Thursday, February 21, 2008

Tom Godwin's "The Cold Equations" (short story, science fiction, free): Citizens, beware of callous administration!

Quote from the short story titled The Cold Equations by Tom GodwinNote: You might want to read section titled "Update: 21 February 2008" near end of this article before reading the rest. This post is likely to be substantially revised when I get some time.

This is among the emotionally most intense stories you will ever read - in genre or outside of it. And probably with one of the only two possible responses from your subconscious - quickly forget it because it is so disturbing, or not forget it for a very very long time.

Apparently, I'd done the former - I realized it was a reread only after I was into it, & at no point could I recall what will come next (but always just after reading it).

This time, I kept thinking of what could have been done to avoid the inevitable outcome. Two things immediately strike:

  1. A very low cost option, but I see it missed all the time in India - callous public signboards. They miss the crucial information. Victim in this story ignored "UNAUTHORIZED PERSONNEL KEEP OUT!" sign, when those who put it knew full well the penalty for violation is death!! A better sign could have averted the disaster.
  2. I found it odd that early teams surveying a new planet for colonization don't even have a ship that could go to near planetary space, either with additional fuel for doomed incoming ship, or to mate with it & carry home the extra passenger. But I can believe it; this kind of situations keep happening all the time for lack of budgets.
There are some statements related to computers & phone systems that now sound odd. Both have changed a lot in 50 years. And neither comes in the way of the story.


Faster than light (FTL) travel has been around a while, & humans have been spreading starwards. But FTL ships are very expensive, & a run a very tight & rigit schedule to ensure Earth & far flung colonies stay in touch. Political repercussions of breaking schedule are so severe that it simply is not an option - whatever the in-space emergency.

But emergencies there are. To accommodate them, the big ship carries several smaller collapsible slow ships, powered by chemical rocket powered. Big ship itself is nuclear powered - but that kind of power systems tend to be bulky, unsuitable for these smaller ships. These smaller ships are called "Emergency Dispatch Ships" (EDS).

When there is an emergency demand from one of these colonies, the big cruiser will exit hyperspace near this point of emergency, launch one of these smaller ships, & get back into hyperspace for its destination.

Because these smaller ships use chemical fuel that occupies lot of storage in cruiser, the fuel is heavily rationed. At the time the smaller ship launches, computers calculate exactly how much fuel will be enough based on weight, destination & route, & provide only that much. Zero safety margin - life is tough at the frontier.

Because of this fuel rationing, there is a law in place to deal with stowaways: "Any stowaway discovered in an EDS shall be jettisoned immediately following discovery." Means certain death for stowaway.

Alternative is - the ship won't have enough fuel to decelerate at destination, leading to crash & death of all aboard. And mothership has gone on its way - no local help is available. Hence the tough rule.

Story summary.

"Stardust" is the big cruise headed towards a settled system named "Mimir".

It will send off an EDS because of a medical emergency on frontier planet named "Woden" - of the total 16 humans on the planet divided into two groups, one has been struck with a disease, local medical supplies are gone, & other team cannot help because it doesn't have long-haul air transport! This last point also is something that struck me as odd.

Anyway, the EDS has been out an hour when its sole human crew detects the stowaway - 18 year old girl Marilyn Lee Cross. She wanted to visit her brother Gerry, one of the 16 on Woden, who she hasn't seen for 10 years. When she boarded the EDS, she knowingly jumped "UNAUTHORIZED PERSONNEL KEEP OUT!" sign, & is willing to pay whatever is the fine. Only, she didn't realize the punishment will be death!

Much of the story is of the emotional turmoil - hers, pilots, commander on the cruiser who has been contacted by phone, her brother on the planet below. Ending is her jettisoning.

Update: 21 February 2008.

  1. Thinking through the story overnight since I read it & made this post made me realize the text above needs major corrections. Not in the summarizing of events happening in the story, but that outcome was not inevitable - it was inevitable only because author says so. The most interesting point, to me anyway, is the emotional impact immediately on reading it, & the well-known thesis that sometimes you might have to pay a price completely unlinked from your actions. And yes, if you live in India, you assume administration is callous - & this is unfortunately not an unfair assumption here.
  2. A reading of some other posts on the web confirms I'm not alone. One very well written article, in particular, enumerates a lot of flaws in the story - including several I did not see till I read the article: Richard Harter's "The Cold Equations - A Critical Study".
I will be updating the main text some day - after I churn it a bit more inside my head.

See also.

  1. There are at least two TV shows based on this story: one of the episodes of "The Twilight Zone" (1985) titled "The Cold Equations" & "The Cold Equations" (1996).
  2. Well written but rather long critique of the story titled "The Cold Equations - A Critical Study" by Richard Harter.
  3. Robert J Sawyer advises us to be not too critical of this story - it's a product of its times, & it does pose a tough moral problem.

Collected in.

  1. David Hartwell & Kathryn Cramer (Ed)'s "The Ascent of Wonder: The Evolution of Hard SF".
  2. Robert Silverberg (Ed)'s "The Science Fiction Hall of Fame: Volume One, 1929-1964".
  3. David Drake, Jim Baen, & Eric Flint (Ed)'s "The World Turned Upside Down".
  4. Isaac Asimov & Martin H Greenberg (Eds)' "Isaac Asimov Presents the Great SF Stories 16 (1954)" (anthology).

Fact sheet.

First published: Astounding Science Fiction, August 1954.
Rating: A
Download MP3 audio of an old radio show based on this story. Or download full text of the print version.
Listed in Contento's Top Ten Most Reprinted Stories.