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For a 1950's short story, The Cold Equations has had a ridiculously long shelf life. I studied it in high school, it was adapted for the first Twilight Zone relaunch by none other than J. Michael Straczynski, and even more than half-a-century after its original publication, it remains a striking, evocative story.
It presents, in the careful, well-written prose of the day, a brutal gut-punch of a no-win scenario, in which, to save many innocent lives, one innocent life must be horribly sacrificed, for the icy math the universe runs on cares not one fig for our petty human lives. It's bleak, it defies all convention you've been trained to expect, and it is a brutal stone-cold downer.
Why then, in that brutal title, do I call it worthless trash?
Well, to answer that question, we need to look at none other than John W. Campbell, the Vince McMahon of 1950s science fiction. To make [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ctpvd2VvukQ&list=PLhyKYa0YJ_5AuEhpcGAo4ngmSDKuFgZZx a very long and worthy story very short], John W. Campbell was a visionary who took the genre by storm, killed all his competitors with a smoking hot new version of a tired old product, and ushered in a new era of science fiction. He was also an authoritarian old autocrat who had subscribed to about every sort of bigotry you could care to name, he forced writers into his vision, to cater to his private tastes and avoid his private bugbears, and used his effective monopoly to bully and bludgeon anyone who wrote stories with themes or plots he didn't like back into line because they had nowhere else to go.
The problem with this story isn't the prose itself, or with the human psycho-drama it focuses on. The problem is that the situation, as generations upon generations of readers have noted, is goddamn dumb as rocks. The slightest knowledge of basic workplace safety regulations, to say nothing of actual engineering practice, reveals just was a stupid, ridiculous contrivance every facet of the situation is. I don't even need to go into them, do I? I mean, I will, this is a review I opened by calling the work worthless trash.
You're telling me on a mission this important, you didn't do a basic pre-flight check? Or even lock the door? You want me to believe, somehow, that this ship which has all kinds of extraneous, unnecessary stuff around, including the closet the girl stowed away in, can't spare ninety-pounds' worth? Anywhere?
None of this is on poor Tom Godwin, any more than those poor sods trapped in the Wrestling/WWE system can really be blamed for the madness of King Vince now. He didn't want to write this story, and indeed was actively forced to contrive the situation further and further by his editor, by Campbell, to force an ending where the girl dies.
Why was Campbell so obsessed with making an astronaut kill a girl? Well, the common refrain is some guff about "wanting to show contrast with the old genre where they'd whip some Techno Babble together and pull out a magic happy ending." Alternatively, as Straczynski famously believes, to present the important lesson that sometimes, life just fucking sucks and you end up in a no-win scenario.
I think both are a part of it... but not the whole. And it's the final piece of the puzzle that has me denounce the whole project, not merely as a dumb contrivance to teach the lesson it intends to teach (since in both scenarios, the idiocy of the contrivance undermines any possible point), but as, again, worthless trash.
John Campbell was obsessed with a lot of things, and one of them was the idea of a world without sentiment. A world where hard, grizzled, practical, lantern-jawed, inevitably-white men made hard, grizzled, practical decisions in a hard, grizzled, practical world. A place where there was no room at all for sentiment, for philosophy, for humanity.
That's why the work almost obsessively repeats its endless refrain about how the laws of nature/physics/whatever care nothing for our human empathy.
Campbell, being a sexist in addition to his many other deficiencies as a human being, of course wants the woman thrown out the airlock, because, in his mind, this is what we have to do to all feeling, all emotion, everything but the immediate practicality of the situation, and not think for a second about how this whole deal had so very little to do with the physical laws and everything to do with human foibles. It's the 1950's equivalent of screaming "facts don't care about your feelings!" and every bit as substantial, which is to say, it isn't. The woman is blown out the airlock because Campbell is getting off on spacing an "emotional" person (because she is, again, a woman, after all) to satisfy the bloody-handed gods of math.
Campbell, in other words, deliberately booked a finish to pop himself that he knew his audience would hate, with the explicit intent of forcing repugnant personal views onto them, and there's the final leg of that ongoing comparison to old Vince Mc Mahon.
Nothing of substance about this work is not undermined by the idiotic contrivances forced into it, and just as the leering face of Vince Mc Mahon undermines and ruins anything you might like about the current WWE and its roster, so too is the hard work and genuine talent of poor Tom Godwin pressed into service under the lash of John W. Campbell.
If you want a miserable stone-cold downer of classic science fiction, just watch Beneath the Planet of the Apes again. It's not perfect either, but at least there they have the balls to admit the problem is human failings rather than just blaming physics while demonstrating ignorance.
...I should start looking the gift horse of suspiciously-generous text limits on my reviews in the mouth more often. It\'s left this one riddled with formatting errors I can\'t fix without gutting sections I\'ve grown quite fond of and feel it would be poorer without.
I\'ve actually had that happen to me. In the past, the system would stop me if, for example, I submitted a 3,500 character review when the review limit was 3,000 characters. Now, however, I can submit a review that exceeds the word count limit and I won\'t be told until I go back and edit it.
In any case, I agree with your review. Despite being a story that sets out to avoid having a happy ending by way of Deus ex Machina, \"The Cold Equations\" seems to go out of its way to make killing the girl be the only viable choice.
And, again, it\'s not just that it requires huge contrivances to avoid a supposedly-contrived happy ending, it\'s the philosophy behind why Campbell demanded these changes that causes me to dismiss the whole thing.
I really should exercise discipline and just go back and rewrite the whole thing... It looks really ugly. But that\'s a tall order, unfortunately, now that I know people might actually read it.
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