Essay: The Real Problem with “The Cold Equations”

As part of tomorrow’s episode of A Reader’s History of Science Fiction, I felt the need to write a companion essay analyzing one of the most famous (or perhaps infamous) short stories in the history of the genre: “The Cold Equations” by Tom Godwin.

“The Cold Equations” was written in 1954 and published in Astounding Science Fiction under its longtime editor, John W. Campbell. It tells the tragic story of Marilyn, a young woman who stows away on a spaceship only to find herself forced to be thrown out the airlock because her added weight means that the ship does not have enough fuel to reach its destination.

It’s a shocking and deliberately disturbing plot, which ends the way it does because of Campbell’s urging rather than Godwin’s, as a subversion of the more typical stories where the hero always saves the day. It’s a well-written and highly-regarded story, but it has also been enormously controversial. Many people have criticized it both for things like sexism and plagiarism, and for engineering blunders that verge on ludicrous.

However, as I was thinking about this story, I realized those criticisms are missing something. The equations themselves aren’t as cold as Godwin and Campbell said. The situation wasn’t as dire as it was made out to be, even with all the human error in the story. And so, I wrote an essay explaining just what they got wrong and what was the simplest solution to Marilyn’s predicament.

Click here to read the essay.

About Alex R. Howe

I'm a full-time astrophysicist and a part-time science fiction writer.
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