Picking Apart “The Cold Equations”

written by David Steffen

“The Cold Equations” is a science fiction short story written by Tom Godwin, published in Astounding Magazine in 1954. It’s looked upon by many as a classic, and one of those old defining SF stories that defined new tropes that have become cliches in the times since then. I’ve heard it mentioned most often by some critiquers who might say something like “This is the Cold Equations in a fantasy world” or some such thing. And I’m not going to avoid spoilers in this, since it is a 60-year old story. A while back I heard the story for the first time on the Drabblecast, so it is still fresh in my mind.

The story takes place on an emergency dispatch ship headed for a colony planet with a load of desperately needed medical supplies. Our protagonist finds a stowaway on board his ship, a teenage girl who has done this to visit her brother on the colony planet. This is a major problem because these runs are planned with just enough fuel to safely reach their destination. She thought that she would only get fined for sneaking on, but punishment for stowing away is death, to be sucked out of the airlock. Most of the time the stowaways are just selfish and don’t care about anyone, but this girl is just naive. This practice ensures the safe arrival of the mission. The pilot explains this to the girl. they speak to the colony ahead, and she gets to talk to her brother. In the end, though, there’s nothing to do about it. She walks willingly into the airlock and lets herself be killed, and that’s the end. The “Cold Equations” in the title are the physics equations to calculate the effect of mass on fuel consumption. It’s apparently meant to be a commentary on the coldness of reasoning that would be necessary for space travel.

And that’s an interesting topic, but in my opinion the premise has so many monumental flaws that it falls apart on the least inspection. I had heard the general premise before and was expecting to feel for the story, but when I listened to the particulars I was so frustrated that this situation could exist, and that the people in this situation are so incredibly stupid, that I just couldn’t buy into it, emotionally or intellectually.

The problems:

1. The story repeatedly stated that there was only enough fuel with no margin, but the girl isn’t discovered until the ship is going at cruising speed. If the story’s repeated statements are true, then they should already be doomed.

2. A space freight system with no margin for error is idiotic. What if a component fails or works less efficiently? What if the pilot gains a little weight? Any tiny thing happening wrong, and the whole mission destroys the ship, kills the pilot, and maybe destroys the colony when the ship crashes. Those are steep enough consequences that it would be worth putting in some margin for error. At LEAST enough for one extra person aboard. Unless, of course, the people running this space freight system actually like to kill people for no good reason… but that’s not the sense I get from the story details.

3. Why doesn’t the spaceport have higher security? I mean, stowing away is a common enough crime that there is an execution law for it! You know how you could take care of that? Point a damned video camera at the entrance to the ship and have somebody (person or AI) watching it whenever that entrance is open. Arrest any unauthorized person who passes through. Problem solved, without having to murder anyone.

4. If you’re really only off by a tiny amount in the fuel, there should be other maneuvers that would allow you to salvage. Such as, instead of landing on the surface you put the ship in orbit. Or you intentionally overshoot the planet and allow one of their smaller vessels to chase after and catch you.

5. Have automated flights with no passenger entry.

6. The only problem in this situation is the excess mass. Try to get rid of some mass, for the love of Pete! They have ample time to do this, but they do not even make a token effort. The girl even chooses to die early, so they killed her before the last minute. The girl starts to write a note for her brother on PENCIL AND PAPER. What is a pencil and paper doing on this ship at all, which has long distance communications and a computer? Okay, sure, this is an older time and maybe they weren’t thinking of computers in the same way, but the communications here were reliable enough that even if the computer were not capable of storage you could just dictate your notes to someone on a planet to record for you–if fuel is that precious, that would be a preferrable way. The presence of pencil and paper just served to underscore all the logical problems in this supposedly logical story.
Here are some things they could try to get rid of mass while keeping the girl alive.
–Throw away your pencils and paper!!!
–Shave their heads
–Strip naked and throw out any spare clothes
–Dump any comfort items like seats, seat cushions, pillows, blankets.
–Dump any food that’s not strictly necessary to survive this trip.
–Remove and dump any components of the ship that are not necessary like covers over maintenance hatches.
–Dump any water that’s not strictly necessary to survive this trip.
–Dump some small percentage of the medicines. This is a lifesaving trip, of course, but the life of the stowaway should be considered as saving a life as well. Particularly medicines that aren’t strictly life-saving, if any.
–Force yourselves to throw up, and flush the vomit.
–If there’s anything on the ship with a laxative or diuretic effect, use it! If not, just urinate as much as you can manage. And flush all that wasted mass down the toilet.
–Lose any other body fluids you can manage–blood, sweat, semen, snot.
–Assuming there are ways to stop the bleeding, amputate one or both of her legs, one or both of her arms, other parts not necessary for survival (there are plenty of them) such as earlobes, nose, breasts. This is all especially true if this future has quality replacement parts for any of these things (especially the legs since they are quite heavy). For each of these parts, she needs to ask herself whether she would rather live without that part or die with it. Morbid, yes, but fitting in the theme of cold equations this would allow a choice.
–Again assuming there are ways to stop the bleeding, and also assuming these parts are not needed to operate the ship, the pilot could also consider amputating parts of himself not necessary for survival. For each of these parts, he needs to ask himself whether he would rather live without that part or kill this teenage girl.

Published by

David Steffen

David Steffen is an editor, publisher, and writer. If you like what he does you can visit the Support page or buy him a coffee! He is probably best known for being co-founder and administrator of The Submission Grinder, a donation-supported tool to help writers track their submissions and find publishers for their work . David is also the editor-in-chief here at Diabolical Plots. He is also the editor and publisher of The Long List Anthology: More Stories From the Hugo Award Nomination List series. David also (sometimes) writes fiction, and you can follow on BlueSky for updates on cross-stitch projects and occasionally other things.

2 thoughts on “Picking Apart “The Cold Equations””

  1. Fascinating post! Yes, I’ve read this story. There was even a Star Trek fan fiction version in which the girl is killed mercifully by Spock. You make some good points, but in the end, there are probably quite a lot of older stories that can be taken apart like this, alas! Where would it end? Why not just enjoy and not worry too much? 🙂

    I’ve recent edited an issue of Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine and while it hasn’t yet had any reviews I keep worrying some reader will notice something I missed. I did pick up a few errors, but you never know…

  2. Hi Sue!

    >>Why not just enjoy and not worry too much?
    Because I like picking stories apart and poking at the pieces. 😀 Reading stories is fun, dissecting stories is fun. It’s all good. 🙂

    I wouldn’t worry about it too much–if there was a mistake or two, no big deal, it’s more about the story.

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