Essay: A Fresh Look at “Cold Equations”

By Danny Sichel: [Reprinted from the Winter 2021/2022 issue of WARP.] The latest Clarkesworld is out, and it includes “The Cold Calculations” by Aimee Ogden, most recent in a string of answer stories to Tom Godwin’s 1954 “The Cold Equations” – from “The Cold Solution” (Don Sakers, 1991), to “The Cold Crowdfunding Campaign” (Cora Buhlert, 2020), and many others with less obvious titles.

“The Cold Equations” — also known as the “throw the girl out the airlock” story — has long been criticized for multiple shortcomings, in both its themes and its content. The situation is contrived! The society is broken! The EDS is bad engineering! There are other things Barton could have thrown out! Many people have complained about this last one, incidentally. There are indeed items on board that could very well have been sacrificed (including, as in Sakers’ story, the legs of both the pilot and the stowaway, which Sakers’ pilot assumed could be re-grown); apparently Damon Knight came up with a whole list.

Lately, though, a far more common criticism has been that “The Cold Equations” isn’t the story that Tom Godwin wanted to write. When Godwin sold the story to John W. Campbell for publication in Astounding Science Fiction, Campbell sent the story back for rewrites three times, because — in the words of Joseph L. Green, who spent five days with Campbell in 1970 — “Godwin kept coming up with ingenious ways to save the girl!” The moral of the story is often seen as being “space is dangerous”. This may be the case, but as Campbell biographer Alec Nevala-Lee found in a letter Campbell wrote to a friend, the story was also written as a “gimmick on the proposition ‘Human sacrifice is absolutely unacceptable.’” The situation in “The Cold Equations” is intended to force the reader to agree that human sacrifice can be not just acceptable, but necessary. As a result, you can definitely see a lot of places where Campbell’s thumb is on the scale, and remnants of earlier versions.

There are a lot of things wrong with “The Cold Equations”, and therefore I choose my words very carefully when I say: Campbell’s interference made the story better, but not for the reasons he thought.

What makes “The Cold Equations” special, what makes it an enduring classic, is that it’s about failure. Given the grossly negligent environment in which Marilyn was able to stow away in the first place (per Richard Harter, “there is a word for pilots who short cut their preflight checklist. They are called dead.”), without which the story couldn’t have happened in the first place, and the complete lack of margin for error, and, really, all the other factors that Godwin-under-Campbell’s-guidance used to make the story possible… given all that, if Barton had been able to jettison the pilot’s chair, or whatever “ingenious” thing Godwin had originally intended as the basis for a happy ending, then today… no one would remember it. It would have been Just Another Puzzle Story.

It’s more than that, though. I first read “The Cold Equations” in the early ’90s, in the same general span of time that I read “The Old Man and the Sea”, which is also about failure in some very important ways, and which may have nudged my thinking in certain directions. As is typical, I was aghast by the story’s conclusion, especially because there were so many possibilities as to how it could have been resolved without a death. But, I thought, that was the whole point.

I saw “The Cold Equations” as a classic not because the tragedy was unavoidable, but because it wasn’t.

This is what makes literature, isn’t it? Characters who aren’t perfect. They have flaws. That’s why the whole concept of the “tragic flaw” exists.

Barton was in a puzzle story. A life was on the line. All the pieces of the solution were there. And… he didn’t put them together. He wasn’t  insightful  or  creative  or educated enough to see the solution. He wasn’t bold or confident or stubborn enough to go against regulations. The pressure was on… and he didn’t make the right decision at the right moment. He wasn’t good enough.

He wasn’t the hero. He was only the protagonist.

“I didn’t do anything,” Marilyn says at the end, as she goes out the airlock to die. “I didn’t do anything.”

And neither did Barton.

And that’s why, despite everything, the story works.


Illustration posted by @23katiejoy.


Discover more from File 770

Subscribe to get the latest posts to your email.

94 thoughts on “Essay: A Fresh Look at “Cold Equations”

  1. @Andrew (not Werdna

    @PhilRM

    Eh, I don’t think the idea that “physics don’t care about feelings” is necessarily at odds with the message “and the people who made this starship clearly were incompetents/greedy assholes with minimum safety regulations.” The two things are fundamentally allies not enemies in the story’s point.

    A guy is trapped in a months-long snow storm and turns out that most of the food he brought is rotten, yes it’d be easy to blame the guy who sold him it (and you should), but the snow storm is what is going to kill and there’s no way about it because it is cold and unfeeling. Same if the guy is in a submarine and running out of air. Space is an immensely hostile environment and the story benefits for reminding people it is airless, vast, and cold.

  2. I don’t know. I found the story irritating when I read it. Think I was part of a discussion around it here. Then I forgot about it. Until next person brought it up here.. Then I forgot it again.

    There are a lot of stories that never really leave my mind. That has these images that will never really leave me, that I find myself thinking of in different situations. But this one? I’m mostly puzzled by why others keep on bringing it up. Perhaps because it was another era when they read it and it stood out more then.

  3. @Christian Brunschen

    “what angers readers about it makes it a good story”? That’s clearly nonsense. That would suggest that all a good story requires is for someone to be angry about it.

    Ok, sorry for the belated reply. Let’s take two steps out from the story and the SF genre. For me, one of the goals of a good story (not the only one!) is to cause an emotional response (anger, sadness, laughing, etc.). This story does it enough to lead people to create tens (!) of story-responses, I guess more than any other story in SF or even literature in general (I don’t count say Bible or Greek myths as a story, for they created more but had an unfair advantage). I personally do not like the story, I see a lot of holes in the setting, but I admire the story that causes discussions 68 years after the publication

  4. As a side note, here is a rough translation of prologue to the first anthology of Anglo-American SF published during the Thaw in 1960. The very first story was the Cold Equations

    Let’s turn another page of the space story. Once again we are faced with the cold brutality of a limitless cosmos. This time it is not used to affirm the heroism and nobility of the sacrificing astronauts – the inexorable mechanical cruelty of calculations and equations condemns to certain death a young creature, an 18-year-old girl, who thoughtlessly sneaks into a one-man emergency rocket to see her beloved brother on a distant planet. Tom Godwin wrote The Cold Equation, a psychological horror story. By virtue of the laws of the inexorable equation, the weight of an excess person automatically displaces them from the rocket. Excess weight is excess life. They must be thrown overboard. It does not occur to the author to show genuine heroism, a willingness to sacrifice himself in this acute situation. No! The cold and cruel pilot, after expending the proper amount of sympathetic words and explaining to the passenger that by the laws of space travel every extra passenger is subject to destruction, lets the doomed woman talk to her shocked brother by radio and write letters to her parents. Then this mechanical executor of duty and representative of inexorable inhumanity firmly presses the red lever with his hand and throws the bewildered girl with blue eyes, in little shoes with shiny beads into space… How much more human would the same inexorable equation be if there were another face, a truly courageous man-hero who left the girl in the rocket and turned on the automatic descent equipment! But the American novelist was only interested in building up the horror, not in showing the strength and nobility of the man.

    So if one assumes that Campbell is this case pushed a political agenda, it backfired. Poignancy to this review above add the fact that its author, Aleksandr Kazantsev, since the 40s officially occupying the position of the main Soviet science fiction writer, constantly fought with literary and ideological competitors. In the early 60s – “against abstractness in science fiction” (that was the title of his article), for the resuscitation of popularizing science in fiction. In the mid-60s – with foreign SF works in the “Library of Modern Fiction”. In the 70s, he accused Lem, Strugatskys and other masters of social, philosophical SF of preaching a “classless, supranational position”, in that the “pseudo-scientific method of studying the future” chosen by them does not coexist in any way with the tasks of Soviet literature and directly contradicts the foundations of Marxist philosophy. Later, completely transparent hints of complicity with ideological opponents were added to this – up to ties with the CIA. So, he actually was a pilot, who throw others to a cruel space 🙂

  5. @C.T. Phipps: Imagine a story in which a guy is placed in a sealed underground bunker for six months, with no means of communicating with the outside world, as part of a psychological experiment (say, for long-duration spaceflight), only it turns out that no one checked his food supply before sealing him in: most of it is rotten, and he dies of starvation. No one (I assume) is going to claim that’s a story about the implacable physics of underground bunkers.

    In your example, it’s not the snowstorm or the cold that kills him, it’s starvation. You could chain someone in the middle of an apple orchard, and they will eventually die, but of starvation, not because apple orchards are intrinsically hazardous environments.

  6. @Lis Carey: To clarify, I wasn’t talking about the pointing out of the flaws, which is informational. I was only talking about the manner.

    “It matters not how charged the phone; I am the master of my tone.”

  7. @Jeff Jones–

    @Lis Carey: To clarify, I wasn’t talking about the pointing out of the flaws, which is informational. I was only talking about the manner.

    “It matters not how charged the phone; I am the master of my tone.”

    I’ve just reread all the comments.

    Perhaps you can clarify exactly what you’re referring to, because this has seemed to me a pretty civil discussion, despite the strong views.

  8. Perhaps then it’s marginal enough that I’m the only one noticing it. I’ll have to reread the comments myself, to see if there’s a good example.

  9. “It got people talking, so it must be good!”

    Counterpoint: People still talk about The Eye of Argon.

    “All good stories evoke strong emotions; this story evoked a strong emotion, therefore it must be a good story.”

    We call this logical fallacy “affirming the consequent.” Good stories are not the only stories that can evoke strong emotions. When Dorothy Parker said “This is not a book to be lightly tossed aside; it should be thrown with great force,” that wasn’t a positive review.

  10. Many years ago, Greg Benford and I sat in the back of the room at an Eaton Conference at UCRiverside, listening to an East Coast professor deliver the academic analysis of “Cold Equations.” He went on and on about the sexism and misogyny of the author in his choice of “victim” as an attractive young girl. Finally, in the Q&A, Greg pointed out the “writers’ view,” how much reader impact would’ve been lost if the stowaway had been an unattractive young boy. Maybe not a PC view these days, but choices made in fiction to affect the reader’s response seemed to be something the critic had never considered.

  11. “The Cold Equations” if it had gone according to the pilot’s training:
    Pilot’s Log. Stowaway discovered at flight time +00:30. Stowaway informed of regulation requirements. Final statement recorded (appended file). Stowaway neutralized at flight time +00:47. Body ejected from airlock at flight time +00:55. No other significant deviation from nominal flight plan.

    The story has interest only because the stowaway’s identity causes the pilot to deviate from the script of his training, and engages the interest of the reader (who was also a member of the [more] sexist time in which the story was written, and so the writer could have certain expectations about his reader). The pilot is trained to treat stowaways as valueless dead weight that must be eliminated because that is the situation that the ship and operating parameters are designed to handle. The fact that the vehicle COULD or SHOULD have been engineered with more operational margin is not relevant. It doesn’t have that additional margin, and so that is the circumstance that the pilot and stowaway confront. The story is a story, and not a brief log entry, because the circumstances are set up by the writer (and editor) to make the reader experience moral discomfort. It is clear that they were entirely successful.

  12. FWIW, the DUST channel recently released “The Stowaway” via YouTube. I expected it to be related to The Cold Equations and it was.

    My criticism of the video is that it only mildly engages with the original story and the subsequent responses over the decades. The video is (mostly) a faithful performance of the original short story.

    [youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9VkUjGQuSuA&w=560&h=315%5D

    ETA – I have no clue about the formatting to embed YouTube via comments. Sorry.

    Regards,
    Dann
    Give the American people a good cause, and there’s nothing they can’t lick. – John Wayne

  13. @Tim Livengood–Or the pilot could have done his checklist before launch, and found d the stowaway when she could be expelled into the main ship, not empty space. If he didn’t bother, that’s a moral choice he made. Too much trouble, to spend a few minutes making sure you wouldn’t have to kill someone. Or that you don’t get killed by a stowaway bigger and stronger than you are, and more prepared than a teenager who just wants to visit her brother.

    What, there is no checklist, or there is and it doesn’t include that rather obvious step? That’s a choice, too, someone above the pilot. An interesting choice, given how utterly standard pre-launch checklists have been since the dawn of flight.

    Then there’s the lack of a lock on the door. And a “warning sign” that only says “no unauthorized personnel,” with no mention of the fact that it’s not just a rules violation, but a death penalty.

    This isn’t a great story posing a genuine moral dilemma. It’s the story Campbell wanted, of course. Tom Godwin set out to right a happy ending, and made two or three rounds of changes to get Campbell to accept that. But Campbell wanted the girl to die, and wanted to pretend “the cold equations” made it necessary. To get that, all the steps, no matter how sensible, obvious, mandatory in the eyes of anyone competent to fly anything, and any company that didn’t want to risk the needless loss of expensive equipment and expensively trained personnel, had to be eliminated.

    It’s not just that it’s crazy to design an emergency ship with zero safety margin. Grant that they did for some reason, and there are still multiple ways to avoid the girl’s death–starting with a lock and a more useful sign preventing her from ever getting on the ship at all.

    It’s a stupid story, and a morally corrupt one, and the corruption is Campbell’s.

    And that’s what people have been arguing about for decades. There are people who still need to regard Campbell as a hero, and can’t admit that this is a story where, no, it’s not “the cold equations” killing the innocent teenage girl.

  14. It is necessary to remember that the story is fiction, and Campbell only killed a fictional character. And if the story had a happy ending, it would have long been forgotten, along with the thousands of similar stories with a more happy ending that Campbell published in his magazine. Tragedy has a part in literature. Are all the tragic plays corrupt?

  15. Since its original publication, this story has so infuriated people that they try to find some way around the situation, some way to save the girl. Yes, it’s the product of a society and a technology which was too cheap to design margins of error. Haven’t we seen that often enough? People more interested in making money than in safety? Yep, just look at the news over the past several years. That’s the way human societies sometimes are. And even if they do try to provide margins of safety, being human, they sometimes fail. That’s the human condition.
    Other commentators try to find something else to throw out instead of the girl. But Campbell and Godwin closed those doors, too. It’s been years since I’ve read the story, but I seem to recall that it was clear that the pilot couldn’t sacrifice himself because the stowaway lacked the training to land the ship. Nor was there automatic landing gear.
    I think it was Richard Harter who suggested that they throw out their clothes. Of course in a story published in the 1950s, that would have been scandalous, and even if published, it never would have been selected for network radio broadcast unless that solution were removed. In any event, I doubt their clothes could have contained enough mass to solve the problem.
    You can blame bad engineering, a stingy company, politically-motivated budget cuts, or whatever else you like, but like it or not, she had to be ejected from that ship, or the ship would have crashed, she would have died anyway, and the remote colony would not have gotten vital medical supplies.
    Once after my mother had read to me a bedtime story, I asked why some character didn’t do something other than what they did, something which made more sense to me. My mother’s response was, “Then there would have been no story.” Many of the stories published in Astounding that year are long forgotten. “The Cold Equations” is an exception because it is very powerful story. And it is a very powerful story because the ending is inevitable, but it infuriates us so. That was Campbell’s genius.

  16. @A. Joseph Ross–But the outcome is not presented as the result of society or corporate cheapness, cutting corners, or anything else.

    Warning signs that say DANGER, or even more explicit things, aren’t any more expensive than signs that say “No Authorized Personnel.” Locks on doors leading to places you really care about keeping people out of are also pretty standard, even in our “Count the pennies instead of the cost” society.

    And we are supposed to blame the girl’s foolishness and not the good, virtuous pilot trapped in a terrible moral dilemma–when he didn’t bother to do a basic pre-flight check of his tiny craft.

    What killed the girl wasn’t her foolishness and “the cold equations,” but stupid, basic precautions that would have been taken even in the context of the cheapass, lazy society you posit, and which Campbell would have condemned in any other context.

    Also, there’s a term for stories where the only reason a character does something is “otherwise, there would be no story.” It’s called an “idiot plot.” It’s lazy, bad writing. “Society and corporations are cheap” is no argument against a lock on the door and a real warning sign.

    And in this case it isn’t even lazy bad writing. As you point out, the elimination of everything that could have saved the girl in this case was a deliberate choice by Campbell (Godwin wanted the girl to live). Even the things that can’t be explained by the pilot’s personal laziness and sense of urgency.

    A signed that didn’t say anything about danger, just “the rules,” and no lock on the door, are things so unlikely that they need an in-story explanation that isn’t there. We’re just supposed to blindly accept it. There’s no attempt at all at making the absence of these cheapest of all precautions, that cheap corporations routinely use to guard against actually making things safer, make sense within the story.

    We’re just supposed to blindly accept it, and blame the standard-issue Foolish Girl, and heartless, unknowing “cold equations” fir the unfortunate pilot being forced to eject her into space.

    And some people do accept it, because CAMPBELL, and some assumptions this influential, indeed foundational, editor established at a formative period in the growth of our genre.

    He improved sf writing in a lot of ways. This wasn’t one of them.

  17. @Lis Carey

    He improved sf writing in a lot of ways. This wasn’t one of them.

    In a way, maybe this story helped improve SF — because so many of the essays, articles, new stories, and posts (both pro and con) that have been written in response to this story have been brilliant.

  18. @Anne Marble–

    In a way, maybe this story helped improve SF — because so many of the essays, articles, new stories, and posts (both pro and con) that have been written in response to this story have been brilliant.

    An excellent point!

  19. It occurs to me that so many of these responses deny the young woman in the story any agency and therefore are a bit misogynist.

    The young woman is presented with sufficient notice that she should not enter the space behind the door. A fully detailed pamphlet isn’t required. A custom-engraved explanation isn’t required.

    “No Authorized Personnel”. Was she authorized? No. Then keep out.

    Did she take any steps to educate herself about the dangers behind the door? She did not.

    Instead, she purposefully maintained her state of ignorance about the dangers. In addition to that purposeful ignorance, there is a bit of arrogance that goes with ignoring an appropriate notice and going through the door. In some way, her desires are expected to trump more technical considerations for directing her not to enter the door.

    Unlike our modern litigious state where a restaurant can be sued for burns received after a patron placed a cup betwixt their legs that is accurately labeled “caution – contents hot” that ends up spilling, she cannot shirk her responsibility for risking the rescue flight.

    The crux of the story was her ignoring the sign. Excusing her actions is denying her agency in that decision.

    Regards,
    Dann
    “It used to be said that it is better to light one candle than to curse the darkness. Today, we admire those who curse the candle—because it is not perfect, not free, not whatever the complainers want it to be.”–Thomas Sowell

  20. Oh, yes. The McDonald’s hot coffee case — the one that people keep misunderstanding.

    Here is an article about it. You might still blame it all on the patron. Whatever.

    According to this article (and many like it), the patron admitted that she was at fault for the spill. However, she pointed out that the coffee was way too hot. Not just “but hot coffee is supposed to be hot” temperature. But something like 190 degrees.

    McDonald’s had complaints about the temperature of the coffee before — not to mention something like 700 reports of burns. But they kept following their policy of heating the coffee so much that they were serving it at almost the boiling point.

    She didn’t want to go to court, but she did want McDonald’s to pay her medical expenses. (You might decide they didn’t need to do that even though they knew their coffee was unsafe. Again, whatever. McDonald’s was going to pay just $800, but obviously, that wasn’t enough. (Her expenses were estimated at $20,000 — and that’s in 1994 money.)

    After the case was brought to court, the jury decided she deserved about $2.9 million. She settled for $600,000. And finally, McDonald’s changed its policy about the temperature of its coffee.

    There is even more information here.

    I can’t believe people still recite the B.S. versions of the hot coffee case without doing a little research on their own.

    Hmm, maybe they should have taken some steps to educate themselves…

  21. Dann: Big government types like you always seem upset when someone uses private litigation to resolve an issue, instead of leaving it to bureaucrats. Perhaps you’d be happier in a world where there was a 10,000 page manual approved by you and your commissars directing everyone on how to make their coffee, instead of the present system of letting the free market and the common people through their role as jurors.

  22. @Dann665,

    Nobody is denying Marilyn’s agency. People are simply pointing out that when you create a scenario where you deliberately keep a character uneducated about the situation and do nothing at all to prevent them from making a mistake, then you have completely set them up to fail – and The Cold Equations does precisely that, set her up to fail and die; all while claiming that it’s due to the harsh nature of the universe, when really, it’s because of the callous nature of the specific deliberate setup, and that in turn is because Campbell desperately wanted to send a particular message.

    In our very real world today, a sign that says “UNAUTHORIZED PERSONNEL KEEP OUT!” on an apparently completely unlocked and unguarded door would not be considered a sufficient warning if there was a risk of lethal danger inside, especially in any large commercial operation that could be seen as analogous to the story’s interstellar cruiser.

    Also, as has been said before, look at so many other stories with young plucky (and usually male) heroes who also show a disregard for such signs – in those cases, it usually leads to them embarking on a grand adventure, or solving a riddle or a crime, or any number of positive things for which they are lauded.

    In fact, that might have been a more effective way to make Campbell’s point: Start the story as the usual young-plucky-hero-goes-on-a-grand-adventure thing … but this time, instead of a grand adventure, ‘the cold equations’ require him to be ejected. That would have not only had the same message, it would also have been a clever subversion of existing tropes in adventure story telling!

    Another stupidity on behalf of the setting is, what if instead of someone stowing away and emitting body heat could be detected and indicated by “the white hand of the tiny gauge”, someone might decide that “oh, my brother is down there? I’ll ship him some extra supplies, and send him a message at the last minute before the ship lands to go look for them!”– thus adding weight to the EDS that similarly made its oh-so-carefully-calculated amount of fuel insufficient to decelerate the EDS? There would have been no indication for Barton, so he would never have checked the supply closet, and he would have just … completely unexpectedly run out of fuel, and maybe someone would have found the unexpected extra supplies among the wreckage.

    Or again imagine if someone had been actively malicious: that same lack of protection would have done absolutely nothing at all to prevent any attempt at actual sabotage.

    And there is nothing seemingly protecting the EDS and Barton against such potential risks – the regulation that “Any stowaway discovered in an EDS shall be jettisoned immediately following discovery” is of no use whatsoever.

    All of this seems to me to be an exceedingly stupid way to run a “huge hyperspace cruiser” that is also tasks with delivering emergency supplies and similar things.

    Also note that it is explicitly described that the commander of the cruiser “had not become commander of an interstellar cruiser without both intelligence and an understanding of human nature”. That goes completely counter to the choice of lack of appropriate warning sign or any actually effective security measures to protect the EDS:es in case of any even vaguely inquisitive person.

    And yes, why didn’t Barton bother check the supply closet before launch, to make sure that there was no unexpected mass onboard? That really should have been on the preflight checklist, when the EDS’s mass is of such critical importance!

    Heck, I am a glider pilot – and the preflight checklist, short as it is (CBSIFTBEC = Controls, Ballast, Straps, Instruments, Flaps, Trim, Brakes, Eventualities, Canopy), contains “ballast” – verify that the mass of people and equipment in the cockpit and any ballast tanks is within the glider’s permitted limits – as its second element (though in the case of a glider it is not related to running out of fuel!).

    And as I’m not just a glider pilot but am also allowed to carry passengers, another thing that we do before any flight with someone who has never been in a glider before is a safety briefing – which includes which bits of the glider they should and should not touch, how and when to use safety equipment, etc. And I seem to recall that even on short atmospheric flights within the reach of just this one planet, safety briefings happen before takeoff on every commercial flight.

    So was any such information about safety, about possible dangers, given to Marilyn on this journey through known dangerous territory? The story suggests that there was nothing of the kind:

    She had never known danger of death, had never known the environments where the lives of men could be as fragile and fleeting as sea foam tossed against a rocky shore. She belonged on gentle Earth, in that secure and peaceful society where she could be young and gay and laughing with the others of her kind, where life was precious and well guarded and there was always the assurance that tomorrow would come. She belonged in that world of soft winds and a warm sun, music and moonlight and gracious manners, and not on the hard, bleak frontier.

    Now, if even Barton understands this, then surely the cruiser’s commander (who after all is explicitly described as “understanding of human nature”) would also have understood that if you don’t tell people about lethal dangers, they will not be able to make good informed decisions – so at least a minimal safety briefing should have been given to the the passengers, but apparently wasn’t … which again, makes no sense at all if you value the life of your passengers, or your crew, or the ability to continue to deliver emergency assistance through EDS:es … and thus only makes any sense if you either simply don’t care about any of those things, or are deliberately trying to create a catastrophic scenario.

    So there are all these (and more!) things that are done badly in the setting, and which are done badly precisely because otherwise, the situation (Marilyn has stowed away and her stowing away must have lethal consequences) would never have occurred … and then the story tries to blame that on a) Marilyn, and b) “the cold equations”, which is really the story trying to pull the wool over the reader’s eyes: “Ignore all those real reasons over there, instead direct all of your attention to the entirely avoidable problem here instead and blame the poor girl!”

    In a way, this shows Godwin’s skill as a writer: he manages to pull it of for a large part of his readers – he bamboozles them into focusing on “the poor girl and her silly mistake and the cold equations that force her to die” and ignoring that the setting does effectively nothing to attempt to prevent her mistake (including keeping her deliberately uneducated about the dangers of the frontier, even though that is precisely where she is going!), or to detect such a situation before it develops from “mistake” to “lethal danger”, or even attempt to offer any non-lethal mitigations, or safety margins, or … or really anything that could have possibly allowed any other outcome than her being killed.

  23. @ Christian Brunschen,

    Thank you for that analysis. It’s a good clear explanation of the many flaws and the manipulative and dishonest artifice of the story.

    The sexism inherent in the extremely unusual, for the time, casting of a girl in the role of the plucky rule-breaker is particularly notable. From the language it’s clear that her gender was little more than a device to ramp up the horror felt by an audience conditioned to sentimentalize girls.

    About the only thing Campbell could have done to make it moreso would have been to give her a puppy that would have to be jettisoned with her.

    “The Cold Equations” is remembered because it is so notably awful, a calculatedly cruel violation of all common sense wearing a superior mask of feigned practicality. It’s remembered the way one remembers being mugged.

  24. Tim Livengood:

    “The pilot is trained to treat stowaways as valueless dead weight that must be eliminated because that is the situation that the ship and operating parameters are designed to handle.”

    I’d say that if a pilot is trained in how to kill stowaways, he most likely would also have demanded weapons training as he would have no knowledge if the stowaway would be armed or not. And with such a specific training, there should also be training on how to make sure no person stowed away before he endangered his life against a desperate passenger. The lack of those elements is why the story doesn’t really work. It doesn’t make the reader experience moral discomfort. It gets them annoyed because the story feels even more contrived than the trolley problem.

  25. @Christian Brunschen

    You start with:

    Nobody is denying Marilyn’s agency.

    and follow with:

    People are simply pointing out that when you create a scenario where you deliberately keep a character uneducated…

    Who kept her deliberately uneducated? She could read and understand the sign. She took no action to seek additional information about the hazards before entering the door. As she didn’t seek new information, no one deliberately kept her uneducated. She kept herself in a state of ignorance.

    @Carol Enwright

    Dann: Big government types like you…

    Big news…if true. In reality, I support a modestly reduced size and scope of government. And…big surprise…I think people should use the courts to obtain damages when a company provides a defective product. Coffee should be served hot. The cup had a warning on it. That was not a defective product.

    @Anne Marble

    This isn’t the convincing case you think it is. She was served a hot beverage in a container that had an appropriate “hey this stuff is hot” warning. She acknowledged that she was at fault. That should have been the end of the story.

    And the result is that we now have to settle for tepid coffee.

    Unless someone comes up with something new, I’ll let y’all have the last word.

    Regards,
    Dann
    “You can’t be a real country unless you have a beer and an airline. It helps if you have some kind of a football team, or some nuclear weapons, but at the very least you need a beer.” – Frank Zappa

  26. One thing that is extra sad is that there are so many different stories that could be and indeed have been written that quite correctly point out that the universe doesn’t care, and if you get something wrong, even with the best intentions, you may simply end up dead as a consequence – and of course even more real-world events.

    Lots of military sci-fi includes sections that exemplify this; David Weber’s Honor Harrington series, for example, frequently points out that even if your anti-missile defense systems are able to take out 99% of incoming threats, eventually there will be one ‘lucky’ missile that gets through and people die. That’s a cold probability theory equation right there, with no need for anyone to make any wrong decisions anywhere.

    Better still of course, something could be written starting from how all engineering endeavours involve tradeoffs, looking at risks and probabilities, and at what is required to make something achievable within reasonable resources, or for that matter, possible at all.

    A standard example here is, why aren’t airplanes built from the same material as their black boxes, which are after all designed to survive even the most lethal crashes? Well then the planes would be so heavy that they would not be able to fly in the first place; if we want to fly at all, we can’t be completely safe from harm in case of crashes.

    But: we also still do our very best to prevent crashes, including making sure as best we can that planes are within their weight and weight distribution limits, have the correct amount of fuel including a safety margin, actually prevent unauthorized people or items from getting close to airplanes (… all of which we are supposed to believe that humankind “forgot” that we should do in the intervening time up to The Cold Equations …) and more.

    So now consider a story where the author constructs a setting where there is a design that is in fact as reasonable as can be: make it physically possible, keep it economically viable, keep it safe for all those involved – calculating risks and probabilities, deciding where the tradeoffs can be made, where safety margins have to be wider or can be narrower, etc. Ensure that only the correct people get to do the correct things, perhaps even have some scenes where intrepid wannabe-adventurers are prevented from getting close to the design and jeopardizing it – to show that yes, everyone really is doing their best here.

    Now add that the universe doesn’t care about human tradeoffs or risk calculations, and happens to put not just one or two, but perhaps three wrong things that each have in fact been factored into the design … but where all three happening together at the same time conspires to push the design past its limits (maybe these wrong things normally contradict each other or require opposite choices within the design) and into a catastrophe that, even with all the best will and intention and even execution from everyone involved, could in the end not be avoided.

    Still a tragedy, still clearly showing the message that the universe does not care and sometimes someone simply dies … and that this can happen even if nobody did anything ‘wrong’.

    Wouldn’t that be a much more effective story?

    But then such a story would also not require an unwitting person to be blamed, or any sexist posturing about how the harsh frontier isn’t a place for silly little girls but only for many men … which I would not be at all surprised if it was the message that Campbell was really pushing for, thinly veiled under the overt “cold equations” one.

  27. “And the result is that we now have to settle for tepid coffee.”

    Liebeck got third degree burns on over 16% of her body and was put in hospital for a week. I’d say that if your coffee is that hot, it would be wise to serve it somewhat cooler.

    Personally, I don’t think small scripts on a mug or a sign should allow a company to seriously endanger people. Obviously the court was in agreement.

  28. @Dann665–I understood that you don’t care, but I still think the facts are important. Every restaurant and fast-food joint serves their coffee “hot.” Everyone expects the coffee to be “hot.”

    McDonald’s was serving its coffee 40°F hotter than the industry standard, close to the boiling point. And nobody expected that. Because it’s not a normal temperature for coffee to be served at.

    They had lost several previous lawsuits on that, due to previous injuries, but awards were modest enough that they just considered it the cost of doing business.

    McDonald’s also at the time had a run of defective coffee cup lids, that didn’t tear open correctly. This contributed significantly both to the fact of the spill in the famous case happening, and to how much of that near-boiling coffee spilled on her.

    The much higher than standard temperature they served the coffee at, the defective lid, and the multiple prior cases which McDonald’s lost or settled without making any changes to its practices, led to the jury deciding that McDonald’s needed to get whacked hard to get its attention. The plaintiff hadn’t sued for anytime like that amount; she just wanted her medical expenses for her extremely serious injuries covered. She eventually settled for much less–though still a good deal more than McDonald’s would have paid had they just agreed to cover her medical expenses in the first place.

    And as a result, McDonald’s started serving its coffee at a temperature you consider “lukewarm,” but which the rest of us mere mortals still consider quite hot, requiring some degree of caution, even though third-degree burns are no longer among the risks.

    The same temperature everyone else was already serving their coffee at.

    But, yes, I know, for those of your political and philosophical leanings, “responsibility” is only for the individual, never for corporations

    And no, “Authorized Personnel Only” signs, as a sole protective effort, are never considered adequate warning for a lethal risk.

  29. @Dann665,

    @Christian Brunschen

    You start with:

    Nobody is denying Marilyn’s agency.

    and follow with:

    People are simply pointing out that when you create a scenario where you deliberately keep a character uneducated…

    Who kept her deliberately uneducated?

    Well, the author as instructed by Campbell, for one!

    She could read and understand the sign. She took no action to seek additional information about the hazards before entering the door. As she didn’t seek new information, no one deliberately kept her uneducated. She kept herself in a state of ignorance.

    Looking within the story then: The story shows us the level of information that is made available to people, by the example of the sign – which does not elaborate at all on the fact that there are any dangers at all on the other side of the door!

    This, plus the way that Barton thinks of her,

    She had never known danger of death, had never known the environments where the lives of men could be as fragile and fleeting as sea foam tossed against a rocky shore.

    This shows that she is not expected to know anything about any of these things, or in fact expected to reach out and try to learn more about things – that society in this story is in fact deliberately keeping Marilyn ignorant, including about the fact that there are dangers around that she should have to worry about in the first place. This is also evidenced by what she says,

    “I was going to Mimir,” she said. “I didn’t know about the frontier; I was only going to Mimir and it’s safe.”

    She clearly was not told anything about the fact there even were any dangers happening along the route she was travelling. And that clearly shows that there were no safety briefings on the subject either, because then she would have known something.

    Now add to this the fact that the sign is about as bland as can be, and itself also mentions nothing at all about any dangers, real of potential, so that there is nothing there that would suggest that any further fact-finding might be necessary.

    The conclusion is that her not having the information is deliberate, both by the author and by the setup that has been created; she was deliberately being kept ignorant about the dangers, about the possible consequences, so that she could not make an informed decision – so that she would oh so easily make what seems like a small mistake, but which ends up costing her her life.

    Again, even today in routine air travel, passengers are given safety briefings – and that is without even traversing any particularly dangerous areas as the ship in the story, but just about the inherent dangers of the form of transport. The story mentions nothing of the kind, and shows us the opposite – she was deliberately kept from having correct information about where her choices might lead.

    Marilyn was deliberately set up to fail and to die. Her agency was taken away from her by the author at Campbell’s insistence, by the society that was constructed for the story because that was necessary in order for her to fail as she was intended to by Campbell’s message-pushing.

    So yes, Marilyn definitely had agency, in that she could have theoretically chosen to not stow away, but then of course she would not have been the “poor silly girl who made a mistake that led to her inevitable tragic death” but instead the “smart girl who avoided disaster even though she was in a situation that was keeping her ignorant of any dangers”, and that would not have suited Campbell’s agenda, would i?t?

    Again – the entire setup was created so that she has been given very little information, and what little information she did have did not give even a hint at what the risks were, that the outcome would be certain death – the setup wass, effectively, misleading Marilyn by minimizing the very real dangers.

  30. A few more specific thought about the fundamental dishonesty of the story.

    The story portrays the amount of fuel that is both available to use, and in turn allocated to an EDS mission, as follows:

    The cruisers were forced by necessity to carry a limited amount of bulky rocket fuel, and the fuel was rationed with care, the cruiser’s computers determining the exact amount of fuel each EDS would require for its mission. The computers considered the course coordinates, the mass of the EDS, the mass of pilot and cargo; they were very precise and accurate and omitted nothing from their calculations. They could not, however, foresee and allow for the added mass of a stowaway.

    But (as has already been mentioned many times) conspicuously absent from this is any at all thought about safety margins, precisely to cover for the that idea that there could be anything that happens during the mission that the computer might not have been able to foresee.

    An example of such a thing might be the weather conditions on the destination planet – we know from the story itself that the planet Woden is prone to strong winds, as evidenced by

    the tornado that had torn through their camp

    and destroyed the serum already on the planet.

    So … what if such a tornado had torn through the area where the EDS was supposed to land, at just about that time? If we are to believe the story … the EDS would also have crashed, because the computer could not have foreseen such an event, and thus would not have taken that into its calculations.

    Interestingly the very next paragraph describes

    The Stardust had received the request from one of the exploration parties stationed on Woden […]

    Combine this with the above

    the cruiser’s computers determining the exact amount of fuel each EDS

    we must conclude that this EDS mission was not one that was pre-planned before the departure of the Stardust, but one that was given to the Stardust while it was already underway, and caused a deviation from its original plan to continue straight to Mimir – otherwise, the amounts of fuel etc could have been pre-calculated before the Stardust even set off. Also, if this detour had been pre-planned, then Marilyn would have known about it in advance, but she describes how she ended up on the EDS as

    someone came in with an order for supplies for the survey crew on Woden. I slipped into the closet there after the ship was ready to go just before you came in. It was an impulse of the moment to stow away, so I could get to see Gerry

    All in all, dispatching of the EDS:ed is something that can happen, and in this case did happen, as the result of a request received by the Stardust while it is already underway. In other words, the Stardust must be carrying the EDS:es and their fuel in a speculative manner – just in case an EDS mission becomes necessary.

    So the interstellar cruiser not only carries the EDS:es but also their fuel “just in case”, but at the same time when an EDS is dispatched, the computer must ration the fuel that it gives to the EDS:es with such precision that there is absolutely no margin for a little extra fuel “just in case” something unexpected might happen during the EDS:s mission.

    That is a pretty big contradiction, if you think about it.

    And not just that: This means that someone, somewhere, must have made these decisions: Both the decision that interstellar cruisers should have this emergency dispatch capability … and the decision that only the most precise minimal amount of fuel is allowed to be allocated to any given EDS mission. Effectively, somebody somewhere laid down a man-made law about how much, or rather how little, safety margin to include in the amount of fuel each EDS is permitted to be allocated, after the computer’s “were very precise and accurate” calculations that are known to not be able to “foresee and allow for” anything unexpected.

    Which leads me to this paragraph:

    She had violated a man-made law that said KEEP OUT, but the penalty was not for men’s making or desire and it was a penalty men could not revoke. A physical law had decreed: h amount of fuel will power an EDS with a mass of m safely to its destination; and a second physical law had decreed: h amount of fuel will not power an EDS with a mass of m plus x safely to its destination.

    EDSs obeyed only physical laws, and no amount of human sympathy for her could alter the second law.

    What this misses is that there is a man-made law involved: namely the man-made law mentioned just above – You shall not allow any safety margin in the ‘h’ amount of fuel allocated to the EDS for its mission – which directly affects how the physical laws come into play: If this man-made law had allowed for any safety margin at all, then the ‘h amount of fuel’ might well have been sufficient to power the EDS to its destination, even with mass ‘m plus x’ instead of just ‘m’.

    So the story, right here, is being deeply dishonest – by only mentioning a very cherry-picked subset of the laws, man-made and physical alike, that are in play here; by deliberately skipping the very man-made law that created the lack-of-fuel-because-there-is-no-safety-margin situation in the first place, and mentioning only that “man-made law” that places Marilyn in a negative light.

    And that of course is without even considering all the other “man-made laws” involved, such as “don’t bother to put any locks on any of the doors that might lead to certain death, a sign that might just as easily be on the door of a janitor’s closet will be quite sufficient thankyouverymuch” or similar.

  31. In our very real world today, a sign that says “UNAUTHORIZED PERSONNEL KEEP OUT!” on an apparently completely unlocked and unguarded door would not be considered a sufficient warning if there was a risk of lethal danger inside, especially in any large commercial operation that could be seen as analogous to the story’s interstellar cruiser.

    You don’t even need lethal dangers to make better safety measures a reality. I work for a company that services student loans for the US Department of Education, and we very much do not want unauthorized people wandering around the building. Thus when I to go the office to work I have to use a key four times just to get from the front door to my desk.

    But the building does have lethal dangers, in the form of the rooms where Facilities has random electrical stuff that keeps the company running. The doors to these rooms are garnished with signs like DANGER: ELECTRIC ARC HAZARD. The doors are also, surprise! kept locked.

  32. @Nancy Sauer: My all-time favorite warning sign was on the door to a lab down the hall from where I used to have my office in the Duane Physics building at CU. It read, “Don’t look into the laser beam with your good eye.”

  33. @PhilRM–

    @Nancy Sauer: My all-time favorite warning sign was on the door to a lab down the hall from where I used to have my office in the Duane Physics building at CU. It read, “Don’t look into the laser beam with your good eye.”

    I love it!

    Makes the point quite effectively, with some humor for those who appreciate it.

  34. @Nancy Sauer
    We needed our card key just to get into the building. It also worked the elevator and the elevator lobby doors. Some doors needed special privileges to go through, though. And we still had the occasional rando who’d piggybacked through those.

  35. @PhilRM,

    @Nancy Sauer: My all-time favorite warning sign was on the door to a lab down the hall from where I used to have my office in the Duane Physics building at CU. It read, “Don’t look into the laser beam with your good eye.”

    The more common phrasing these days seems to be Do not look into laser with remaining eye or … with your remaining good eye – and if you put that phrase into your favourite search engine, you can easily find stickers or signs to buy with these warnings, including the ‘laser’ warning symbol.

  36. Has nobody here been near a military base or location?

    I barely have, and still. They don’t have “no trespassing, keep out” signs. They explicitly say they are permitted to shoot trespassers on sight. (and they still don’t always, if they can visually ID an underage civilian). There’s no question of ambiguity there.

    Worth noting.

    And anyone who can read the full details of the “hot coffee case” and still argue it was invalid and all the responsibility was Liebeck’s isn’t someone where I want to discuss with them where the responsibility for life and death choices rests.

    (also, I thought that case was what caused “this coffee is hot!” warning labels. if they preceded it, that’s more evidence, not less, that the company already had burn complaint cases enough to make a more customer Friendly choice.)

  37. Dann:

    I’m distressed to hear that Stella Liebeck is forcing you to make coffee at a temperature that you find tepid. Or perhaps did you mean that McDonalds has made a business decision that you don’t like, maximizing its profits as it should, but leaving you free to make arrangements that satisfy yourself? How tragic.

  38. @Lenora Rose
    The lab where my father worked had armed guards, 8-foot chain link fences topped with unfriendly wire, and photo IDs that were checked every day (and replaced if your appearance changed). We were trained to think that “authorized personnel only” wasn’t a suggestion.

  39. I have seen the photographs of her injuries, and I have spilled hot drinks on myself. That was not a normal cup of hot coffee, heated only to a temperature one would expect of a drinkable beverage, because I have never looked like that after spilling a drink.

    It is, frankly, disgusting to see someone claim to be familiar with the full facts of the case and still attempt to defend the maiming of a human being.

  40. @mark:

    Let’s see, we’ve never done that in real life… ignore the square and round air filters in Apollo 13, that someone actually had duct tape in the capsule to make them work.

    Actually, Apollo 13 is an interesting case. The crew was facing death from a variety of issues, one of which had a simple solution. There was no need for a Lunar Module pilot any more and Haise was also ill during the return flight. A simple look at the cold equations would have had Haise killed, reducing the CO2 problem by a considerable factor. Instead of using this rational approach, a team of engineers turned away from their other work dealing with problems that couldn’t be solved by killing to improvise a solution (rather like all the suggestions for removing chairs and other equipment from the emergency ship in “The Cold Equations”).

  41. Andrew (not Werdna): That’s a very interesting point. The equations warm up when the priority is to keep people from dying.

Comments are closed.