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The Cold Equations - A Critical Study
by Richard Harter

In 1977 I wrote an article criticizing the quality of SF as a "literature of ideas" which discussed the story, The Cold Equations. The thrust of the article was that the story has deep flaws which were ignored by the superficial acceptance of the SF community. In 1997 I reprinted the article as a web page and then posted it in usenet discussion groups. This provoked a lively discussion. In response to the points raised in the discussion I created this page as a replacement for the original page.


Introduction

The Cold Equations by Tom Godwin was first published in the August 1954 issue of Astounding Science Fiction, pp 62-84, and was illustrated by Kelly Freas. It is both popular and controversial; it is one of the most frequently reprinted stories in SF.

In The Ascent Of Wonder: The Evolution Of Hard SF (TOR 1994), edited by David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer the editors say:

"Here is one of the most popular and controversial hard sf stories of the last fifty years, a story that stacks the deck and then plays with the reader's emotions with carefully juxtaposed cliches that imply a deus ex machina - then frustrates that false expection......Godwin's story angered many readers when it appeared in the fifties, nearly all of whom wanted the problem solved by violating some scientific principle or law."

The editors go on to quote James Gunn:

"If the reader doesn't understand it or appreciate what it is trying to say about humanity and its relationship to its environment, then that reader isn't likely to appreciate science fiction. If the reader keeps objecting...then that reader isn't reading the story correctly."

Science fiction has been described as a literature of ideas, a literary arena in which the idea is hero. This may well be true. Too often, however, it is a flawed literature of ideas, marked by shoddy treatments received with uncritical enthusiasm. The Cold Equations has been cited an instance of the "literature of ideas" at its best.

In the original article I argued that the story is no such thing but rather that it is an example of systemic blindness to morally obtuse assumptions. This argument is considered in detail below. Given that, one asks: Why is the story so ardently defended - and attacked? Why has the story made such an impression?


Synopsis of the Story

The story is set in the early days of interstellar exploration and settlement. Interstellar travel is expensive but not prohibitively so. Large liners make regular scheduled trips to the main colony worlds; scheduled stops at minor colonies are very expensive and are not regularly made. Unscheduled deliveries to colony worlds are made by dropping off EDS (Emergency Dispatch Ship) vehicles. These are minimum configuration ships, small and collapsible. They are dropped off with the minimum amount of fuel necessary for landing pilot, cargo, and ship. These ships do not carry enough fuel to land if there is a stowaway. Hence the policy is that stowaways must be jettisoned. To make sure that no one stows away the EDS compartment is marked with a sign:

UNAUTHORIZED PERSONNEL
KEEP OUT!
The pilot carries a blaster and is under strict orders to jettison stowaways.

The story begins with the discovery by an EDS pilot that there is a stowaway aboard his ship concealed in the cargo closet. He forces the person out and discovers that she is an 18 year old woman. If the stowaway had been a man he would have been ready to shoot on sight; a young woman is a different matter. He calls the liner which dropped him to see if there is an alternative to jettisoning her. There isn't. He explains the situation to her; either she dies or she, he, and a number of colonists will die. She is granted an hour until course change to write letters to her parents and to call her brother who is a colonist on the destination planet. The situation is quite dramatic. The ship is carrying fever serum for the colonists. The young woman is appealing; she reminisces about her kitten when she was a young child. In the end she enters the airlock voluntarily and is jettisoned. The final lines of the story are:

It was not yet time to resume deceleration and he waited while the ship dropped endlessly downward with him and the drives purred softly. He saw that the white hand of the supplies closet temperature gauge was on zero. A cold equation had been balanced and he was alone on the ship. Something shapeless and ugly was hurrying ahead of him, going to Woden where its brother was waiting through the night, but the empty ship still lived for a little while with the presence of the girl who had not known about the forces that killed with neither hatred nor malice. It seemed, almost, that she still sat small amd bewildered and frightened on the metal box beside him, her words echoing hauntingly clear in the void she had left behind her:
I didn't do anything to die for - I didn't do anything -


Strengths of the story

The Cold Equations has literary faults; the characters are cardboard; the writing is wooden; there are holes in the story; it is contrived; and it is maudlin. None of this matters; the strength of the story does not rest in its literary qualities. If the story's fame (and the reactions to it) depended on its literary qualities it would long ago have gone entirely unremarked. Indeed, people who object to the story seldom mention its literary defects. None-the-less, it is a popular story which has excited attention and interest over the years. The story has some strengths which may account for its staying power. Four spring to mind.

The first and least of these is that it can be read as a parable affirming a suite of social attitudes - in short, a propaganda piece. In its own right this guarantees nothing. There is no shortage of stories grinding one axe or another; most such stories are consumed and discarded like empty mind candy wrappers. Differing social attitudes on the part of readers are, however, the root of much of the controversies.

The second is that is a tour de force. The proposition is that it carefully follows the pulp stories of the time up to the traditional happy ending and, with the reader prepared for saving deus ex machina, the story follows grim logic to arrive at an unhappy ending. In other words it is a SF version of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Too much can be made of this thesis. The pulps (including ASF) of the 1950's were not nearly as hidebound as legend would have them being. Even granting the thesis, it is only a tour de force of violated expectations by the purported standards of the 50's.

The third is that it is a relatively pure presentation of a thesis. In this regard the various literary defects are more merits than faults; neither characterization nor style deflect attention from the thesis.

The fourth is that it is a true tragedy in the sense of the Greek tragedy. Nemesis in the form of "the cold equations" implacably dooms the actors. It scarcely matters that the ultimate agent is bureaucratic stupidity; the force of tragedy remains the same. I surmise that this is the root of the enduring vitality of the story.

Perhaps the real tragedy (to use the term loosely) of the story is that no better story could have been written given the circumstances of its composition.


Common Reactions

It is well known that Godwin wrote The Cold Equations at John W. Campbell's behest and that Campbell dictated the ending. It was commonplace at the time (or at least has been claimed to be commonplace) for stories to be resolved by a superscience deus ex machina to produce a happy ending. Campbell wanted to stand that convention on its head, to print a story which followed the formulas but didn't cheat on the ending. He wanted to upset readers by violating their expectations. He succeeded.

The most common reaction of people upset by the story is to attempt to avoid the ending. In this regard they were assisted by the author who was quite sloppy about closing the obvious hole, i.e., if enough mass is jettisoned, the girl doesn't have to be. The scenes depicted are cluttered with superfluous mass - writing tablets, a blaster, clothes, and loose equipment. The EDS is supposed to be small and collapsible, yet it is depicted as being large and roomy with space for a cargo closet large enough to hold a stowaway and room enough to walk around. One gory variant of this has the pilot and girl hacking off limbs with the blaster and jettisoning them! In short, there are grounds for reasonable doubt that there were no alternatives.

This reaction is natural. Often enough, actions and results which are presented as being "inevitable" aren't inevitable at all. The "impossible" often turns out to be possible if you don't give up. More than that, authorities often justify their actions with claims that said actions are necessary - claims which do not stand up well under close examination.

Sometimes, however, the "impossible" really is impossible. An object of the story is to drive this truth home; if the details are not entirely convincing that is a fault of the construction but not of the thesis.

The reactions of enthusiasts are of more interest. Consider Gunn's remark. In effect, to him the story is a litmus test for the SF reader. If the reader doesn't "understand" it and appreciate its message then SF probably isn't for him. (Ted Sturgeon supposedly strongly objected to the story - perhaps Sturgeon didn't "appreciate science fiction".) More than that, if the reader keeps objecting then the reader isn't reading it properly. In short, he is saying that the message of the story is a great truth which is not open to question. This is the language of the zealot, of the true believer.

One of the more common reactions of defenders was put crudely but quite eloquently by Earl Colby Pottinger who said: "The story has *ONLY* one main point stupid people die in space!" Variant of this reaction are common.

Another common reaction is to treat objections as necessarily being a manifestation of bleeding heart liberalism. Brian Pickrell's "This, of course, goes against modern doctrine which states that if you do something stupid and get killed, someone else is responsible and you are entitled to sue them." is representative.

In many ways it would seem that, for enthusiasts and defenders, the story is a palimpest, a canvas on which they project agendas that do not necessarily have much to do with the story.


The Thesis of the Story

The issues raised in the story are rather more complex and subtle than they seem which accounts for much of the controversy about the story. The apparent thesis of this story is that the universe is not our friend, that it governed by cold equations that are indifferent as to whether we live or die. Within civilization we have created a protected environment in which we can live by right and wrong, an environment where the violation of regulations is dealt with by man made administrative punishments. But we cannot escape entirely the cold equations and their amoral judgements of life and death. There are inevitably times and places when civilization will not protect us, when our fate is governed by the cold equations. Respect them and live; ignore them and die.

Thus it is with our heroine. Her death was a tragedy, to her, to the pilot, to her brother, and to all those people that her situation touched, a tragedy made poignant because she died, not for any moral fault of her own but rather because she had inadvertly stumbled into the cold equations. Civilization prepared her to accept punishment for transgression of the rules with punishment calibrated to culpability. That is the law of civilization; that is fair; that is just. And the tragedy is that the universe is neither fair nor just. It does not care. It just is.

There is nothing particularly novel about this thesis in its own right. People often enough make apparently innocent mistakes and pay unexpected prices for having done so. The tales of such fatal errors are recounted often enough; they are the stuff of life.

This story is not, however, simply about the universe not caring. There are two features of the story which take it out of that category. The first is that is someone is deliberately killed; the second is that the authority of physics is invoked to justify this slaying.

The story presents a "lifeboat" scenario, a situation in which someone must die in order that the rest may live. Some examples: Survivors in a lifeboat without enough food and water, the Donner party, and arctic explorers short on supplies. In practice these situations are usually ambiguous in that there is no certainty about the number of people that must be sacrificed. Perhaps no sacrifice is necessary; perhaps no sacrifice is enough - all must die anyway. The inherent ambiguity makes for a variety of choices, e.g., unity - "we're all in it together", voluntary sacrifice, triage, and involuntary sacrifice.

The story sharpens and simplifies the situation. There is no ambiguity about whether the girl can survive; her death is foreordained. One of the impulses for objecting to the story is the suspicion that it argues for involuntary sacrifice by setting up a situation where it is obligatory. A counterpoint is that this is fiction and that one of the roles of fiction is to sharpen issues by removing the normal ambiguities of real life.

A key to the story and to the controvesies that swirl around lies in the phrase "... the law of the frontier, must, of necessity, be as hard and relentless that gave them birth." In effect, the story is a fictional argument for "hard and relentless law"; the cold equations of physics and the cold equations of marginal existence (the "frontier") dictate cold and harsh law.


The Indictment

The trouble with this story is this: From the internal evidence of this story the heroine did not die because of the cold equations of nature; she was the victim of criminal bureaucratic stupidity. That neither the author nor the editor nor the critics who praised the story perceived this speaks to flaws in the genre. The flaw in the story is that a failure in government, in administration, is tacitly treated as though it were a law of nature. It is a common fault, one that is pervasive in our society. But one expects more, one deserves more, from a self professed "literature of ideas".

The important point is that no serious effort is made to keep stowaways out. It is official policy that stowaways be killed, a term that the story avoids. Paragraph L, Section 8 of Interstellar Regulations:

Any stowaway discovered in an EDS shall be jettisoned immediately following discovery.
To enforce this policy the pilot is issued a blaster with which to execute any hapless stowaway in the event that said stowaway does not voluntarily jettison themselves.

This is serious business. The very existence of the regulation implies that stowaways are not an unheard of problem. You might suppose that a serious effort is made to avoid the possibility of people stowing away. You would be wrong. The pilot does not make a routine check for stowaways and feels no remorse for not having done so. No effort is made to keep stowaways out except for an uninformative sign. Nothing stops the young woman from just wandering on board. (A detailed analysis is given below.)

Somewhere in the chain of command there is a bureaucracy that framed this regulation and established the procedures that allowed this tragedy to happen. The procedures are, to put it bluntly, preposterous. But how is it that the author produces this preposterous situation? How is it that the editor, arguably one of the best in the history field does not notice this? How is it that this story is widely praised, widely reprinted, and widely cited as making a fundamental point with no-one noticing this rather glaring flaw?

One might raise the objection that these are merely flaws of construction, accidental features in the writing of the story that are irrelevant to the main point. This is not so.

The theme of the story is not merely the dangers of space or even that hard decisions sometimes have to be made John Campbell prefaced the story with the blurb:

The Frontier is a strange place - and a frontier is not always easy to recognize. It may lie on the other side of a simple door marked "No admittance" - but it is always deadly dangerous.

The story requires that there be a simple deadly door; it requires that an innocent, ignorant person walk through that door. Nature provides us such "doors" in abundance and people walk through them all the time. This door, however, is a door created by human beings - the plot demands it. More than that it has to be unmarked in any meaningful way and open for anyone who ignorantly walks through. The story does not exist if the people who create that door have a sense of responsibility.

There are dramatic reasons for setting things up the way they were. If the pilot does not have a pistol and there is no standard policy then the situation becomes very sticky. The pilot has to force the girl into the airlock (er, we have an airlock in this minimum configuration vehicle - my goodness) either by force or by coercive persuasion. Without a policy and orders the onus of moral responsibility for killing her falls on the pilot. They provide a necessary distancing for the pilot - he can kill, not as an individual making a personal and hard decision, but as an agent of the cold equations.

There is another dramatic issue. If precautions are taken and the girl gets on board by cleverly evading them then the onus shifts from the cold equations to the girl. The dramatic force comes from the fact that she is innocent in an ordinary sense; society has failed her by not teaching her about the cold equations but rather teaching her that crime and punishment are strictly a human cultural affair.


The Two Sides of Responsibility

Many people have difficulty with the concept that an event may have more than one cause and that more than one person may be responsible for a result. The history of the working conditions in factories provides an illuminating example.

Early in this century factories were gruesomely unsafe places to work. People worked for low wages in unsafe conditions. Hours were long and the pressures to produce were high. There were a lot of accidents. People lost hands and worse. If one suffered a severe accident, that was your problem. You were careless and you paid the price.

The factory owners were not heartless (at least not all of them.) They didn't want their workers to lose limbs. They did something about the problem. They put up posters telling workers to be careful. They had supervisors give lectures on safety. These safety campaigns were cheap and almost totally ineffective.

It was foreseeable that they would be ineffective. They did nothing of substance towards solving the problem. They did not alter the working conditions, either the dangerous equipment or the long working hours.

Things changed for two reasons. Laws were passed to make safe equipment obligatory; workmen's compensation laws were passed. When the factory owner had to pay for accidents ways were quickly found to reduce the rate of industrial accidents.

The industrialists of the times took the position that accidents were the fault of the individual worker and that he should therefore bear the responsibility. In one sense they were right. In each individual accident you could go back and point out where the person involved had been careless. And yet their position was false. The responsibility was shared. The individual workers were careless; the industrialist created the unsafe conditions.

The factory owners were not wicked; from their viewpoint it was the fault of the workers that they had accidents. But they was morally obtuse because they did not recognize, did not admit their share of the responsibility. They could be morally obtuse, almost had to be because factories were run by companies with stockholders. Organizations have no intrinsic morality; people can do dreadful things in the name of a company, a state, a church, or an organization that they could not justify if they were doing it in their own name.

The attitude of the administrators and the pilot as portrayed in this story are similar to the attitudes of theose early industrialists. They are responsible for administering a dangerous situation. Yet they feel no obligation, accept no responsibility beyond putting up a sign and issuing a blaster with orders to kill. The pilot is prepared to do something dreadful, to kill somebody, because his employers demand it of him. His employers demand it of him because they don't care, presumably because it doesn't occur to them to do something constructive.

There are two sides to responsibility. Many of the defenders of the story in the usenet discussion pointed out that there are limits to how far we go, how far we can go, in protecting people from the consequences of their actions. Lorenzo Love put it eloquently as follows:

... How many people are killed at railroad crossing? We fail to provide any effective means of preventing people from driving in front of an oncoming train. Some crossing have an arm that drops down but as many people simply drive around these arms they are ineffective. Posting a guard at every railroad crossing would save many lives but we fail to do so. Instead we put up a simple sign. Does this make us a society which puts a low value on human life? Are we callous? Is it too much bother to avoid killing when the problem can easily be solved? No, no and no. We expect people to have the common sense to obey warning signs. Those who are too stupid or too unthinking to obey the signs sometimes die. Can we expect it to be any different in the future?

Mr. Love is quite right in pointing out that there are limits to what society can be reasonably expected to do to protect people from their own folly. It is not callous on the part of society to fail to take every conceivable action to protect people; it is not even possible. On the other hand it would be callous if we do not ask "have we done all that we can reasonably be expected to do?"

It is worse than callous to presume that people will never be stupid and unthinking from time to time - it is bad engineering and bad management. It is a simple fact of life that people are stupid and unthinking from time to time. One has to expect that they will be and plan accordingly. When I was in the Marine Corps we had a saying for this - "There is always 10% that doesn't get the word." Good officers and good sargeants make sure that that 10% does get the word; they don't take it for granted.

All of these instances, however, of dangers which are not maximally guarded against (and which people stumble into from time to time) are not quite to the point. If we do not post guards at railroad crossings to prevent people from crossing when they should, neither do we post sharpshooters there with orders to shoot to kill anyone who happens to cross when they shouldn't.


It's not about stupidity

One of the common misreadings of the story is to read as saying that the girl dies because she is stupid. This is clearly wrong. She is portrayed as being a person of normal intelligence. Nor does she do anything that would be obviously stupid and dangerous, given the knowledge of the world that she is specified as having. Stowing away was, of course, fatal but she did not know that and was not expected to know that. She was naively ignorant in a situation where naive ignorance was fatal. Naive ignorance is not stupidity.

It is clear from the commentary (see appendix III) that many people want to cast this as a morality play of sorts with the moral being that stupid people deserve what they get. If they die that's their fault and they don't deserve any sympathy (or proceeds from large lawsuits.) Whatever the merits of this view might be it rather makes a hash of the story.

The point of the situation and the force of the tragedy lies in the fact that she behaved quite naturally for someone like her - a young, rather innocent person unaware of the dangers that surrounded her, a person who, in the nature of things, could not be expected to realize her peril.


The role of the frontier

The myth of the frontier, a familiar element in our culture, is an unremarked background in the story. According to the myth the world is divided into two great arenas, the civilized world and the frontier. In the civilized world the resources of society are great; on the frontier they are sparse. The frontier is a dangerous place; its inhabitants must be acutely aware of its dangers and must be self reliant. The inhabitants must live by harsh laws of necessity; their actions cannot be judged by the criteria used in the civilized world. They must be competent; incompetence, though not a crime, is ruthlessly punished.

The frontier is a place of risk. In the civilized world there are police, courts, and lawyers. The civilized world has resources; it can afford these things. On the frontier these niceties go missing; in consequence the frontier is a haven for "warped men, mean and selfish men, brutal and dangerous men". On the frontier such men have scope for their evil. Justice must be rough and ready and needs must be bound by the same harsh laws of necessity imposed by the environment itself.

So goes the myth. Like all good myths there is much truth in it and much that is comforting illusion.


A defense to the indictment

It is doubtful that either Godwin or Campbell (although one never knew with Campbell) thought about the issues spelled out in the indictment. This does not matter; it is a commonplace of criticism that a work, once it has been written and published, stands on its own. It can contain ideas and raise issues that did not occur to the author. Such is the case here.

The indictment argues that the authorities in the story were implicitly guilty of a basic moral obtuseness. One has to ask, though, whether this is a fault in the story and one can argue that it is not, that it is a strength rather than a weakness. No person and no institution is perfect. It part of that cliche, the human condition, that people act in ways and make decisions that do not stand up under close examination. People can be well intentioned and still make serious mistakes.

The scenario depicted in the story (arguably) illustrates the way bureaucracies make bad decisions. Why a blaster? Presumably because at some point an EDS was lost because of a stowaway. Somebody said that pilots should be equipped to handle the situation if it came up again. Why not strict procedures to ensure that there were no stowaways? It didn't occur to anyone; the problem was already solved by issuing the pilot a blaster. To be sure the decision process required a certain amount of indifference to human life but that, too, is common enough in bureaucracies. The key is that is that, in bureaurcracies, policies are decided at a distant remove from their implementation. In turn those who enforce those policies are insulated from moral responsibility for their actions because they are following standard procedures.

The defense, then, is that this is (among other things) a case study in how good people with good intentions can make bad things happen. I doubt that it is a defense that proponents of the story will be happy with.


Conclusion

Science fiction has been touted as a literature of ideas. So it is, at least in part. At the time The Cold Equation was written the field was strongly constrained by the circumstances of genre pulp fiction. Authors had to write a great deal quickly in order to make a living. The audience demanded simple, strong stories. Such circumstances do not make for psychological and intellectual depth. Of necessity ideas (of which there were a plenitude) were usually given schematic, suggestive treatment rather than being explored in depth. So it was with The Cold Equations.

The shortcuts, the appeals to unarticulated conventions, are omnipresent. The hyperspace cruiser is recognizable as a late nineteenth steamship doing the equivalent of traveling from England to India, complete with native servants. The conventions of a thousand Westerns are imported wholesale with new labels slapped on. The scenario, pilots armed with pistols to kill stowaways, is preposterous, explicable only if one assumes that the Powers That Be are morally obtuse and none too bright - an assumption, admittedly, that is all too plausible.

Why, then, is the story so popular and so enduring? Why are its faults ignored, nay, vehemently denied? An obvious reason is that it confirms attitudes and beliefs. That is no bad thing. One of the functions of myth is to create stories and settings in which beliefs are true. One of the things that the story propounds is that it is necessary and inevitable that people kill their fellow human beings. This is a myth we need, for one of the things that human beings do from time to time is kill their fellow human beings.

Therein, I think lies the strength of the story. The girl is the obvious tragic hero of the story but the real tragic hero is the pilot who must kill someone he would very much rather not kill. The tragedy is that he doesn't see anything wrong with his assumptions (and those of those he served) until the flaw is exposed and he truly has no choice. More tragically, in the story there are no "I only I had" reflections; he knows that something has gone very wrong but he doesn't understand why.


Appendix I: Detailed Analysis of the Implicit Social Attitudes

It would be tedious (and a violation of copyright) to type in the whole story. However most of the critical points of the discussion at hand are covered in the following quoted text. All page numbers are from ASF, August 1954.

Selected quotations

(1) p63 It was the law, stated very bluntly and definitely in grim Paragraph L, Section 8, of Interstellar Regulations: Any stowaway discovered in an EDS shall be jettisoned immediately following discovery.

(2) p63 The [huge hyperspace] cruisers carried the colonists to their new worlds and made periodic visits, running on tight schedules, but they could not stop and turn aside to visit colonies scheduled to be visited at another time; such a delay would destroy their schedule and produce a confusion and uncertainty that would wreck the complex interdependence between old Earth and the new worlds of the frontier.

(3) p64 He let his eyes rest on the narrow white door of the closet. There, just inside, another man lived and breathed and was beginning to feel assured that discovery of his presence would now be too late for the pilot to alter the situation. It was too late - for the man behind the door it was far later than he thought and in a way he would find terrible to believe.

(4) p65 It was a girl. ... The stowaway was not a man - she was a girl in her teens ... Now what? Had been it asked in the deep, defiant voice of a man he would have answered it with action, quick and efficient. He would have taken the stowaway's identification disk and ordered him in the air lock. Had the stowaway refused to obey, he would have used the blaster. It would not have taken long; within a minute the body would have been ejected into space - had the stowaway been a man.

(5) p66 "What was your destination on the Stardust?"

"Mimir. I have a position waiting for me there... I graduated sooner than expected and I was offered this job on Mimir...."

(6) p66 I knew I would be breaking some of a regulation - In a way she could not be blamed for her ignorance of the law; she was of Earth and had not realized that the laws of the space frontier must, of necessity, be as hard and relentless as the environment that gave them birth. Yet, to protect such as her from the results of their own ignorance of the frontier, there had been a sign over the door that led to the section of the Stardust that housed the EDS's; a sign that was plain for all to see and heed:

UNAUTHORIZED PERSONNEL. KEEP OUT!

(7) p67 "How did you manage to stow away?"

"I just sort of walked in when no one was looking my way," she said. "I was practicing my Gelanese on the native girl who does the cleaning in the Ship's Supply office when someone came in with an order for supplies for the survey crew on Woden. I slipped into the closet there after the ship was ready to go and just before you came in. It was the impulse of the moment to stow away..."

(8) p67 Why couldn't she have been a man with some ulterior motive? A fugitive from justice, hoping to lose himself on a new world; an opportunist seeking transportation to the new colonies where he might find golden fleece for the taking; a crackpot, with a mission --

Perhaps once in his lifetime an EDS pilot would find such a stowaway on his ship; warped men, mean and selfish men, brutal and dangerous men - but never, before, a smiling blue-eyed girl...

(9) p75 "I was going to Mimir," she said. "I didn't know about the frontier; I was only going to Mimir and it's safe."

"Mimir is safe but you left the cruiser that was taking you there."

Immediate Inferences

Let us consider some inferences that can be drawn from the quoted material. I shall suppose familiarity with the rest of the story.

[1] Stowaways in EDS ships are a regular albeit infrequent occurrence (1,8). There is a standard procedure for handling stowaways (4). The pilot extracts the stowaway's identification, forces the stowaway into the airlock, and jettisons the stowaway, using as much force as needed. The next of kin, if any, are notified.

In short the pilot has the authority and duty to kill stowaways.

[2] The cruisers are huge; they carry a wide variety of personnel. They carry colonists (2), 18 year old girls going from one safe world to another (5,9), native cleaning women (7), potential criminals and crackpots (8), and a wide variety of ships personnel.

[3] Passengers are not informed of the jettisoning law. The provision made for keeping out uninformed stowaways is the "keep out" sign (6). It is expected that stowaways are not aware of paragraph L, section 8. The pilot does not expect the stowaway to be aware (3) of the jettisoning rule.

It has been argued that a sign ought to have been sufficient or that the culture might have been one in which a simple sign was sufficient. This is clearly wrong; if the sign were sufficient there would be no stowaways.

It has been argued that people aboard a cruiser ought to know better. This is also clearly wrong. The cruiser carries passengers who do not know better, who cannot reasonably be expected to know better.

[4] The EDS area is not effectively secured. There is a single point of entry: the door that led to the section (6). The girl simply walks on when no one is looking (7).

It has been argued that posting a guard while the EDS was being prepared for launch would be inordinately expensive. This argument is inconsistent with the information given about the cruiser - it is huge and carries a wide variety of supernumerary personnel. Putting a lock on the door would be cheap. Posting a guard for the period of the launch preparation would be relatively cheap.

[5] A check of the supply closet is not part of the pilot's preflight checklist. All that would be required is for the pilot to walk over, open the door and look inside. This is, from the story, a task of a few seconds.

It has been suggested that this step might have been skipped because the launch was an unforeseen emergency. It was not. The need for launching an EDS is known well in advance (7). There is a well known term for pilots who short cut their preflight checklist. They are called dead.

It is the combination not informing passengers of the policy [3], the lack of effective security [4], and the lack of an adequate checklist [5] that makes it possible for the girl to stowaway on an impulse (7).

Implied Attitudes

Points [1-5] are quite straightforward and, I would suppose, quite obvious. However they have some immediate implications.

(a) Stowaways are presumed to be people whom it is all right to kill. The pilot categorizes them as "warped men, mean and selfish men, brutal and dangerous men" (8). The pilot's conflict arises because this stowaway obviously does not fit in his list of people whom it is all right to kill (4).

(b) The depicted society has a mixed attitude towards the value of human life. On one hand considerable effort and expense are expended on saving the lives of half a dozen men on Woden. On the other hand there is an almost complete indifference to the value of life of potential stowaways. The possibility of someone stowing away exists; a stowaway must be killed; and yet they do not bother with the most elementary precautions.

The implication is that the authorities and the pilot divide people into the worthy and the unworthy. Serious efforts are taken on behalf of worth while people; their lives matter. No effort need be taken on behalf on the unworthy; their lives do not matter. The authorities and the pilot assume that anyone who stows away will be one of the unworthy; ergo it all right to kill them. The tragedy (for the pilot) is that someone worthy stows away unexpectedly and he has to kill her anyway.

This, then, is a society which puts a low value on human life. It is not without humanitarian concern but its actions, regardless of proclaimed intent or self belief, are callous. To avoid killing is too much bother when a problem can be solved with a blaster.


Appendix II: It is rocket science

At first sight the "rocket science" of the story seems screwed up but it actually (almost) works. In the story the EDS is scheduled to decelerate at 1g for most of the duration of the trip (a matter of quite some hours) with a final deceleration at 5g. When the girl is discovered one hour after launch the deceleration is reduced to .1g for 80 minutes to allow her to say her goodbyes.

The story explicitly specifies .1g deceleration (p71) for 80 minutes (17:50-19:10,p72), that she is discovered one hour after launch (p63), and that the final deceleration will be at 5g (p73). The initial deceleration is not explicitly specified and may not be 1g although the wording suggests this.

This doesn't make sense in terms of a entry maneuver, a fact which was a source of confusion in the usenet discussion. However John Schilling pointed out that, if one takes the story at face value, the scenario is that the EDS is injected into the target system at high velocity with respect to the system. The rationale is that the cruiser can emerge from hyperspace at any chosen point but cannot alter its relative velocity without expending fuel (conservation of momentum.) The deceleration is required to bring the EDS to rest with respect to the target system. The fuel requirements for entry and landing are relatively minor.

Given the conditions postulated by Schilling the depicted situation makes sense; the rate of deceleration is limited in beginning by the maximum thrust of the rockets. Reducing the deceleration to .1g for 80 minutes uses up some of the safety margin. The margin of safety (surplus fuel) is not enough to include the girl in the final payload. Schilling posted a model calculation to illustrate this. His model, however, did not quite match the trip parameters given in the story. Schilling used an injection velocity of 76 km/sec; modifying the model to bring it closer to the numbers given in the story requires an injection velocity of ~200 km/sec. The mass ratios, fuel efficiencies, and engines thrusts required are in the realm of science fiction but, then, the story is science fiction.


Apeendix III: Selected Quotations from the Usenet Discussion

The original posting triggered an extended discussion, conducted in the calm, even-handed, dispassionate style for which usenet is famed for. The entirety of the discussion is well beyond the scope of this article, indeed beyond sanity. However I quote a number of responses as being representative:

Brian Pickrell

"Dick, the basic point of the story was that there was no way to save the stowaway from the consequences of her mistake. Your basic point is that the authorities should have saved her. That's a nice thought, but you're contradicting the author's premise--hardly reason to start talking about systemic blindness and moral obtuseness....

The subtext of the story is that the female stowaway died because of her own stupidity--she stepped out expecting somebody to come take care of her, nobody did. This, of course, goes against modern doctrine which states that if you do something stupid and get killed, someone else is responsible and you are entitled to sue them. Please remember that this point of view was not so prevalent 40 years ago. In fact, once upon a time, you took your life in your hands any time you set out on a journey. No passenger on a sailing ship ever received a guarantee that he would reach his destination alive. In the story, the same situation holds for space travel.

By not recognizing that this story is not set in 1990s America and does not follow the same standards, I think you are guilty of a fundamental moral obtuseness. "

Londo Mollari

"Saying that there were things that might have been done before hand to prevent a tragedy is one thing (and that is true of virtually any tragedy), but to that Tom Godwin was in any way, shape, or form suggesting that people should be murdered the moment they are an inconvenience as Mr. Harter is suggesting is totally a different matter. Harter's suggestion misses the entire point of the story."

"... The point is that in space things are very unforgiving. If you screw up (or your pilot or his CO) you could very well not get a second chance and the penalty is very high. People will do stupid things, and they will pay the price for it."

John Schilling
Exactly. And, having so educated them, it cannot afford to devote extensive resources to *further* coddling the passengers. Having told them, in the pre-flight training program, that it is Really Dangerous to go places they aren't authorized to go or to push buttons they aren't supposed to push, they can not and do not station guards at every Dangerous Place, devote crew members' time to teaching every passenger the specific nature of every danger, etc.

John Moreno

And you are doing just the opposite and trying to blame management for the actions and decision of the criminals. If a murderer or rapist manages to get himself killed by doing something stupid I for one am not going to go to excessive lengths in a attempt (probably doomed to failure) to save their lives.

Lorenzo L. Love

... How many people are killed at railroad crossing? We fail to provide any effective means of preventing people from driving in front of an oncoming train. Some crossing have an arm that drops down but as many people simply drive around these arms they are ineffective. Posting a guard at every railroad crossing would save many lives but we fail to do so. Instead we put up a simple sign. Does this make us a society which puts a low value on human life? Are we callous? Is it too much bother to avoid killing when the problem can easily be solved? No, no and no. We expect people to have the common sense to obey warning signs. Those who are too stupid or too unthinking to obey the signs sometimes die. Can we expect it to be any different in the future?

Rick Cook

"You know to me the interesting thing about this story has always been the strongly emotional reaction it produces in people. The story's point, of course, (which is very Campbellian and may have been Campbell's idea) is that there are certain situations which are just plain irretrievable. Screw up badly enough and you're going to die, no matter how appealing, attractive or well-meaning you are.

I suspect this is behind much of the technical criticism of the story. Just as it was behind the visceral reaction the story produced at the time. The readers naturally expected the author to pull a technical rabbit out of the hat and save the girl. That he did not gives the story its impact. If he had, it would be one more page filler from "Astounding" and no one would care in the slightest about the technical flaws."

"My own take on it is that science aside, that story is very carefully constructed, right down to the cardboard nature of the characters. Up until the end, the story is standard 1950s pulp, the sort of thing that Astounding and other magazines ran every issue. The difference is that in all the other hundreds of stories like that, the hero figures out a way to save the girl, usually by some clever application of a 'scientific' principle. That made the ending especially disturbing -- as we can see from the discussion that's going on here."

Earl Colby Pottinger

"Face it,those that don't like the story hate the fact that the message of the story is so IN THIER FACE. There is no soft, feel good ending. So they attack the story's conditions like a lack of guards. Gee, on last cruise ship I saw no guards either. The girl makes a stupid mistake and dies. Sorry guys, it happens all the time, just read your local newspaper."

"The story has *ONLY* one main point stupid people die in space!"


Appendix IV: Other stories

The theme of the stowaway and the failure of resources in space appears in other stories. In Arthur C. Clarke's story Breaking Strain (1949) the life support system's capacity is exceeded. Much the same happens in Herge's Tintin on the Moon.


Appendix V: Character names

Commander Delhart was the officer the pilot reported to when he wanted to do something about the stowaway. He probably was the commander of the star cruiser although it is not definitely so stated. In the same passage the pilot gives his name as Barton. The girl's brother's name is Gerry Cross and her name is Marilyn Lee Cross.


This page was last updated October 18, 2008.

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