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Headscratchers / The Cold Equations

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  • The story has a lot of Fridge Logic problems
    • Doesn't the EDS have a locked door?
      • It's plausible that the EDS itself (if properly designed) wouldn't spare any mass for a door lock, but not at all plausible that there's no real attempt to keep unauthorized personnel off the flight deck — there's no reason not to install a locked door there.
    • Why don't they post a sign that describes the policy toward stowaways and the reasons behind it?
      • Everybody except the stowaway herself understands the implications of the situation without having it spelled out, which suggests that the problem is supposed to be common knowledge. That raises another question: why does anybody try stowing away on an EDS? Presumably the "brutal and dangerous men" who would try such a thing plan to solve the excess-mass problem by tossing the pilot out the airlock — but if they expect to fly and land the thing themselves why not just steal an empty one (especially given the nonexistent security they seem to have) rather than wait for one to fly out on a mission?
      • "Why not just steal an empty one?" Because the cruiser has to briefly drop out of hyperspace to launch an EDS. You'd have to wait for them to do that, and given the brief window of opportunity, stowing away is probably the only way to ensure you can catch a ride.
      • "Everybody except the stowaway herself understands the implications of the situation without having it spelled out" That's exactly the one person the sign would be directed towards! Or, in general, people stowing away. That all said, with the logic this story runs on, you can easily argue that the sign would be extra weight.
      • The sign would be on the flight deck door, not the EDS itself. In fact there was a warning sign on the way in — a generic warning against unauthorized entry that for some reason didn't actually explain that stowing away would get you killed.
      • Or, for that matter, something to the effect of, "Secure area: Unauthorized personnel will be shot on sight."
    • Why isn't the EDS inspected before it gets sent on a critical mission with no margin for error?
    • Why is the security around the EDS so lousy that a random college girl can sneak onto it when it is sent on life-or-death missions with no back-up? The whole scenario could have been made impossible by making it standard procedure for the pilot to take five seconds to check the closet before each mission. They bothered to give the pilot a pistol just so he can shoot stowaways, but they don't bother to do that?
      • In mitigation, it is repeatedly stated that such an event would be a probably less-than-once in the career of a pilot type incident, but in the event that it happened the pilot was trained to expect a complete lunatic. And he may have carried a sidearm simply because he was a military officer. Also, idiot teenagers die on railway lines all the time.
      • Mitigation? As noted below, if the pilot expects any stowaway who might have slipped on board to be "a complete lunatic", he really ought to check while he's still on the main ship and can get help dealing with said complete lunatic.
      • Anyway, are you saying he doesn't have the twenty seconds it would take to look around this tiny craft and see if there's any unexpected human-sized bundles sitting around? A pilot always checks his vehicle just for the sake of safety, regardless of whether or not there's a possibility of stowaways. He's about to trust his life to this thing!
      • In real life, there are many examples of people not checking even when they were supposed to. Doctors perform surgery on the wrong people, or leave equipment inside people, or even don't bother to wash their hands. The Challenger launch still happened, despite everyone knowing ahead of time that it had a serious design flaw, but it was okayed because it had never caused such a disaster before. Not to mention, NASA still loses million-dollar spacecraft and probes all the time over minor miscalculations. It sounds completely implausible in a story, but Reality Is Unrealistic.
      • The pistol may have had the unspoken purpose of letting the pilot shoot himself if he missed his deceleration-point and was stranded in space forever.
      • That doesn't make sense if every gram of mass counts — a cyanide pill is a lot smaller than a pistol.
    • Why does the EDS have such a tiny safety margin anyway? They can build "huge hyperspace cruisers", so why can't they make the EDS a little bigger and give it a decent safety margin? The things sound like total death traps, especially as they're used for missions where there is no possible help if anything goes wrong.
      • In the words of Eric Flint:
        The powerful impact of the story—and it is powerful, no question about it—is based entirely on a premise which I find completely implausible: to wit, that a spacecraft delivering critical supplies would be designed with no safety margin at all. Oh, pfui. They don't make tricycles without a hefty safety margin. And I'm quite sure that if you traveled back in time and interviewed Ugh the Neanderthal, he'd explain to you that his wooden club is plenty thick enough to survive any impact he can foresee. He made damn sure of that before he ventured out of his cave. He may have a sloping forehead, but he's not an idiot.
      • Spacecraft, all spacecraft, operate on a zero safety margin, because the energy cost of dragging additional fuel around with you is so mind-bogglingly huge that it is cheaper to lose a multi-billion dollar deep space mission than it is to add redundant systems.
      • Really? Zero safety margin? The Space Shuttle had five identical avionics computers, survivable abort modes for loss of up to 2 of the 3 main engines (and all 3 main engines after the first 90 seconds), and has successfully reached orbit (though a lower one than planned) even when losing an entire main engine (STS-51-F).
      • That's a limit of current technology, not a fundamental law of the universe. The incongruity comes in when this situation is juxtaposed with a universe of "huge hyperspace cruisers" luxurious enough to carry janitorial staff (the girl found out about the EDS launch because she was "practicing my Gelanese on the native girl who does the cleaning in the Ship's Supply office" when the order arrived at said office).
      • It isn't even a limit of current technology - spacecraft today have plenty of margin for error. The Apollo 13 mission is specifically a case of a spacecraft that proved capable of supporting an extra person over its design specifications.
      • It is explicitly stated within the story that the EDS consists of a life bubble and a drive system. There is no convenient "extra mass" to be jettisoned because the ship is stripped to the bare bones in the first place.
      • It is going to decelerate at 5 gees for an extended period of time in order to hit the atmosphere slowly enough that it won't BURN UP on entry. The pilot is making a mercy dash to a research outpost where he will be stranded for at least a year until a mothership can retrieve him. No 'emergency rations', no spare change of clothes, the crash couch is NOT an optional extra at 5 gee, and the door to the closet plus his sidearm (the only other named ship components) cannot possibly mass to greater than two kilograms.
      • He's going to be sitting somewhere with only one set of clothes for a year? The ship that finally picks him up had better have a good air-filtration system....
      • Finally, imagine the converse situation, a space LAUNCH where an extra 50 kilograms causes the ship to fail to reach it's correct orbit. Would everyone be crying foul then?
      • Yes, because it would mean somebody was idiotic enough to design and build an orbital launch vehicle that could be destroyed by accidentally being given two coats of paint at the factory instead of one. When you're talking about something that will cost you millions of dollars and kill people if it breaks, sane people design it so that it doesn't break that easily.
    • Why didn't the EDS have an automatic system that instantly notified the pilot when it detected that it was over-heavy?
    • For that matter, why did this ultra-minimalistic ship have a pilot anyway? It doesn't have a complex mission, so why don't they just make it a computer-controlled drone? I bet a computerized system built with centuries more advanced than present technology would weigh a lot less than pilot + life support + cockpit.
    • And it's odd how the characters never even seem to consider trying things like finding mass on the EDS that can be disposed of or if necessary lightening the girl by removing her limbs. It's not really implausible that this wouldn't have worked but you'd think the girl would have suggested things like that anyway even if the pilot knew better and since the whole point of the story seems to be about how sometimes there really is no third option. It would have helped to see alternatives actually get shot down instead of the reader being left with the impression that possibly the girl could have been saved if the characters used their brains a little bit.
      • Removing her limbs? Are you serious? What, you think he has a full hospital staff and equipment on board? Yes, there are people who have survived removing their own arm with a pocket knife, but they are exceptional. There was one case of a young man who survived having both arms ripped off by a farm machine and managed to call for help on the phone. But the odds of surviving that are beyond calculation. Exactly how are they going to remove her limbs? Hospitals use circular saws, you think there is one on board? Just removing one arm without proper medical care is enough to kill many people.
      • Yes, it's insanely risky and she is likely- maybe even probably- going to die. However, it at least allows her to *roll the dice* and hope that shock, blood loss, and what have you do not kill her first. I don't know about you, but I'd rather take an option that offers long odds for my survival as opposed to certain death. That's hugely similar to the aesop the story was aiming for.
      • A ship, with a very serious mission, through the vacuum of space, doesn't have at least one doctor on board? I mean, at least then the option could be shot down instead of outright ignored. And if there is a bio-engineer anywhere near where they should land (or even just a normal engineer), we could expect her cut limbs to be replaced at the end.
      • The ship doesn't have a doctor because it only has one crewmember and is being sent on a mission that only lasts a matter of hours. They really weren't expecting him to need surgery during that time. Also, reattaching the limbs is going to be difficult after they get jettisoned out of the airlock.
      • Part of the problem is that the ship isn't properly portrayed as "ultra-minimalistic". At the tragic climax of the story where the pilot ejects the stowaway:
      He shoved the red lever back to close the door on the empty air lock and turned away, to walk to the pilot's chair with the slow steps of a man old and weary.
      Emphasis added, to highlight the point that a real "ultra-minimalist" emergency ship would be like the astronauts' description of a Project Mercury capsule: "You don't ride in it, you wear it."
      • Why does an "ultraminimalist" craft have an AIRLOCK or INTERNAL LIFE SUPPORT, for pete's sake? An airlock is only necessary if you're going outside the ship while in space (or dumping a body). If this is as stripped down as they claim, it should have a single layer door like a Gemini capsule — you have to depressurize the whole ship to open it in space. But that brings up the second point; why have internal life support? Design the ship to operate in hard vacuum and give the pilot a space suit that he remains inside for the duration. You can put a vacuum-proof container around anything that wouldn't do well if left exposed (like, say, jars of vaccine).
      • Better question: How much does that pilot chair weigh, and how much difficulty would there be in removing it, and tossing IT out the airlock? Yes, re-entry would be difficult without that chair, but not impossible.
      • Difficult in the sense of 'fatal for the pilot' as that chair seems to be the deceleration couch, and that alone might be a good reason to toss her out the airlock: would you rather die from depressurization, which is more or less fast, or being turned into chunky salsa by several gravities worth of force which may not be fast enough at being fatal?
      • Here's a possible solution: if the ship is as spacious as it seems, about 6x2x8 metres including cargo compartment, cycle the airlock repeatedly. Air has mass, and humans can survive perfectly well at a pressure of half an atmosphere.
  • The story seems to be aiming for an Aesop about how sometimes there are nothing but bad choices or you can't always save people from the consequences of their own actions, but that's sort of undermined by the fact that the scenario in the story could only happen because the whole EDS system was basically set up to allow it to happen.
    • Yeah, and that's a major flaw in "The Cold Equations": it's an Anvilicious morality play, and the dilemma's so obviously set up by the author that it falls apart the moment the reader starts asking questions like why they couldn't just lock the frickin' door. The story's sole purpose is to hit the reader with a gut-punch of an Aesop: once that impact wears off, the house of cards falls down.
  • Quite apart from the lack of security and the unwillingness to think of alternatives, one apparent oversight on the part of the author is how on earth is an EDS pilot supposed to get back home?
    • He's not... he is stuck there until he can be retrieved in a year's time. It's a potentially one-way mercy dash. Life's cheap out here on the rim.
    • Considering the EDS is a supply ship, it's not unreasonable to assume it carries its pilot's rations. Of course, it's not unreasonable to check for stowaways before you launch either.
      • Reason has no place in this story.
      • Rations for a year, or however long it takes another ship to swing by and recover him? He'd better hope his destination has a fatter "safety margin" than his ship, or they might have to draw straws....
      • You people seem to forget, he's landing at a colony. They will feed and clothe him for a year until a ship can swing by to pick him up. The colony has no trouble doing so, their only problem is the disease he is bringing the cure to. Plus there are likely a few people dead from it already, so he can take their place.
      • It's a survey expedition, not a colony. We're told that there are only 16 people on Woden, divided into 2 groups of 6 and 10 respectively, seperated by 8000 miles. With groups that small, a single extra person could be a strain on their resources.
  • The key wallbanger to this story is something engineers call MARGIN OF ERROR. The author obviously had no perspective whatsoever on how a decent engineer thinks. No engineer with a full deck of cards is going to design a spacegoing vessel—- several tons of machine, fuel, and life support (air, water, food)— with a margin of error for fuel smaller than a couple hundred pounds. And if fuel was literally THAT tight, why didn't they make it a glider wing like the Space Shuttle, or at least install a parachute?
    The story would have worked better, honestly, as an investigation of the Utter Cheap Bastards in the company hierarchy who were so cheap and shortsighted that they wouldn't even fork over the cost of emergency backups, reliable security, or at least enough fuel to insure a safe landing,or even the cost of a stupid lock on the door. The story should have been called "the Bottom Line."
    • The problem with your proposed solution is that, as the title change implies, it changes the theme of the story. "The Cold Equations" is about how the universe is rigid and uncaring, not about how greedy people cause tragedies. The engineering mistakes are definitely ridiculous, though.
      • That isn't a problem with the solution. That is a further problem with the original story. If the premise can't survive even basic analysis, than its a bad premise.
    • Greedy and appallingly naive at the same time. If anyone had wanted to sabotage the UBS's mission, they could've just strolled on in, stuck a bomb in the cubbyhole the girl had hidden in, and walked out again. Or, if no bomb were available, even a simple load of luggage or junk that weighed the same as the girl could've skewed those equations enough to scrub the mission, with no radiant heat to betray its presence until too late. Heck, merely forgetting to empty the closet of whatever supplies it'd held before launch would do that.
      • This was written in an era when that level of security basically didn't exist outside of military installations. Most people paid cash for airline tickets, for example, and loved ones frequently said their goodbyes on the tarmac.
      • For that matter, why does this ship even have a "closet" big enough to hide in? The most efficient allocation of mass (i.e. the only one that would be considered, given the "no margin for error" premise) would be to have a cargo compartment (with, at most, some hardpoints on the walls to attach stuff to — certainly no installed shelving, doors, or other clutter to provide a hidey-hole) and a cockpit just barely big enough for the pilot.
      • It would actually have made more sense if she was just hiding in a corner of the hold; maybe it was originally meant to ferry slightly larger cargo, so there was just enough space for her to squeeze into. Having a closet is... odd.
      • Even hiding in a cargo hold doesn't make much sense. If you're building a minimalist ship design, you'd want to avoid having to keep unnecessary areas pressurized and heated. Anyone hiding there would still die, but the process would be a bit more immediate.
      • In fairness, I said it would make more sense than a closet that wouldn't exist, not that it made any real sense. Besides, the term "minimalist" clearly means something different from the ship we're given, which - as pointed out further up - would have been far more compact than what's described. Who knows? Maybe this "minimalist" ship has an inexplicably heated/pressurized hold to match its unnecessary closet. Though if she did hide in the hold, and it was unheated/unpressurized, the entire issue would be neatly bypassed, since all you'd have to do is jettison the corpse.
    • In fact if they're willing to cut things as close as they appeared to the mission could have been endangered by him sitting too long on one side and altering the course by a tiny fraction of a degree during the trip, killing him and (since there is no one to jettison) leaving the entire population of the planet to die. Would have gotten the point across even better than the story he wrote.
  • I always wondered why they didn't have something on the ship that would light up red and go beep when the maximum was reached while they were loading it. Or prevent the ship from being deployed if it was over max. And if weight was such an important consideration, why didn't they have small, slightly built people piloting the thing instead of big bruiser spacefaring dudes as per usual?
  • Here's one for you: If so little additional weight requires enough expenditure of fuel to throw off the landing, shouldn't the ship already be doomed because it expended more fuel launching?
    • Perhaps there was just enough error margin to account for that, and it was all used up. Still, that puts the margin of error on safe operations from 'non-existent' to 'uselessly small'.
    • Or maybe the initial launch is done using a launcher on the mothership rather than the ship's rocket. Of course this doesn't address the issue of why that system didn't do a weight check since weight would be pretty critical for that as well.
  • Why isn't there a copilot? All 20th and 21st century aircraft, barring privately owned airplanes designed to hold only one or two people and some luggage, require a copilot, just in case the pilot has some sort of a medical issue and is rendered unable to fly. If there had been a copilot, then instead of having to toss the girl out the airlock, there could have been a Heroic Sacrifice instead. The overall message would not have been lost (in space, there is absolutely no margin for error, or someone will die), and the end of the story would not have been quite so depressing.
    • Plenty of single-seater planes exist. The F-35, for example, is probably the most modern plane in the world, and every one is a single-seater.
  • The YMMV page cites a quote by Barry Malzberg calling it "proto-feminist," "anti-feminist" or even "misogynist." Where and how do gender politics come into play, and what evidence do people have for their interpretations, especially of misogyny?
    • The girl's gender is heavily emphasized to convey her innocence. While her age, occupation, status as a civilian and countless other factors could convey this innocence just as well, the author(or at least the pilot) bring a lot of attention to her gender that makes some readers uncomfortable. The implication strays out of "She's young and has no idea how things work out here" and disquietingly into "If she were a man, I'd have shot her by now."
  • One thing that occurs to me, is that for a story about the universe being uncaring for mistakes or negligence, the company and the pilot are rather negligent in protecting themselves from dangerous stowaways. It Pre-flight checks and security are so light that an untrained girl can slip on-board and find a hiding spot, it seems that a dangerous (and armed!) criminal could have done the same. He then could have easily gunned down the pilot before he realized there was someone else on board, and made off with the ship supplies to be fleeced at a black market. Result? The inadequate security that forced the innocent girl to be spaced, could have just as easily resulted in the deaths of the pilot and the entire colony.
    • Said criminal could have tried. They wouldn't have gotten far, literally. As the story makes clear, the vessel only had enough fuel to land.
  • Why does no one consider that there are two people on board? They don't even have to through with it, but it's mind-boggling that no one even notices that the pilot could die instead.
    • ... It's explicitly stated in the story that only the pilot could land the spacecraft safely. The girl would crash and die, and then the colony dies as well.
      • It's not a colony, it's a research station. Of 16 people.
  • The editor, Campbell, seems to have literally gone out of his way to make spacing the girl the only option. Disregarding all the stuff about him possibly having it in for the writer, why didn't he point out the other flaws in the story to make it more believable? It seems like they just inserted a few lines to say how desperate the situation was while keeping the rest of the story except for the ending intact. It's especially odd since Campbell probably could have written a much better story himself. Why this one?
    • I think that was just Campbell being Campbell. Old John W. had certain fixed, specific attitudes about how science fiction should be written to reflect existing reality. He wasn't against women or strong women characters, but this is getting into his cast-iron conservative political view — nature is coldly unforgiving, and life on the frontier (of space or whatever) is nasty, brutish and short; and/or, people are responsible for their own failures. Much more here about Campbell's mindset relating to this story.