Facing “The Cold Equations“
Tom Godwin’s “The Cold Equations” is perfectly balanced on the premise partly suggested in its title. Assigned for a course I’ve been auditing, the only thing troubling one’s suspension of disbelief is lack of verisimilitude in its setting, particularly the .1 g. We lack lower gravity and capsule interior setting cues to help us “feel it” imaginatively. The absence of these imaginative hints slightly limits the story’s power. Cory Doctorow’s (anachronic extra-textual objections) for its believability do not apply for me because the story is crafted in a way to capture my own belief.
A teenage girl has stowed away on the Emergency Dispatch Ship. She is a linguist just out of school and hopeful to work on a space station but is yet unlearned in the parameters of survival in space. The EDS is a capsule designed, and loaded to precise mathematical parameters, in order to carry emergency supplies to outlying space frontiers. The failure of security measures to restrain her trespass is not manifest in this story except in the disturbing revelation of her presence. Which may say a little something about the culture of the story’s time and our own with regard to the prevalence of surveillance. This 1950s’ story showed only “a sign that was plain for all to see and heed: UNAUTHORIZED PERSONNEL KEEP OUT! ”
But here she is. We failed to keep her out, keep her from going on an impossible errand. She is young and bright and unaware—not unaware that she’s not supposed to be here … but that it is impossible for her to go on living because she is. The limits of the space vacuum, the capsule construction and fueling configurations, these cannot accommodate her life and errand. She has stowed away because she wants to see her brother on the planetary frontier.
Her name is Marilyn but, almost throughout the story, she is called “the girl” and “sis,” and her errand is love. She has done what she has done out of love for her brother, and she will pay for that errand, and that love, with her life in an uncompromising way. I was about to modify with cruel or brutal, but these words don’t apply—being human and emotional qualities—and the story is quietly telling us that cruelty and brutality have nothing to do with the sentence spoken or imposed on her when she entered and hid in the EDS. Marilyn is told she must be jettisoned before atmospheric entry if the frontiersmen of the outpost are to survive.
The words “sentence,” “spoken,” and “imposed” also are qualities of the human, especially the middle word with the flanking words having to do with how creation is designed and put together in order to support all—the girl, the transporter, its pilot, the planets, explorers and those technicians who are the leading edge of a human future on the story’s planetary frontiers.
“The law of gravitation was a rigid equation and it made no distinction between the fall of a leaf and the ponderous circling of a binary star system. The nuclear conversion process powered the cruisers that carried men to the stars; the same process in the form of a nova would destroy a world with equal efficiency. The laws were, and the universe moved in obedience to them.” P. 463.