Wednesday, March 6, 2024

The Never-ending FAQ: recalculating “The Cold Equations”

Welcome to this week’s installment of The Never-ending FAQ, a constantly evolving adjunct to our Submission Guidelines. If you have a question you’d like to ask about Stupefying Stories or Rampant Loon Press, feel free to post it as a comment here or to email it to our submissions address. I can’t guarantee we’ll post a public answer, but can promise every question we receive will be read and considered.

Today’s question comes from Pete Wood, who in response to last week’s column asked:

“‘The Cold Equations’? Or as it is also known, ‘The Day Before the Filing of the Massive Wrongful Death Lawsuit Against the Starship Company that Bankrupted the Company?’”

Yes indeed. “The Cold Equations,” by Tom Godwin. For those not familiar with it, a little backgrounder…

John W. Campbell, Jr. 

In science fiction circles the name was whispered softly, reverently. There were awards named after him, before he was retroactively found to be a racist and shoved down the memory hole. In a very real sense science fiction as we know it today is the temple Campbell built. If you examine the history of the genre, there is a clear dividing line: there is everything that came before, and then, beginning when Campbell took over as editor of Astounding Science Fiction in 1938 and lasting about 20 years, there was The Campbell Era.

The list of famous writers discovered and famous stories published by Campbell in those years reads like the combined who’s who and Hall of Fame of science fiction. Robert Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke, Lester del Rey, A.E. Van Vogt, Theodore Sturgeon; the list goes on and on. And while Campbell was not the first to publish Isaac Asimov—that honor goes to Amazing Stories, for a story Campbell rejected—he did publish most of the series of short stories and novellas that were later collected to become Asimov’s career-defining books, Foundation and I, Robot.

Then again, Campbell also gave us L. Ron Hubbard and Dianetics, and in the 1950s was up to his elbows in the founding of Scientology. Worse, by the end of the 1950s Campbell apparently had come to believe that not only were psychic powers (“psi”) real, but that he himself actually possessed them, and he took to telling people he hadn’t flunked out of MIT but rather had been kicked out, because his radical ideas were too dangerous to scientific orthodoxy.

By 1959 the Campbell Era was effectively over, and even Heinlein was on record as saying he would rather not sell a story at all than have to deal with Campbell and his weird manias, minor madnesses, and obsessive, heavy-handed, meddling and rewriting in the guise of editing. In 1960 the name of the magazine was changed to Analog Science Fiction & Fact, in an effort to escape the odor of its past, but Campbell lingered on as editor until 1971, and it was not until Ben Bova took over after Campbell’s death that Analog became the serious, staid, significant, and somewhat respectable magazine we know today.

It is with this as backdrop that we discuss “The Cold Equations,” by Tom Godwin. If you have not read this story already, find a copy and do so now, as everything from here on out is spoiler.


With age I have become more sympathetic to Tom Godwin, perhaps because there are mornings I look in the bathroom mirror and see something very much like his face. In 1953 Godwin was 38 years old and just launching what would turn out to be a sadly and typically short SF writing career. He published 30-some short stories, mostly in Astounding and mostly in the 1950s, and then puttered on until his death in 1980 with perhaps a half-dozen more sales spread out over two decades, and some of them in some pretty dicey markets. (Remember The Man from U.N.C.L.E. magazine? Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct Mystery Magazine?) He wrote three known novels: his first, The Survivors, flopped so badly his original publisher didn’t even bother to bind the last thousand books in the original print run of 5,000 copies, and it didn’t even make it up to “modestly successful” level until it was retitled Space Prison, given a lurid pulp cover, and reissued in paperback a few years later. (In testimony to the fact that information rarely disappears entirely, though, you can find the complete text of it on Project Gutenberg.)

Campbell was an old-school editor. He did not merely buy and publish stories; he worked his authors, tossing out ideas, giving out assignments, and rewriting extensively. Before he took over the editor’s chair at Astounding he had been a very successful and promising young writer—you’ve probably seen his story, “Who Goes There?” in one of its many movie adaptations, and know it better by its movie title, The Thing—but after he became an editor he pretty much gave up writing fiction. When asked why, he reportedly said he no longer needed to write fiction, as the fun part was coming up with ideas, and now he had hundreds of writers eager to turn his ideas into stories.

That, reportedly, was the genesis of “The Cold Equations.” Campbell came up with the idea and gave it to The New Guy, Godwin. (The story was either Godwin’s fourth or fifth professional sale, and published less than a year after his first sale.) Godwin went and wrote the story, and Campbell rejected it because he didn’t like the ending. According to Godwin, Campbell made him rewrite the ending three times before he finally got the message: he wasn’t supposed to figure out a way to save the girl.

Once Godwin finally rewrote the story with the depressing ending Campbell wanted, Campbell bought it, and it was published in the August 1954 issue of Astounding. Thereafter Godwin’s career meandered off to its ultimate dying whimper, while the story lived on, and was anthologized and reprinted beyond measure. It was even adapted for at least three or four straight-to-cable movies, all of which are largely forgotten now.


I first ran into “The Cold Equations” in 1973, in the anthology The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, which was being used as a textbook in some university “science fiction as literature” course I took and in which “The Cold Equations” was presented as the apotheosis of the Campbellian hard science fiction style. I hated the story then. I hate, hate, hate it now.

Why? To recap, the plot of the story is this: an invariably fatal epidemic breaks out among the research party stationed on a distant, barely explored planet. It’s not possible to reroute a starship to deliver the desperately needed medicine that will cure the disease and save the research party, so a starship passing through the system drops off a space-launch carrying the medicine and a pilot. The launch has exactly, to the drop, only enough fuel to get to the planet and land safely.

Tragically, a pretty young 18-year-old girl has stowed away on the launch, because her brother is stationed on this planet and she’s hoping to see him. But the addition of her 110 pounds is just enough weight to throw all the calculations out of whack and guarantee that the launch will crash, the medicine will be destroyed, and the entire research party will die. Therefore, because of “the cold equations,” the pilot must boot her cute little butt out of the airlock and kill her, the sooner the better. After all, that’s what the regulations demand. This leads into a protracted death scene in which the girl is at first horrified, then tries to bargain, then has a tearful last radio conversation with her brother, and then finally, bravely, accepts her fate, steps into the airlock, and goes

The end.

So why do I hate this story so much? Leaving out the inherent idiocy of the premise—even back in 1973, I knew quite a few aerospace engineers, and the idea of any sane engineer designing a system that had such an insanely slim margin of safety that it couldn’t survive even the tiniest deviation from the flight plan—
“Barton, you’ll have to make another pass! There’s a cow on the runway and you must delay landing until we chase her off!”
“Sorry guys, the flight plan didn’t allow for that. I’ve come ninety gazillion miles to rescue you but don’t have one drop of extra fuel. Now I’m going to crash and you’re all going to die. Screw you.”
But never mind, we could spend hours on all the insanities and stupidities required to make this story work—
If this invariably fatal disease is so well-known that any randomly passing starship carries the medicine needed to cure it, why wasn’t the research expedition equipped with a supply of the medicine in the first place? If it’s an instant-death-penalty crime to stow away aboard an EDS launch, why don’t they invest a buck and a half in a frickin’ lock on the launch bay door? Likewise, why don’t they spend two minutes on a pre-flight inspection to make sure there are no stowaways on board? If this sort of thing happens often enough to warrant a regulation covering the situation and for the crew back on board the Stardust to get jaded about it, why don’t they anticipate the problem and take steps to either prevent it or make it survivable?

I’m sorry. I can get quite wound up. I really hate this story. Which is strange, because it’s been said that if you don’t like this story, you just plain don’t like science fiction. But I always thought I sort of did like science fiction. I’ve even written some stories. Even won some awards for some of the things I’ve written. So why do I hate this particular story so very, very much?

Because it’s all a set-up. The entire point of this story is to set the pretty girl up for the inescapable grotesque death scene. The whole story is a lie and a cheat, and the author—at the direction of the editor, let’s not let him off scot-free—has shamelessly stacked the deck, mercilessly tossing all logic and sense aside, in order to get to this only-possible horrific ending.

If this is science fiction, then so is A Nightmare on Elm Street.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the argument was often made that science fiction was pure drivel and mind-rot: that it was merely the pretentious member of the horror family, trying to escape its trashy pulp adventure roots by replacing boats, guns, and monsters with rocketships, rayguns, and aliens, and geared entirely towards the fantasies of pimply-faced teenage boys who probably didn’t know many actual girls. Further, the stereotypes abounded that the reason why science fiction fans were so fixated on menacing pretty girls was because—

  1. they were latent misogynists, who carried deep in their hearts a burning resentment over the fact that cheerleaders preferred football players to members of the chess club

  2. science fiction fans secretly loved stories in which pretty girls—the kind of girls they never had a chance at dating—suffered terrible retribution because they were too silly, shallow, and pretty to listen to the nerds, because such stories fed their secret nerd superiority conceit

  3. above all, this suffering and retribution was best when it got gory, and came in the tentacles of some goggle-eyed alien monstrosity that daily produced twice its own body weight in drool, or in the mandibles of some atomic mutant grasshopper the size of a Greyhound bus, or at least was terribly painful and messy and involved a lot of screaming

Hence the entire output of American International Pictures, among many others.

And thus we arrive at the argument I now submit to you. If “The Cold Equations” truly is the best possible example of serious, hard, science fiction, then hard science fiction truly is merely the extraordinarily pretentious member of the exploitation horror family, and we should just give up all this prattle about “scientific credibility” and “the literature of ideas” right now and go straight for the big gory splatter scenes. 

Preferably involving pretty young girls with really large breasts.




Sorry, but I can’t seem to get this story off my mind. I came along too late to know John Campbell, Jr., except by reputation—and to be honest, my respect for his reputation evaporated when I read an anthology introduction written by him in which he lauded Theodore Sturgeon’s Killdozer! as one of the greatest hard science fiction novellas ever written. Seriously? Killdozer?!?! 

No, the editor who had the most profoundly positive effect on my writing career was—

George Scithers

The founding editor of Asimov’s, later the editor of Amazing Stories, five-time Hugo Award-winning Best Professional Editor, George was no slouch as a writer himself, and in his little booklet on writing SF, Constructing Scientifiction, he shared this wisdom. (Paraphrasing now, as I can’t find my copy right now to quote it verbatim.)

We do not buy stories that end in futility. By all means, have the hero fail. That’s what makes it tragedy. Have him try, have him struggle against impossible odds, and in the end, have him lose and even die, but dammit, have him go down fighting! Stories about people who surrender meekly to their fates are inherently uninteresting and depressing.
Applying this principle to “The Cold Equations,” then, here’s the Joss Whedon rewrite. Everything proceeds about the same as in the original, right up to the point at which Marilyn seems to have accepted her fate and Barton, full of sympathy, turns his head and lowers his guard for a moment.

BAM! In a sudden and surprising blur of motion the girl nailed Barton in the temple with a pivot-kick that hit him like a sandal-tipped bolt of lightning. Barton staggered and sagged to the deck, seeing stars, and by the time he recovered his wits she’d recovered the gun, had it pointed at him, and was screaming at the top of her lungs.


She stepped back out of Barton’s reach and with the gun motioned Barton into the pilot’s chair. “There is no way I am going out that frakkin’ airlock! According to you I’m dead anyway, so right now I don’t give a Tyderian bat’s ass who else dies too! Which means you have got exactly five minutes to either teach me how to fly this crate before you go jump out the airlock yourself, or else we are going to solve this problem!”

She swallowed hard, and struggled to get control of her rapid breathing. “Now, let’s think. If every blasted ounce is critical, why does this bucket have a storeroom with a door? I know, so I had someplace to hide, but never mind that; about that door. How much does it weigh? How do the hinges come apart?” Barton started to answer, but she snapped the gun into his face again.

“No, first, out of that uniform, flyboy! Don’t get any happy ideas; you are way too old for me. But those boots you’re wearing must be five pounds each.” Barton began stripping, and while his skivvies were down around his ankles Marilyn risked another glance around the cabin
“Next, you get on the radio, and you tell those sadistic bastards back on the Stardust what the situation is now and get ‘em started on calculating a new landing trajectory for us…”

As I said, it’s the Joss Whedon rewrite, and a total load of shameless buffytastic dramaqueening. But you have to admit: wouldn’t you rather see Marilyn go out like this, instead of meekly submitting to her fate, stepping into the airlock, and going to a hideous death?

Never give up. Never surrender. Rage against the dying of the light.

And don’t send me stories in which characters have no agency, they’re just helpless victims waiting to die, and the only solution to their problems the protagonists can come up with is to commit suicide.  



Pete Wood said...

I don't understand how this story is still relevant today and still anthologized. I have never met anyone who likes the story.
I would go so far as to suggest that any political candidate who ran on a platform of hating The Cold Equations would win in a landslide. See? Republicans and Democrats can agree on at least one thing.
The story chooses the so-called cruel laws of physics over humanity and then ignores the very laws it brandishes because once in space the ship doesn't need fuel. It can keep going indefinitely until acted on another force. So the ship could send out an SOS and go on its merry way until rescue.
I take comfort in knowing that the girl's family will soon be trillionaires because somebody could have posted a damned sign warning passengers not to get on the rescue ship.
God, I hate this story.

~brb said...

Sometimes a famous story is frequently anthologized just because it's a famous story that's been frequently anthologized. Editors think, "I don't like it myself, but I must include it, because everyone else has. They say the fans love it. I must be missing something."

And sometimes stories are frequently anthologized because Astounding bought the story on an all-rights-forever contract, and thus the story is really cheap filler to put in a book. Next time you pick up an anthology, take a look at the copyright page. If it lists Street & Smith, Conde-Nast, or Ziff-Davis, those stories were bought on all-rights-forever contracts, and the original author never made another dime off them.

People forget that SFWA was founded to force the pulp magazine publishers to stop using all-rights-forever contracts.

ray p daley said...

I've read the story and seen the version on The Twilight Zone. I used to use the old B&W episodes to learn how to break down and analyze a story to see if I could write a better version of it.

These were my thoughts on the matter. I have since gone on and written a solution to The Cold Equations, thinking so far out of the box that Tom Godwin couldn't have possibly imagined that answer.

Mr. Naron said...

One of the reasons Stanley Kubrick was a genius is because he avoided that kind of ending when he shot Apollo 13 in 1970.

Tracy Cooper-Posey said...

Does anyone know where or even if it is possible to acquire a copy of *Constructing Scientifiction* by Scithers? I'd love to read it!

~brb said...

I have a copy. It's around here... somewhere. As soon as I find it I'll scan it and post it, as on the copyright page he expressly encourages people to copy it and pass it around. After all, George's whole purpose in writing it was to get people to send him better stories.

Tracy Cooper-Posey said...

Thanks, Bruce -- that would be useful. I can pass it on, too.