Superversive Blog: Guest Blog–Facing the Cold Equations

Subversive Literary Movement

Facing "The Cold Equations"


S. Dorman

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.

Dr. Amy Sturgis, who teaches Mythgard Institution's Science Fiction, Part 1: From Modern Beginnings through the Golden Age (1818-1966), recounted that John Campbell, the story editor, kept sending Tom Godwin back to finish the story in the only way it can end. Godwin was having a hard time writing it so. The difficulty may be found in his powerful unsentimental yet tender expression of love between all the humans portrayed. Godwin did not like the inevitability of the outcome of "disobeying" the human rules, based on the physical laws; of the penalty for opposition and challenge to these laws. In this case, of being what one is when one loves. I include a link to another extra-textual objection on moral grounds, with what one commentator thinks of it. 

Had it been not a story but real life, it would have been good if everyone acted in accordance with the way things are: security measures, common sense with regard to rules, the little nudge of conscience that warns I'm not supposed to be here.  The physical aspects of creation must be learned in order for people to move about safely in creation. A woodstove will both warm the house and burn flesh if touched.  Children are taught not to touch hot stoves, not to get too close to the cliff edge, to look both ways when crossing the street. In real life, acting smartly by established rules would have been a good non-story. Wisdom, understanding, mental and emotional properties would have seen to an everyday outcome not worth reading… unless it were written by one's child. (Children know how to write stories "in which nothing particular ever happens," and no one seems to mind, as Sam Gamgee is known to have said about Lothlórien.)

This is the manner of life when well lived. But the excitement and power of "The Cold Equations" is in its contrasting the law-bound makeup of everything with the healthy expression of love. Another writer, say Alfred Bester, author of "Fondly Fahrenheit," (published side-by-side with Godwin's story in The Science Fiction Hall Of Fame, Volume One, and originally published in the same year) may not have done it this way. Bester may have unbalanced the narrative with cynical turns and terms, a non-neutral character disguised or hidden with a gloss of more modern sensibility, a surface neutrality. But if Bester had written the "Cold Equations" story, a reader, on finishing, might feel a non-neutral horror or revulsion.  A very different kind of narrative power.

One of the semester's graduate students posed the question of "situational ethics" being engaged in "The Cold Equations."  Wrongdoing, such as trespass on earth, might be excused, having no misdemeanor consequences expanded to mortal punishment (as per this story). This suggests laxness on the part of physical laws, an unreal supposition, as suggested in an Arthur C. Clarke short story, "The Sentinel," where the narrator says that "a six-hundred-foot drop on the moon can kill you just as thoroughly as a hundred-foot fall on earth." The point is not the distance of the fall, or the reduction of body weight, but the cold calculation of the law, the immutability of gravity involved with these bodies. In a simplification, gravity might be said to work out its mathematical equations in keeping all the physical cosmos completely engaged in its astounding range of massive and minuscule parts.

The question of situational ethics brings up (for me) the construct of moral law. The complexity of moral law is something to be considered and carefully construed in my metaphorical application.  Morality, I think, is a belief of God's, much as God's belief in gravity is why gravity works. This posits God is a person with beliefs… but one with the power to make universal.  Unlike persons who can but try to parse morality. The Christian believes the worlds were framed by faith, and that, we "live and move and have our being in God."  The Christian thinks of these laws—such as gravitation, thermodynamics, atomic structure—holding the universe together. The Christian may think, an eye for an eye. That is, in the working out of the moral law, an eye will be taken for an eye taken. I don't mean that persons other than God are to work out this equation. I mean the law itself will carry its own punishment much the same as the hundred foot fall punishes when gravity's law is violated. …But at the moral law's own peculiar rate, without the punishing rapidity that belongs to gravity.  Does this suggest that the moral law is as impersonal as a physical law? It does. And yet.

Yet.  The personification of the law is just that.  A person.  Or persons, with a job to do.  And, reasoning from there, it means gravity itself is a person. A person finely spread throughout the universe, making the whole thing "go." We might even call this person "the graviton," and desire to capitalize it. "The Graviton."

Godwin achieves his balancing narrative with heroic qualities that may appear stoical to some readers. Others will recognize the underlying steadiness, stateliness, and endurance of love in the face of physical, material laws that cannot be contravened.

I said, "face."  Yes. Oddly, apparently these physical laws are, in one place at least, bodily expressed with faces.  Personified in a narrative. Persons with intelligence charged with particular duties keeping creation from chaos.  If you can imagine my premise.  Described in the JKV first chapter of Ezekiel, this vision might be read to advantage alongside initial verses in Genesis.  With my italics placed here for emphasis:

"Behold, a … fire infolding itself, and a brightness was about it, and out of the midst thereof as the colour of amber, out of the midst of the fire.  Also out of the midst thereof came the likeness of four living creatures. And this was their appearance; they had the likeness of a man.   …And they had the hands of a man under their wings on their four sides; and they four had their faces and their wings. Their wings were joined one to another; they turned not when they went; they went every one straight forward. …When they went, they went upon their four sides: and they turned not when they went."

We see the intent, a purpose with precision, the immutability of these persons, these equations, this calculus. The visionary faces of these physical laws are described in this chapter of Ezekiel. They also have faces in C.S. Lewis' Perelandra.

And JRR Tolkien took up his pen to depict a fictive personification of the moral law in The Silmarillion.  Of Eru Ilúvatar the narrator has said in quotation, "But Ilúvatar knew that Men, being set amid the turmoils of the powers of the world, would stray often, and would not use their gifts in harmony; and he said, 'These too in their time shall find that all that they do redounds at the end only to the glory of my work.' " 

All this.  But.  I believe also in miracles.  And—because God is a person—forgiveness.  Perhaps the greatest glory of all.