Rabid Quill / A personal blog

Dismal Science and Cold Equations


Many years ago I watched a made-for-TV movie called The Cold Equations. I found it extremely compelling, and apparently I wasn’t alone. It was based on a short story with the same title written by Tom Godwin in the 1950s. In 1970 the Science Fiction Writers of America gave it an award for being one of the best science fiction short stories written before 1965, and it was included in the first volume of the Science Fiction Hall of Fame.

This acclaimed short story is technically simple but morally tough. A young woman named Marilyn stows away aboard a spacecraft headed to a planet where her brother is staying. The ship is ferrying much-needed medicine to a colony of explorers on another continent, who will certainly die if the cargo doesn’t arrive. The pilot, Barton, discovers the stowaway because the ship is slightly too heavy, and no longer has the fuel to survive the journey unless it sheds that weight.

The ship is highly optimized for making rapid journeys, and extremely spartan. There really are no other options. Marilyn must be removed from the ship or else it will crash. This is hard for both her and Barton to accept. She thought she would just need to pay a fine. She had no idea how severe the consequences would be for ignoring all the warnings she had to pass in order to climb aboard.

If you have a soul, this scenario presents a vicious conundrum. Barton tries, but there is nothing he can do. She must go. Marilyn writes a few letters to family, has one last tearful conversation with her brother, accepts her fate, and is ejected from the airlock, leaving Barton to grieve in silence.

For years I’ve had this short story stocked in the back of my mind as a cautionary fable about mother nature’s lack of mercy. How pressing your luck without counting the cost can end up costing you dearly. I didn’t think this story needed defending until I saw Cory Doctorow’s commentary. He protests that everything in the short story seems specifically dialed to force Marilyn’s death. He argues that this is too arbitrary and cruel. It’s true that Godwin’s editor, science fiction luminary John W. Campbell, kept sending the story back until it had the ending it was finally published with. Godwin actually kept dreaming up clever solutions that allowed the characters to survive.

But I don’t think that makes the story as it was published less legitimate, poignant, or constructive. Many of our best stories involve the hero beating the odds using brains and grit, and that’s good. Once in a while, though, I think it’s also good to ponder the fact that sometimes no amount clever heroics will stop the oncoming train. One message of The Cold Equations is that it matters how you handle certain death. Barton would have thrown Marilyn out the airlock without hesitation or regret if she were a grown man, a criminal who had known full well what he was doing. But when he discovers an adolescent girl who made a naïve mistake, he was overwhelmed by a desire to help her. He violates protocol to request help, and gives her every spare moment he can afford so she can come to terms with her impending death, and say her goodbyes.

Doctorow claims that the story is poor science fiction for not including all the safeguards that surely would exist in a world of sprawling interstellar colonies. He says the story’s world is fraught with poor choices in starship design and mission planning in order to create the situation the characters end up in. Maybe it is, but isn’t it true that bad planning can turn the unexpected into a catastrophe? I would disagree that it’s bad planning, because the story exhaustively describes just how razor-thin the margins are out at the frontier. Doctorow says the real world is never so devoid of options, but on that count he’s wrong. For we lucky souls born in the industrialized world, by historical standards we are up to our eyeballs in wealth. Options abound. But for those at the edges, for people far outside the walls of civilization, life itself is a tightrope walk between costly mistakes on one side and capricious chance on the other.

I disagree with Doctorow that the science fiction writer’s job is necessarily to “notice the car and the movie theater and anticipate the drive-in – and then go on to predict the sexual revolution.” This is a good thing to aspire to, but not every good and useful fable has to serve such a grandiose purpose. I could argue that Godwin fulfills this mission in The Cold Equations. He sees the possibility of starships, anticipates interstellar colonization, and goes on to predict that not even these fantastic technologies will abolish scarcity.

Cory Doctorow’s complaint about The Cold Equations reminds me very much of how opponents of classical liberal economics attack its use of pure reason. Terms like “dismal science” or “bloodless abstractions” get thrown at economics to accuse it of lacking heart, of presuming to file the rough edges off of organic human affairs to fit them into a Procrustean bed of abstract concepts and equations.

Not true! Or at least, this is not so within the Austrian school. (I could go on at length about how the mainstream, Keynesian economists are worse than astrologers and give their profession a bad name) For the Austrian, everything has to do with choice. Human beings try to achieve their ends using scarce means, and the whole body of economic knowledge flows from that axiom. The natural sciences tell us what is physically possible; economics explores the tradeoffs people make within those constraints. Any judgments about the rightness or wrongness of those tradeoffs is the domain of ethics.

In The Cold Equations, we have a situation where the means to achieve a highly desired end (the survival of Marilyn) come at too high a cost. Doctorow claims that the story is calibrated such that Marilyn’s survival is impossible, but that’s not quite right. There is one means available by which both people on the space ship might survive: they could jettison the vaccines, breaking the law and dooming the team of explorers. That they barely consider this option is an important ethical feature of the story. In my view, it isn’t a matter of strict utilitarianism, weighing six lives against one and choosing to save the larger number. It’s a matter of justice, steep as it may be. The explorers had done nothing wrong. Marilyn, on the other hand, was solely responsible for the dire situation. She disobeyed warnings. She broke the law. She trespassed. If the definition of justice is every person getting his or her due, then the outcome of The Cold Equations is just.

Sadly, the world is filled with such harsh realities. The virtue in this story is not just in the characters' actions, but in the attitude of dignity they both maintained in accepting the demands of justice. Barton refused to be cruel, and mourned her death at the end. Marilyn did not try to eke out a few more hours of life at everyone else’s expense. Within a populous, developed society, alternatives are everywhere. We are surrounded by others who might possibly take mercy on us, even if we authored our own misfortune. But this story happens way out at the edges, away from civilization, almost totally alone, where collective human action is unavailable and the merciless laws of nature dominate. The question one faces in reading this story is: When removed from civilization, would you remain so civilized?