Re-Visiting Those Damned Cold Equations


Posted on : 4/17/2020 03:40:00 PM | By : Dann | In : , , ,

Fans of science fiction will generally be aware of the short story "The Cold Equations" written by Tom Godwin and first published in Astounding Magazine in 1954.  A super short summary of the plot is that a young girl has stowed away on an emergency rocket that is being sent to a planet with a serum needed to save the people on the planet.  The rocket is designed to make the trip with only the pilot aboard...barely.  The additional weight of the stowaway is sufficient to cause the rocket to miss its destination.  The story frames the choice as between killing the girl so that the rocket can reach its destination, or letting the people on the planet die of some lethal illness.

The story was first published in the 1950s when science fiction frequently framed issues as binary choices.  While stories from that period might feature a clever protagonist to discover a third path, it was just as likely that poor choices would result in predictable disaster.  The best criticism that I have read is that the rocket did not have a large enough safety factor.

There is a forthcoming anthology of rebuttals to The Cold Equations.  I expect many essayists to add elements that are not present in the original story to reach their own preferred conclusions.  Rather than address the story as written, they will probably add in a factor that is not otherwise evident as a lever to be used against the main purpose of the story.

Rather than discussing the merits and criticism of the story, I'm first going to travel to Texas, rhetorically.

Lt. Governor Dan Patrick implied that he was willing to die to ensure the survival of his children and grandchildren.  He went on to suggest that lots of grandparents would make the same choice.  The context of his comments was the "choice" between maintaining our self-quarantine that is significantly damaging our economy or resuming normal social habits at the demonstrable risk of killing off a substantial number of our elderly.

"No one reached out to me and said, as a senior citizen, are you willing to take a chance on your survival in exchange for keeping the America that all Americans love for your children and grandchildren?" Patrick, 70, told host Tucker Carlson. "And if that's the exchange, I'm all in."
Dan Patrick is a former radio talk show host.  Like other media personalities that have been elected to public office, Mr. Patrick needs to recall that people in his current position need to exhibit a bit more discretion when they speak.

That's the polite version of "Dan Patrick decided to be an idiot for a few minutes".

We are not currently at the point where we need to be deciding who lives and who dies.  We are most certainly not at the point where we need to risk the lives of senior citizens by prematurely restarting the economy.

That being said, we do have to make choices; sometimes hard choices.  The decision to build an interstate highway can spell success or destruction for a small town.  The decision to raise or lower taxes can result in a change in mortality and life expectancy that is measured in real lives but experienced so diffusely that you can never truly identify a single life specifically cut short as a result.  The decision to regulate how medicine is practiced and funded might save tens of thousands of lives in the next year, but cost tens millions of more lives in the coming centuries by altering how new medicines and procedures are developed and deployed.

We are currently rushing to produce more ventilators.  Manufacturers are repurposing their facilities to meet the current demand.  The race pits innovation and ingenuity against literal death.  Innovation and ingenuity might well lose the race in a big way.  Unlike literature, there is no deus ex machina to save the day.

The fact is that we all have to make choices based on what we hope is the best of information.  We are all learning now about the importance of certain types of medical and personal protective equipment.  We are learning that we had manufacturing and import capacity to cover the usual needs of society, but not enough to cover our needs during a pandemic.  We are learning that we had stockpiles sufficient to cover a few significant regional calamities, but such stockpiles were entirely insufficient for a larger catastrophe.

What comes next?  Will we have a nationally organized database of manufacturers that are pre-qualified/pre-positioned to shift manufacturing for these critical items?  Will the design of those critical items be periodically updated? 

And of course, there will be new calls for a nationalized health care system in the US.  The most common indictment of the US system is that it rations care based on income.  Will those critics evaluate the other methods of health care rationing used in nationalized health care systems?  In the US, almost all get some level of health care and some get more than others.  In most nationalized systems, all get some level of health care and sometimes all get none when it comes to modern treatments.  Will we have a full and rational discussion or will there be more of the usual propaganda?

Will the critics of The Cold Equations pause in their rush to suggest alternative conclusions to acknowledge the practical limitations, however ham-handedly presented, that were in play?

The utility of science fiction is that it allows us to take an issue out of the pressing moment and twist it and test it and look at it in a different way.  Are the principles in play appropriate?  Is the design sufficient to the task at hand or is the safety margin to low to ensure success?  Do we sometimes have to make do with what is available now rather than wishing for a perfect solution to arrive too late to be of any value?

Science fiction allows us to ask the hard questions, to examine the cold equations, so that we can craft a rational response to real problems.  The other option is to emotionally demand that we unquestionably cherish the old and infirm as if we possessed unlimited resources.

Loving a senior in the age of Covid-19 certainly means doing our level best to prevent them from being infected and that, once infected, they get the very best of care that is available.  In the age of Covid-19, there may not be care available.  The doctors and nurses may have to choose between using a ventilator for a senior or using for someone in their 20s.  How does an emotional plea to cherish the elderly help resolve that choice?  The same doctors and nurses may have to choose between using chloroquine (or a similar drug) for a senior or reserving it for a person using it to address a long term autoimmune problem.  How does an emotional plea to cherish the elderly inform help to resolve that choice?

The single greatest flaw in The Cold Equations is that it does not explore any alternative solutions.  It does not examine why the safety margins had to be so slim that the mass of a single stowaway was sufficient to lethally undermine the purpose of the rocket.  Tom Godwin simply establishes a binary choice that is to be made and then allows time to elapse.  The Cold Equations presents the emotional mirror of cherishing those at the greatest risk from Covid-19 without examining the reality of the limited resources that are available in that moment.

What The Cold Equations does do quite effectively is cause the reader to confront that situation where the fuel cell is empty.  Where the tank of air has been depleted.  Where the last morsel of food has been divided and consumed.

We are ill-served by those that pretend that hard choices do not exist.


There are other works that deal more effectively with issues surrounding questions of survival and the utilization of available resources.

Lucifer's Hammer by Larry Niven

An asteroid crashes into earth causing massive tidal waves, earthquakes and throws the earth's climate into a far cooler range of temperatures.  Modern technology is...largely....gone.

The White Plague by Frank Herbert

After an Irish terrorist kills a scientist's wife, the scientist cooks up a bug designed to kill all human women.  He lets it loose on the island of Ireland after notifying the world of the need to quarantine the island.  The world does not listen.  Things go...poorly.

The women that survive find themselves with a tremendous amount of power and influence due to their unique...ummm...resources.

Seveneves by Neal Stephenson

Another "large body crashes into the Earth" story.  This time it is the moon or at least pieces of it.  The race is on to get humanity off of the Earth in a way that allows them to survive and perhaps thrive. 

The Last Dance (The Near-Earth Mysteries, #1) by Martin L. Shoemaker

The Earth isn't under attack.  But in this story, humans explore the deadly reaches of our solar system; pretty much anywhere that isn't firmly on terra firma.  The main protagonist is a spaceship captain who built his career on identifying and minimizing risks.  His planning and engineering necessarily mean making tradeoffs and planning for tragedy.  He imparts that sensibility on his crew at every turn.  There is also a whodunnit mystery and a lot of astrophysics involved.  This was one of my best novel nominees for the Hugo Awards for 2020.

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