“The Cold Equations” is a deeply hated science fiction story. Nobody writes about Zeno of Elea except to disprove him, and nobody writes about “The Cold Equations” except to spit bile upon on it.

Barry Malzberg:

“The Cold Equations,” is perhaps the most famous and controversial of all science fiction short stories. When it first appeared in the August 1954 issue of Astounding, it generated more mail from readers than any story previously published in the magazine. […] Its impact remains. In the late 1990’s it was the subject of a furious debate in the intellectually ambitious (or simply pretentious; you decide) New York Review of Science Fiction in which the story was anatomized as anti-feminist, proto-feminist, hard-edged realism, squishy fantasy for the self-deluded, misogynistic past routine pathology, crypto-fascist, etc., etc. One correspondent suggested barely-concealed pederasty.

To spare you exposure to hyper-pathological misogynistic crypto-fascist pederasty I’ll summarize the plot. A spacecraft is transporting medicine to a frontier colony. Far too late, the pilot discovers a stowaway on board – a young girl who wants to visit her brother. She has signed her own death warrant: the spacecraft only had enough fuel for one person. The girl’s added mass will kill them both when they decelerate (and then the sick colonists will die without medicine), so the pilot blasts her out of the airlock.

To him and her brother and parents she was a sweet-faced girl in her teens; to the laws of nature she was x, the unwanted factor in a cold equation.

“The Cold Equations” is, essentially, a trolley problem. Can the killing of a fellow human ever be morally justified? If so, how do you weigh one person’s life against another?

It’s a troubling issue with no obvious moral high ground. Should a lawyer die instead of a clown because the clown creates more happiness? Does a life that began at 2:15am have priority over a life that began at 2:14am on the same day? Do you refuse to choose at all (or is that refusal itself a choice?) Any possible solution produces edge cases that seem absurd, arbitrary, or abhorrent.

The story kicks against classic sci fi’s can-do-it optimism, where science and technology is a combination of Jesus, wonderbread, and duct tape . In the real world, it’s not that simple. Sometimes all technology does is drag tissue-fragile men and women into places where nature didn’t intend for them to go, places where they’ll die horrible.

Science looms over the coffin as well as the cradle, offers snakes as well as ladders. Soyuz-11 was a technological marvel, a skirt of aluminium and kevlar laced around the most advanced equipment of its age. It wasn’t enough. The capsule failed to seal, the chamber depressurized, and at that moment, there was nothing that could be done for the three men aboard, nothing at all. “God himself can’t sink this ship!” No, but we can.

“The Cold Equations” is a disturbing and important story, presaging the New Wave in some respects.

Yet I would almost describe it as “universally loathed”.

Start with its Wikipedia page, which is like those WP:Coatrack articles where the “Controversy” section is twice as long as the rest of the article. Aside from a synopsis (and list of adaptations), nearly everything is a link to someone criticising the story.

Then go to the TVTropes page, which is loaded with gems like.

Ass Pull: The lengths this story takes to doom the girl get so outrageous (as noted on the main and Headscratchers pages) that it sounds like a death trap. […] most discussion surrounding the story focuses on the ridiculous contrivances necessary to create the situation in the first place, such as the incredibly short-sighted design of the spaceship, the fact that we are told every piece of it is absolutely essential and indispensable but it contains many features which are not, and the extremely lame security protecting it. […] The whole situation could have been avoided by a 30-second pre-launch check. Or, you know, maybe a lock on the door? […] The author obviously had no perspective whatsoever on how a decent engineer thinks. […] If the premise can’t survive even basic analysis, than its a bad premise.

“The Cold Equations” has produced a small genre of response stories (including “The Cold Solutions” by Don Sakers, and “The Cold Calculations” by Aimee Ogden), written as if “The Cold Equations” is, like Lovecraft’s racism, a stain to be expunged.

I don’t consider “The Cold Equations” to be a SF masterwork. It has a lot of superfluous detail, it’s maudlin and overwrought (a young girl in danger is a tug at the heartstrings, and giving her a cute white kitten called Flossy is ripping them out with a chainfall), and the tragedy is so obviously stark that we don’t need pages of characters sobbing and feeling sad: that actually weakens the emotional impact!

But most “The Cold Equations” critics don’t condemn it on those grounds. Instead, they find the story unfair, as though Tom Godwin (and editor John W Campbell) cheated somehow.

The most common criticisms:

“The story is arbitrary! The author designed the circumstance so that the girl HAS to die!”

Yes, and?

Apparently it’s news that stories are fictive constructs imagined by writers. Here’s Cory Doctorow[1]Doctorow may not have read the story. ‘‘The Cold Equations’’ never asks why the explorers were sent off-planet without a supply of vaccines.” From the story’s second page: … Continue reading, bearing the profound insight that fiction is made-up.

The parameters of ‘‘The Cold Equations’’ are not the inescapable laws of physics. Zoom out beyond the page’s edges and you’ll find the author’s hands carefully arranging the scenery so that the plague, the world, the fuel, the girl and the pilot are all poised to inevitably lead to her execution. The author, not the girl, decided that there was no autopilot that could land the ship without the pilot. The author decided that the plague was fatal to all concerned, and that the vaccine needed to be delivered within a timeframe that could only be attained through the execution of the stowaway.

It is, then, a contrivance. A circumstance engineered for a justifiable murder.

It’s a “contrivance”, because all stories are contrived. The word “fiction” itself comes from the Latin fingere (“contrive”). Stories don’t grow on trees; they’re created by writers.  It’s absolutely bizarre to criticize a story for being driven toward an intended conclusion. That’s why we read stories! If you want to see a meaningless swirl of random events, stare at a lava lamp.

It’s also unclear what ending Doctorow would prefer: a story where the girl lives would be equally contrived (and would have ruined the message, turning it into a hokey Corman B-movie plot about a pilot and teenage girl on a spaceship). He might mean that “The Cold Equation” is unbelievable: it depicts events incongruous with reality to the point of ruining our suspension of disbelief. That would be a good point. If nothing seems real, then whatever message the author intended falls apart.

But “The Cold Equations” is not unbelievable.

Most objections are either explicitly dealt with in the first few pages, or can be inferred with minimal scientific knowledge and common sense.

  • there’s no margin of error for fuel (and no copilot/autopilot) because it’s an emergency rescue vehicle. This, not this.
  • such incidents are described as incredibly rare (“Perhaps once in his lifetime an EDS pilot would find such a stowaway on his ship”). This is why security is lax: Little effort is spent preventing once-in-a-lifetime events. When you arrive at an airport, does a security guard shake you down and yell “do not – and I mean NOT – put wasps inside the plane’s pitot tube!
  • unbolting the chair means he dies while braking. It is likely a deceleration couch.
  • he can’t cut off her legs (or his), he has no tools, training, etc.

“The girl’s stupid!” Perhaps. “The company is evil!” Perhaps.

Are either of those things unrealistic?

In a perfect world, the scenario would not occur at all. The rescue vehicle would have more fuel, a preflight check would be done, etc. But stories have no burden to present a perfect world. They aren’t pornography or junk food: they have purposes beyond making people delusively happy. The reason “The Cold Equation” punches so hard is that it echoes the world that really exists.

“The girl dies! And that’s sad/unfair/sexist!”

For example, Cory Doctorow’s argument with a pussyhat and an #ImWithHer badge.

I always hated the story The Cold Equations even though it’ll make me cry every time, because of the weird implicit chauvinism. Space, after all, is for hardened men who’ll do what must be done, and not for silly girls with all their emotions. It’s yet another narrative in which a woman is punished for straying beyond her domestic sphere […] When the woman transgresses, she must be punished – not out of cruelty, but simply because that is the logical thing to do, the only way for continued survival. […] he chose to write his story so that a woman’s death is the Rational, Right decision.

Feminist critiques seem to focus on the woman-dying angle. They parse the story like a robot programmed to conduct basic formal logic. Woman dies in story -> women dying is bad -> story is bad.

First, let me state the obvious: the girl does not exist. She is made up.

She is a fictional character who never had a life. It is a waste of time mourning her fate, or writing “fixed” versions of the tale where the girl lives. You are rescuing a nonexistent person.

She is written as a recepticle for audience sympathy. That’s her role in the story, just as the pilot’s role is to decide her fate, Commander Delhart’s role is to confirm the bad news, the sick people’s role is to be a McGuffin, the brother’s role is to be another McGuffin, etc. They are all plot elements, puppets dancing to the author’s will. None of them possess any personhood.

This topic really frustrates me: people treat the details of fictional worlds as though they matter in and of themselves, instead of merely being tools for the artist to express ideas. Hamlet is about a Danish prince, but the same story could have been told about a Mishraqi sumac farmer. The details are arbitrary and disposable – by overfocusing on them (“if the Professor on Gilligan’s Island is smart enough to build a bamboo lie detector, why can’t he fix the hole in the boat?”), you lose what matters: theme, subtext, epiphany.

“The Cold Equations” is actually not about a girl dying, any more than Hamlet is about a Danish prince. It’s about taking the implicit trolley problems that exist unseen all around us (do you have $2300 USD in the bank? Why are you allowing a child to die?) and making them explicit. Saving the girl would have gutted the story. Campbell did not expel her from the airlock because he thought it was funny or hated women, but so the story would hit emotinal paydirt.

From the Aimee Ogden story linked above:

If a man at a desk can kill a girl with a little bit of ink, then we can save her in exactly the same way. There are more of us than there are of him. Break his pen, throw it out the window, and send the desk after it.

Yes, the girl could have been saved with a little bit of ink! It’s so easy!

Just as James Cameron could have saved the passengers of the Titanic by changing the iceberg to sunshine and rainbows. And Art Spiegelman could have saved all the Jews in Maus by changing Auschwitz into an amusement park.

So why didn’t they do it, then?

Because it would have destroyed the artistic content of their story, duh! How is this not obvious? The theme is the important part of any story. Not the details, which are made up, in any case. From inside “The Cold Equations”, a girl can die, or seven people can die. From the outside, a girl can die, or the story can die.

Campbell, like the pilot, chose correctly.

“It’s bad engineering! No sensibly designed system would allow this to occur!”

This is the last and worst argument.

Here’s my response, in meme form.

I wish I could meet these people, who apparently think engineering failures and badly-designed systems are implausible fairytales, as unlikely as Bigfoot. Life must be nice on their alien planet.

It’s a planet where a Boeing 767 didn’t run out of fuel in mid-air because the crew had calculated their last refuel using pounds instead of kilograms, where a $327.6 million space probe didn’t incinerate itself in the Martian atmosphere because the software mixed up metric and imperial units, where the Banqiao Dam didn’t collapse and wipe out 5 million houses due to a missed telegraph, the Chernobyl No 4 reactor didn’t melt down due to confusingly-written operating instructions, the Hindenburg didn’t explode due to some surely easily fixable thing, the Challenge Space Shuttle didn’t explode because of a frozen rubber O-ring, 30 million homes in Ontario didn’t lose power due to to one tripped relay, 210 million gallons of oil didn’t flow into the Gulf of Mexico due to a faulty blowout preventer, a surveyer’s mistake didn’t cause the US government to build a large fortress on the Canadian side of the border, there are no $220 million fighter jets being brought down by geese (to be clear, “geese” does not mean some fancy guided missile, “goose” means those birds you eat for Christmas dinner) etc, etc, etc.

Again, it should be remembered that the story describes an extremely rare occurrence. A black swan event. Hard to be prepared against something that doesn’t happen often.

I remain confused about what the readership of science fiction today expects or wants. “The Cold Equations” is imperfect, but most of its critics seem functionally illiterate: focusing on things they shouldn’t focus on, asking questions they shouldn’t ask, scrutinizing it on a level it was never written on.

They’re actually worse than illiterate: an Andamanese tribesman wouldn’t understand the story, but at least he wouldn’t get it precisely backward. 

The girl’s intelligence is frequently questioned, but when the pilot explained her fate, she accepted it. Most of her critics would have kept repeating “well, that can’t happen! Spacecraft are engineered with fault tolerances! Also, have you considered that women dying is sexist.” until the pilot reached for the DEPRESSURIZE button.


1 Doctorow may not have read the story. ‘‘The Cold Equations’’ never asks why the explorers were sent off-planet without a supply of vaccines.” From the story’s second page: “…and their own supply of serum destroyed by the tornado that had torn through their camp.”