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.

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

  1. @Andrew (not Werdna


    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.


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

    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!

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