Part 6 of an occasional series of essays presenting more verbiage on works too much has been said about already

The cold readings

For some reason I got to thinking today about Tom Godwin's 1954 story, "The Cold Equations". It's a great story, and the discussion here is full of spoilers, so if you haven't already, go read it; it's been anthologized all over.

It's a classic technical puzzle problem: an interstellar spaceship drops off a tiny emergency shuttle to carry medical supplies to a handful of explorers, and a girl stows away on the shuttle in hopes of seeing her brother. But the craft only has enough fuel for the pilot; she has to be jettisoned. The cold equations of physics have spoken and there is no appeal.

It's always been a controversial story, not least because Godwin provides no happy ending. This gives the story some of the exasperating power of the "third word that ends in -gry" meme. A mystery that leaves its murder unsolved gets on people's nerves, and so does a puzzle story that refuses to offer a solution.

Now, as a warning that physical laws can be unforgiving, this is all salutary but unremarkable; it's just the same lesson as "Building a city next to Mt. Vesuvius is a bad idea" or "Start firing and someone will get hurt."

Still, just because an author aims at a puzzle story with no solution doesn't mean that he's succeeded. Damon Knight is said to have come up with a list of objects in the spaceship that could have been jettisoned. The shuttle does seem to be astonishingly roomy, with space to walk around in; one wonders why it has a closet and an airlock at all.

My thought this afternoon was that no one in the story raises the possibility that the pilot rather than the girl is the expendable one. Taking the story seriously on the rough rationalism of "the frontier", a fertile young woman is more of an asset to a struggling colony than a pilot with no spaceship. (Possibly the piloting is too complex for the girl, but it's clear that most of the descent is automated, precalculated by computers rather than wrestled through, Han Solo style.)

Richard Harter has an entertaining page on the unconscionable callousness of the society which puts girl and pilot in this predicament. Blaming the girl's death on physics is a copout, when the designers of the shuttle gave it a closet big enough for a human being and a door labelled simply UNAUTHORIZED PERSONNEL KEEP OUT.

For some people, however, the story takes on a strange pseudo-rigorous unchallengeability. Someone on the web writes, "Knight may have proven Godwin a sloppy writer, but he's oblivious to the story's point." Another is even blunter: "The girl makes a stupid mistake and dies. Sorry guys, it happens all the time, just read your local newspaper. The story has ONLY one main point stupid people die in space!"

This is a very curious position; it essentially amounts to "We want the puzzle unsolveable." The situation of the story is already highly cooked (no failsafes, the stowaway is a "smiling, blue-eyed girl"; the cargo is medical serum people will die if they don't have); these readers are saying that they want it cooked further, that it'd be a better story if, say, Knight's suspiciously weighty items were removed. (Of course, remove too much-- e.g. leave no room for a stowaway-- and the story simply disappears!)

More than that, I think these readers are tripping on the story's considerable jolt of machismo. It's a commonplace that our civilization is soft and sentimental. It's less remarked that soft and sentimental people-- particularly the chair-bound geek variant-- often idolize brutality. The actual inhabitants of barbarian eras don't necessarily share this feeling; they often took pains to appear as refined and cultured people.

The real killer in the story is not physics but bad design. A brief design critique:

The girl is not stupid and did not make a "stupid mistake"; only bad designers blame their failings on the users.


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