Cory Doctorow: Cold Equations and Moral Hazard
Legendary science fiction editor Gardner Dozois once said that the job of a science fiction writer was to notice the car and the movie theater and anticipate the drive-in – and then go on to predict the sexual revolution. I love that quote, because it highlights the key role of SF in examining the social consequences of technology – and because it shows how limited our social imaginations are. Today, we might ask the SF writer to also predict how convincing the nation’s teenagers to carry a piece of government-issued photo ID (a driver’s license) as a precondition for participating in the sexual revolution set the stage for the database nation, the idea that people are the sort of thing that you count and account for, with the kind of precision that the NSA is now understood to bring to the problem.
The thing I treasure about science fiction is its utility as a toolkit for thinking about the relationship between technological change and human beings. This is why I value ‘‘design fiction’’ so much: an architect might make a visualization that flies you through her as-yet-unbuilt building, an engineer might build a prototype to show you what he’s thinking of inventing, but through design fiction, a writer can take you on a tour of how a person living with that technology might feel. That’s the kind of contribution to the discussion about which technology we should make, and how we should use it, that can make all the difference.
Like you, I am a human being alive in a period of unprecedented technological upheaval, and like you, I’m a person who reads a lot of science fiction. Every question today, from climate change to education, from social justice to public health, is an intensely technological one. Like you, I unconsciously parse out complex technological questions all day long: at the grocery store, at the office, at home, and out in the wider world. My impressions of daily life are often accompanied by remembered scenes from stories and novels.
Two of these stories have been coming to mind more often than the others lately, and not because of their wisdom: rather, because they embody the worst parts of modern shortsightedness. They present a kind of blueprint for disaster, a willful and destructive blindness whose self-deception is perfectly mirrored in these two classics of SF.
The first is ‘‘The Cold Equations’’, Tom Godwin’s classic 1954 Astounding story about a shuttle pilot who has to kill a girl who has stowed away on his ship. The pilot, Barton, is on a mission to deliver medicine to a group of explorers on a distant world. They have contracted a fatal disease, and without the medicine, they will all die. The pilot has just gotten underway when he sees his fuel gauge dropping at a faster rate than it should. He deduces from this that there’s a stowaway aboard and after a search, he discovers a young girl.
She has stowed away in order to be reunited with her brother, who is on the plague-stricken world (though he’s a continent away from the sickness). She believes that she is to be fined for her rule-breaking, but then a stricken Barton explains the facts of the universe to her. The rescue ship has only enough fuel to reach the plague-planet, and with the girl’s additional mass, it won’t arrive. She will have to be pushed out of the airlock, otherwise the sick explorers will die of the plague. If Barton could, he’d sacrifice himself to let her live, but she can’t land the spaceship. It’s entirely out of his hands.
As the truth dawns on her, she weeps and protests: ‘‘I didn’t do anything!’’
But we know better, as does Barton – and as, eventually, does she. She has violated the laws of physics. The equations are there, and they say she must die. Not because the universe thirsts for her vengeance. There is no passion in her death. She must die because the inescapable, chilly math of the situation demands it.
Barton wanted her to live. Apparently, editor John W. Campbell sent back three rewrites in which the pilot figured out how to save the girl. He was adamant that the universe must punish the girl.
The universe wasn’t punishing the girl, though. Godwin was – and so was Barton (albeit reluctantly).
The parameters of ‘‘The Cold Equations’’ are not the inescapable laws of physics. Zoom out beyond the page’s edges and you’ll find the author’s hands carefully arranging the scenery so that the plague, the world, the fuel, the girl and the pilot are all poised to inevitably lead to her execution. The author, not the girl, decided that there was no autopilot that could land the ship without the pilot. The author decided that the plague was fatal to all concerned, and that the vaccine needed to be delivered within a timeframe that could only be attained through the execution of the stowaway.
It is, then, a contrivance. A circumstance engineered for a justifiable murder. An elaborate shell game that makes the poor pilot – and the company he serves – into victims every bit as much as the dead girl is a victim, forced by circumstance and girlish naïveté to stain their souls with murder.
Moral hazard is the economist’s term for a rule that encourages people to behave badly. For example, a rule that says that you’re not liable for your factory’s pollution if you don’t know about it encourages factory owners to totally ignore their effluent pipes – it turns willful ignorance into a profitable strategy.
‘‘The Cold Equations’’ is moral hazard in action. It is a story designed to excuse the ship’s operators – from the executives to ground control to the pilot – for standardizing on a spaceship with no margin of safety. A spaceship with no autopilot, no fuel reserves, and no contingency margin in its fuel calculations.
‘‘The Cold Equations’’ never asks why the explorers were sent off-planet without a supply of vaccines. It never asks what failure of health-protocol led to the spread of the disease on the distant, unexplored world.
‘‘The Cold Equations’’ shoves every one of those questions out the airlock along with the young girl. It barks at us that now is not the time for pointing fingers, because there is an emergency. It says that now is the time to pull together, the time for all foolish girls to die to save brave explorers from certain death, and not the time for assigning blame.
But if a crisis of your own making isn’t the time to lay blame, then the optimal strategy is to ensure that the crisis never ends.
Which brings me to Farnham’s Freehold, a strong contender for the most offensive of all of Heinlein’s novels. Published in 1964, it features a nuclear holocaust and a post-apocalyptic world in which African-Americans are ascendant and have enslaved the remaining white people, whom they occasionally eat. Incredibly, this does not automatically qualify Farnham’s Freehold for Heinlein’s Most Offensive prize, because his typewriter also produced books like Sixth Column (America under the cruel dominion of the Yellow Peril), Friday (sure, rape’s bad, but hey, relax and enjoy it, why don’t you?), and I Will Fear No Evil (there are no words).
Most of the criticism of Farnham’s Freehold quite rightly focuses on its blatant racism and, secondarily, on its vile sexism. But for this essay, let’s focus on ‘‘Lifeboat rules.’’
Hugh Farnham, the hero of Farnham’s Freehold, has a signature move: when people disagree with him, he barks ‘‘Lifeboat rules!’’ at them and pats his sidearm. Hugh Farnham is the proprietor of a nuclear fallout shelter that has managed, thanks to his excellent timing and foresight, to have rescued his family and some of their friends. The shelter is their ‘‘lifeboat,’’ the only thing standing between them and certain death in an uncaring universe where the cold equations of nuclear fission dictate that rules must be followed.
Poor Hugh is a good guy, but he has the responsibility of taking care of the lifeboat’s passengers. That means that he’s got to bear the sidearm, and threaten his friends and family with lethal violence if they get out of line. It’s for their own good.
Heinlein’s Hugh Farnham is a character who is in charge of everything except the circumstances that led to him having to coerce, cajole, and terrorize the people around him. He’s that character because Heinlein wrote him that way.
Every once in a while you find yourself in a lifeboat where a single stupid move can kill everyone. But a science fiction writer whose story’s boundary extends to the boat’s gunwales, and no further – not to the poleconomy that convinced a nation to build backyard bunkers rather than rising up en masse against Mutually Assured Destruction, say – is a science fiction writer who has considered the car and the movie and invented the drive-in without ever thinking about the sexual revolution or the database-nation.
The thing about Cold Equations is that they aren’t the product of unfeeling physics. They are parameterized by human beings.
The thing about lifeboat rules is that they are an awfully good deal for lifeboat captains.
Even saints get exasperated with other humans from time to time. What a treat it would be if the rest of the world would just realize that what’s best for you is simply the best course of action, period. That’s the moral hazard in cold equations, the existential crisis of lifeboat rules. If being in a lifeboat gives you the power to make everyone else shut the hell up and listen (or else), then wouldn’t it be awfully convenient if our ship were to go down?
Every time someone tells you that the environment is important, sure, but we can’t afford to take a bite out of the economy to mitigate global warming, ask yourself what’s out of the frame on this cold equation. Every time you hear that education is vital and taking care of the poor is our solemn duty, but we must all tighten in our belts while our lifeboat rocks in the middle of the precarious, crisis-torn economic seas, ask yourself whether the captain of our lifeboat had any role in the sinking of the ship.
Science fiction is supposed to teach us how to think about the future. The intellectual dishonesty in ‘‘The Cold Equations’’ and Farnham’s Freehold are not isolated incidents, though: they’re recurring motifs that persist to this day (just have a look at Sandra Bullock’s struggles with the cold equations of Gravity if you don’t believe me, then watch Jack Bauer torture a terrorist on 24 to see some modern lifeboat rules).
They have something to teach us, all right: that stories about how we can’t afford to hew to our values in time of crisis are a handy addition to every authoritarian’s playbook, a fine friend of plutocrats, and they reek of self-serving bullshit every time they’re deployed.
Cory Doctorow is the author of Walkaway, Little Brother, and Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free (among many others); he is the co-owner of Boing Boing, a special consultant to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a visiting professor of Computer Science at the Open University and an MIT Media Lab Research Affiliate.
From the March 2014 issue of Locus Magazine
46 thoughts on “Cory Doctorow: Cold Equations and Moral Hazard”
I hate “me too” posts, but this is astonishing. I wish I’d written this; it incorporates arguments I’ve been making for years against “The Cold Equations” and against several Heinlein works. Of _I Will Fear No Evil_, Cory Doctorow says “there are no words.” Here I have to disagree. There are many words–too many, in fact to fit into so small a space. Still, brilliant arguments. Wonderful piece of writing.
Interesting piece. I actually read Farnham’s Freehold as a heavy-handed anti-racism screed, along the lines of ‘LOOK HOW BAD RACISM IS WHEN IT GOES THE OTHER WAY!’ but I guess that might just have been the most charitable interpretation, having not read any other Heinlein.
Having read several dozen Heinlein books, with Farnham’s Freehold being the only one I gave up on as unredeemable, I weep to read that _that_ is the one Heinlein you happened to choose. What amazingly bad luck.
The Greens in Germany said much the same thing before voting for joining the war in Afghanistan.
I guess it is important to remember how you got here and where you want to go. “Life Boat Rules” says a lot about revenge and justice. On the outside chance that the captain led you into this mess, then mutiny the bastard, you are better off without him.
There are situations where the technology has no “freeboard” and such dilema’s are nobodies “fault” but mostly it is used as an excuse for putting profits before people (‘s safety)
Hi Cory, really like this piece. I agree though I wonder where you would put the Walking Dead in that analysis. As someone who has promoted this particular version of bourgeois apocalypse over the years, don’t you agree that it is the ultimate example of lifeboat rules and the framing of conditions that justify the worst in humans?
Have I missed something? To me Gravity was all about a series of 1 in a million chances for survival when all the sensible precautions had been taken and failed.
(The rest I completely agree with.)
I worry that the people who are pushing “climate change” as a reason to radically hobble our economy in ways that fit their ‘progressive’ agenda are guilty of calling “lifeboat rules” in this very manner.
“lifeboat rules”=”lifeboat earth” ?
but then again lefties are notoriously non self reflective
Why not write a follow up story about the inquest into the circumstances of Ms Cross’ death? a unfanfic if you will
I Second that
Thank you for a very thought-provoking post. Also for confirming that I probably don’t need to read any more Heinlein than I already have.
Yes. And the intellectual dishonesty goes much further than science fiction. I’ve always viewed Survivor and many of the competition based “reality” TV shows as training videos for Social Darwinism.
where it says ;
“Barton wanted her to live. Apparently, editor John W. Campbell sent back three rewrites in which the pilot figured out how to save the girl. He was adamant that the universe must punish the girl.”
the pronoun “He” is for me ambiguous… editor, writer, or spaceship pilot ?
Whatever you may think of Naomi Klein, she had a good point in The Shock Doctrine about the advantages (for some) of provoking crises. There are an awful lot of powerful people who go around breaking windows at night, and then showing up the next morning with a glazier’s truck demanding profits and praise. In Michigan, this takes the form of cutting funding for schools and municipalities, then appointing emergency managers (lifeboat captains?) to deal with the inevitable crisis by selling off public assets and ignoring democratically elected leadership. Urban school districts have lost 57% of their funds in the past few years, but they aren’t allowed to cut costs nearly as fast. But obviously their problems are their own fault because of mismanagement. An emergency manager from the corporate world will fix things, and his friends who run for-profit charter schools will get richer in the process.
You’re criticizing Heinlein? Gasp.
But you’re right. If I had really know the libertarian/paleoconservative bent of his politics, I wouldn’t have thought he was so cool in my teens.
Obviously the beginning of Doctorow’s companion piece to “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Publishing Science Fiction” to be called the Complete Idiot writes about Science Fiction.
Mr. Doctorow any work of fiction, including War and Peace, The Great Gatsby, Hamlet, or Farenheit 451 can be shown to induce what you think of as moral hazard because the author deliberately creates the circumstances that his characters must create. To condemn Hugh Farnum because MAD seemed to be the only response to the threat from Russia (it really existed and all your wishing won’t make it unreal) is, quite simply, your own creation of a “moral hazard.”
The ship apparently lacked medical equipment capable of performing limb amputations on enough of the crew to equal the girl’s weight, which I expect many of them would have volunteered for.
Lifeboats are mentioned exactly twice in FF (regexp search for life.*boat finds only two lines, both of which are valid hits), so describing this as any kind of “signature line” for Hugh Farnham is nonsense.
As to moral hazard, “The Cold Equations” is about the pernicious human belief that the power of human emotion can rise above the laws of physics.
If the girl had been saved, the story would have given one a period of tension, then a pleasant sense of relief. You are criticizing it for not following the standard template. You behave as if the author and editor have actually killed a person. There is a difference between reality and the contrivances of fiction. Quite an embarrassingly uninsightful essay.
While “Lifeboat Rules” might not be a prominent phrase in “Farnham’s Freehold”, the phrase does figure prominently in “The Number of the Beast”.
For those who criticize Heinlein as a “paleoconservative” or “authoritarian”, a reminder that he was a Socialist as well as campaign manager for Upton Sinclair’s run for Governor of California.
Read him or don’t, but he was a real, complex person, not a bogeyman or a cartoon.
Heinlein was politically liberal *until he met and married his third wife.* He took a hard rightward swing thanks to Ginny, and was involved in lunatic fringe right politics for the rest of his life.
Nice article…I was probably 11 or 12 when I first read The Cold Equations, and I recall sympathizing rather strongly with Marilyn. Re-reading as a young adult didn’t change that much.
@ Dyer-Bennet, bravo. The basic idea that feelings trump reality underpins most political arguments today (from “both” sides, sadly). That the paleo-libertarians (the only ones willing to say “we can’t afford your wars OR your social services”) are so hated by the left was such a surprise to me as a youth – “I want you to be free to be who you want to be, and want you to let me be” was and is somehow . . . hateful? I believe in all of the Bill of Rights, not selective ones. And, Apple was started by Jobs and Woz, not by the NSA.
Cory, Fiction is where an author sets up a situation to tell a story. I thought you wrote books? I won’t push that further . . . but . . .
You are ignoring the cold equations. Postulating that anthropogenic global warming is real, study after study shows that spending money on mitigation produces far more net good for humanity than choking down economies with carbon taxes. I’m afraid you have tried (poorly) to create your own Cold Equations that show that extending misery to humanity through destruction of economic progress is somehow superior to building strong economies that have the financial wealth to react to global warming.
The Cold Equations show that the Great Society has not decreased poverty, but has increased single-mother-led households, which produce children (of all races!) who will experience a never-ending stream of men in their lives, none of which will do what your father did for you. Education, yes? Helping the poor up? Sure. Creating dependency without end? The Cold Equations point out all of the negative social consequences of well meaning, feeling-based policies.
I still enjoy reading Boing-Boing, though.
“The Cold Equations” bears a more-than-passing resemblance to “Precedent” (New Worlds, May 1952, E.C. Tubb writing as Charles Gray). I’ll bet you dollars to bitcoins JWC swiped the plot wholesale and prodded Godwin into writing it (with the ending JWC preferred, i.e., shoving the dumb bitch out the airlock).
I am unsuprised that you dislike RH’s politics, but his approach to examining implications of ideas is one I would love to see you emulate. He was often a “shock jock” of SF willing to put inconceivable ideas into contexts that made them sound realistic. The most shocking thing for me about Farnam was well thought out rules and policies for managing slaves. I never researched whether they were cribbed from history or his inventions, but was forced to engage the possibility of a slave owner who was not mindlessly evil.
Thank you Mr Doctorow for criticizing contrived scenarios which purport to justify the author’s ethical kinks!
I agree with you, but I have to wonder if there is something a little contrived about Little Brother – The clownish, irrational fury with which its fictionalized DHS stomps on California, the seeming impotence of the bay area’s local government and citizens to resist.
Every author has an agenda, a bias.
This makes contrived settings, which arguably make worse writing.
The thing is – writing which does not do this teaches us _nothing_!
It seems like you’re objecting to the wrong thing: Contrivance *is* science fiction. Making a point is what makes much of SF great! The problem isn’t with the mechanism, it’s with the dehumanizing, obscenity-justifying points which these particular stories choose to make.
You write stories in which the contrivance justifies questioning authority, personal accountability, technological competence as a kind of literacy – all things I wholeheartedly endorse. If you weren’t making those points, I might find the scenario unpalatable, but I don’t, because I agree with you.
Or, in brief:
Contrived premises are ok, but don’t be a d*ck!
As to moral hazard, “The Cold Equations” is about the pernicious human belief that the power of human emotion can rise above the laws of physics.
As opposed to the pernicious human tendency to lay off ethical and social dysfunction on supposed natural law.
“The Cold Equations” is comfort food for nerds. There’s a reason why the killer is the viewpoint character rather than his victim.
I don’t get your outrage over “Cold Equations.” If there was an easy way out, say, throw all the baggage out of the air lock, there’s no story, which is a straight out of Spock (and Mill) Utilitarian situation: she has to die so many more can live. That she got herself into the situation by stowing away and that the reader sees and can, thus, sympathize, with her instead of the dying men on the destination planet, only makes it more tragic by tuggng at the reader’s hearstrings.
In addition, I think your argument has another side with undermines yours. Yes, the author set her up to die. But he could have also made our naif with sweet motives a murderer trying to escape justice. How readers might have cheered his escaping one frying pan only to fall into the fire of physics and just desserts by getting thrown out their airlock.
I can think of a couple of ways to save her right off the top of my head, and I’m not even a physicist. Why not simply chuck the packaging for supplies to reduce weight? Recalculate the path? Radio ahead to the stricken planet to ask to be met halfway? Get rid of excess clothing/equipment?
Or maybe admit that the idea of a rescue ship with zero extra fuel in case of, say, a meteor hit or an accident is just plain *stupid*? Campbell was an engineer and he damn well knew that there is no way that such an expedition would set out without extra fuel and supplies. He wanted the story to end a certain way, period, and the sooner we admit that instead of holding up “The Cold Equations” as some kind of classic, the better.
you’ve got your lifeboat scenarios reversed. It’s the environmentalists, not the rest of us, who are ranting and raving that we are on a leaking lifeboat. It is the social engineers and their government programs, not the sensible economists, who are trying to roar up a panic about sinking boats. In fact their first cry in both cases is that they can’t wait for the actual science to come in, we must ACT…!!!
But on the core of your column, you are correct. It’s bloody obvious that the Cold Equations was a contrived scenario, one fabricated to rationalize cold blooded murder— and every re-edit required making the scenario more and more unlikely. It’s the sort of story that appeals to those who wish to blame God, or Fate, or the cold uncaring universe, for their own wretched situation and for their own cold, uncaring actions, and to justify their sloth in finding a way to amend the crisis without selling their souls.
I’m all for tackling global warming and affordable education, but I find the link from “The Cold Equations” to the opposition of these overtly strenuous.
I also challenge the application of the term “moral hazard” to this situation. You have moral hazard when someone is willing to get into a (potentially) profitable situation when the costs (should they arise) are borne by somebody else. Were they borne by the very same person, he/she wouldn’t do it.
There is a difference between making a choice of entering a certain situation with certain tradeoffs and making a choice with certain tradeoffs should a situation arise. To make it a moral hazard, the protagonist in the story should have at least known the tradeoffs (girl vs. the others) in advance.
Also, speaking of economics, another term of interest in this context would be “sunk costs”. Whether the ship sunk because of the captain’s actions or because of an iceberg should be irrelevant from the point of view of getting the most out of the circumstances.
This piece too self-righteous, IMO. What’s next on the line – “Sophie’s Choice”?
Lol I love the climate change deniers trying to flip the metaphor. Are there any good science fiction stories where the captain denies the ship is sinking in the first place?
Great article Cory, but read some books about WW2
I notice many appeals to the laws of physics including the one by the original author of the story. Let us assume for a moment that the mass of a teenage girl is enough to prevent the ship from reaching its destination. (Think for a minute though what percentage of the mass of the entire system she represents.) By the time the pilot notices the excess fuel consumption, the issue has already been decided. The ship won’t make it. The people who appeal to the laws of physics need to learn some physics. I would like to see the letters Campbell received after he published this. He was full of crap. Cory understands quite well that an author sets the boundaries within which his characters work. He is pointing out here that some authors are honest and some are not. The field of science fiction is not well served by the dishonest authors.
Well, it’s true that context matters, and the stories cited here don’t do an effective job at building believable context. But it doesn’t follow that the questions posed by ‘lifeboat’ stories are “self-serving bullshit”. Asking whether certain morally objectionable actions can be justified under a particular set of circumstances is a perfectly fine thing to do in fiction; just because Godwin did a poor job of posing the question doesn’t mean that the question itself isn’t legitimate. I’m reminded of the old cliche, ‘Do the ends justify the means?’ To which the correct answer is, ‘Whose ends? By what means?’
We’re stopping the presses to trumpet that writers – all writers – are deck stackers? Must have been a slow news day.
“Farhnam’s Freehold” is shall we say, not without problems, but Cory Doctorow is a bit unfair to Heinlein here– by the end of the novel the stated moral is “power corrupts”, and Farhnam looks back on his strutting around as king of the fallout shelter with regret, a clear example that he can’t be trusted to handle power wisely either.
It’s also true that the second half of the book appears to have actually been intended as being anti-racist, it’s a “how do you like it when the shoe is on the other foot?” scenario, where the white people are enslaved by the blacks. Admittedly this message seems murky (and is all but lost by Heinlein tossing in “cannibalism” into the mix– did he really think all African societies were cannibalistic?).
I think the cannibalism was meant to be the moment of shock for the protagonist where he (and the reader) realises that we have been gradually accepting the standards of the fictional society uncritically, and that everything we have been told up to that point may not have been the complete story. It seems to me that Heinlein just didn’t realise how much shock was loaded into that scenario.
I guess, logically, unconscious absorption of racist memes is still racism, but it seems to me that we need some way of differentiating between this and asshole-racism, if only so that we can meet each with the appropriate means of overcoming them.
The ending always seemed a little abrupt. The last time I read it, I mentally added a bit so it read:
I mean, so far it looks like only causally self-consistent timelike loops produce reasonable wave functions, cannibalusm might easily fibd purchase in very straitened circumstances, and a hard science fiction writer oughtn’t ignore Human Nature and the laws of physics….
Whatever Campbell’s personal qualities, it seems that his instincts as an editor were top-notch, as we’re still talking about this story how-ever-many-decades later, whereas if it had been written as the author originally intended it would have been forgotten a year later, just another engineer-saves-the-girl-and-the-day story.
Yes, it’s contrived, perhaps obviously so, given that our approach as readers is coloured by reading fiction that was influenced by this story and others of its time. But all stories are contrived. It’s no fault of a theatrical production that its sets are clearly painted fabric and cardboard, that’s what theatre is. If Shakespeare’s plays were less contrived — if, say, Hamlet was swapped with Macbeth — we’d lose those stories because they’d each solve the others’ problem by the first act.
What one takes away from the story is the important thing, though. Some people watch Macbeth and think that betrayal is a bad thing, some think that Macbeth was stupid and should have done things differently to achieve his aims. Similarly, some read “The Cold Equations” as an example of how to prevent a disaster _before_ the story can happen, e.g. keep your security tight, always leave in a margin for error, build an autopilot, double-check everything, etc, whereas others develop a theory of hard men making hard decisions into an operational philosophy that _requires_ hard decisions, making them the hard men.
The story touches people, which is what stories are for, after all. What people do with that touch is another matter.
I just got pointed here by a Salon article on the Netflix series “Stowaway”.
Corey makes some valid and thought-provoking points about how structural viewpoints frame the circumstances that lead to disaster (or any other outcome), but I wanted to mention that his primary premise is completely backwards.
“Moral hazard” is NOT a rule that encourages people to behave badly; it is instead the tendency of humans to take advantage of measures originally intended to prevent them from harm. If the civilization in the story “The Cold Equations” had carried excess fuel on every flight to cater for the possibility of an innocent or accidental stowaway, that would have CREATED a moral hazard that tempted people to take risks by reducing the consequences to them of failure.
As a society, we don’t want people falling off cliffs, so we put up guard rails. As individuals, we clamber over the edge to take selfies but some slip off the edge. It’s a delicate balance, and while moral absolutism in either direction doesn’t give good guidance, Godwin was pointing out that the laws of physics don’t care about our human desires, emotions or values.
‘If the civilization in the story “The Cold Equations” had carried excess fuel on every flight to cater for the possibility of an innocent or accidental stowaway’
What about having locked doors and guards so a stowaway can’t actually get in? How about educating people on how being a stowaway is a death sentence? That’s part of the moral hazard in the setup: somehow stowaways are so common that there’s a standard procedure for murdering them, but instead of devoting any effort to stopping them from happening, the organization just gives pilots guns (taking up some of that precious mass allotment right there!) and tells them to kill stowaways.
That’s before even considering all the other absurdities, like how lacking the margin of error to accommodate the mass of even a single teenage girl means that any accident of any kind will completely doom the ship, or how this supposedly ultra-minimalistic craft comes complete with a supply closet big enough for a person to hide in (and there isn’t even a pre-flight check to make sure there’s nothing extra in there!).
Even if you take the lack of margin at face value, it’s failures and sloppy negligence at every level from highest management (doesn’t come up with any plan at all to prevent stowaways) all the way down to the pilot (doesn’t properly inventory the equipment) for the stowaway scenario to even happen. The same holds for “Stowaway”—less blatantly because the scenario isn’t so overtuned for a guaranteed bad ending, but you still need gross failures at multiple levels for the inciting incidents of the film to even happen.
Great god almighty, bring on the stocks and the bastinado! Writers from the 1950s and 60s *must* be pilloried by Doctorow… who doesn’t mind engaging in the identical moral hazard in his own writing (“Home Again, Home Again”), where he makes the do-gooder aliens, who send people to Coventry for _wrongthink,_ commit unknowing murder. It’s The Done Thing, because moral outrage over anything in the past – say, parental authority or anything that resembles it – is the highest good and must be indulged, tear-soaked handkerchief in hand. But worry not: he’ll be pilloried in turn by the next crop of self-righteous snots who will see these evil, dark, ignorant 2000s as the point of lowest moral descent in human history.
The premise here is, clearly, that ALL possible scenarios must be foreseen and coped with by The Powers That Be – and if they fail to do so, they are not simply mistaken but EEEEEEvil. In fact, since they have been pre-judged to be Satan Himself by Doctorow (but more importantly, by the current _zeitgeist_ that he’s trying to suck up to in order to remain relevant) *because* they are in authority, it’s a foregone conclusion; all he has to do is find some manner in which they are imperfect and rail about it. Never mind the facts and constraints of the actual world and physics; excess fuel *must* be retroactively provided in the middle of an emergency flight (although carrying it will burn _more_ fuel, out of a perhaps limited supply aboard the mothership, as well as limit the range at which emergencies can be handled); space and life support *must* be built into emergency vehicles, just in case a stowaway gets the whimsical notion of going along for the fun of it… in fact, the world must always have soft corners and cotton batting scattered anywhere that anyone might trip and fall, because emergencies are always man-made and predictable, and there’s always an answer to all problems.
I would never begrudge anyone the fact that they grew up in a highly-civilized country with ready emergency services and sufficient wealth to provide a number of fallback systems. But there is clearly a fatally dangerous downside to that – a screaming ignorance of the demands of real life, the dangers of existence outside of that padded cocoon, and the fact that the laws of nature will kill you with no compunction for the slightest-seeming mistake (something that’s been the recognized, bone-deep default and basic common sense that we have carried with us for 99.999% of all human existence.) I can only pity Doctorow and his ilk if they ever have to deal with a real emergency… or anyone who depends on them for protection or competence in the face of one.
Mr Doctorow doesn’t even mention that the middle-aged Mr Farnham is rewarded at the end with a smart, attractive, not-alcoholic new mate about the same age as his daughter. Yes, every story is a set-up, but when a set-up seems a little too ‘on the nose’, to make the plot work or the author’s point or otherwise to scratch the author’s itch the reader has a right to object.
So yes: the short story is there to demonstrate that there are _some_ situations in which you might find it necessary to kill someone, and the novel there at least to attempt to say that any humans could be racist, and see!, black people could become even worse ones than we and all but the looniest if our worst racists. If, along the way, they provide fodder for gleeful misogyny, e. g. referring to the victim as a ‘dumb bitch’, or ‘evidence’ for our loonier racists that all black people are but a whim away from cannibalism, we can hold the authors to account for that as well, if not necessarily fully culpable.
Side-note: Mr Farnham is a general contractor (a builder), and the only contractor mentioned in a recent biography of Mr Heinlein was one he thought dishonest and found so disagreeable and threatening that he (Heinlein) felt it necessary for a season to wear a sidearm whenever he he left the house. (The contractor protagonist in “Magic, Inc.”, written years before, seems much better.)
In context it seems obvious Campbell is meant.
While I agree with many of the points in this essay, Mr. Doctorow does make one factual error in his discussion of The Cold Equations:
“ ‘‘The Cold Equations’’ never asks why the explorers were sent off-planet without a supply of vaccines.”
I believe the story does, in fact, address this point quite directly. Twice, in fact. It states explicitly that both landing parties on the planet did have supplies of the necessary vaccine, but that landing party one, (the one that actually needs the vaccine) had its supply destroyed by a tornado, and that landing party two is on another continent and lacks any transport capable of reaching the other group of explorers.