the planet and delivered the serum -- the planet where the girl's brother was working on the frontier... Sure, her brother understood that she had to die because she unknowingly broke the rule. The others on the frontier planet would understand as well. But did they treat the pilot with cold civility? Anger? Compassion? Disdain? All of the above?

Now that could be interesting in the right hands.
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Old 11-11-2023, 09:08 AM   #11
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I wish someone had written a sequel about what happened after the pilot landed on the planet and delivered the serum -- the planet where the girl's brother was working on the frontier... Sure, her brother understood that she had to die because she unknowingly broke the rule. The others on the frontier planet would understand as well. But did they treat the pilot with cold civility? Anger? Compassion? Disdain? All of the above?

Now that could be interesting in the right hands.
I like this idea. It also has a moral dilemma but of a very different type.
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Old 11-15-2023, 08:51 PM   #12
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I couldn't take it seriously when they just kept coming up with weird contrivances to force it into a bad ending which just pushed it into "yeah, don't build spaceships with zero failsafes."
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Old 01-31-2024, 03:59 PM   #13
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Old 01-31-2024, 04:01 PM   #14
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"yeah, don't build spaceships with zero failsafes."
Failsafes in a spaceship are expensive, though. Maybe the people who launched it could not justify the extra expense just in case a stowaway slipped in.
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