Monday, September 2, 2013

On Cold Equations

Paul Kincaid talks about the classic sci-fi story The Cold Equations (also, because I just recently listened to it: the fantastic full cast Drabblecast production of the story).

I'm going to go ahead and say that for all its antique chauvinism, I really like The Cold Equations, but I've tended to think of it less as the hardest of science fiction (which feels like a pretty big claim) and more as a sort of Space Western. It's not about fixing problems with science (or really even causing them, though the essay above makes a good argument that the story is fundamentally one of criminally flawed engineering), it's about being one the frontier, on the thin edge of the protection the grand engines of humanity can offer to individuals- no different than a lone rider on a horse three days from water. It ends on a down note- and it has to, because otherwise the threat isn't real. That's what makes the story so good, despite the aspects of it that have aged poorly- life is hard and unfair and dealing with that is important.

And also I really like frontier stories. 


  1. I read Cold Equations back when I was a kid in school - it was in an English text book that a teacher gave me and I never returned...yep, just found it on my book shelf :). Here it is:

    Bradbury, Bloch, Aldiss, Clarke - those stories must have been some of my first experiences with speculative fiction. Cold Equations definitely stuck with me, and a Roald Dahl story about a boy playing a game with a carpet that had a predictably tragic twist. It's Dahl, of course the boy suffered a terrible, bizarre fate :p.

    Most of the stories were pretty grim, come to think. A lot of them showing technology in a rather menacing light - either as something that overwhelms humanity, or outlasts it. Providing a pessimistic view of both. All the stories I remember from school were depressing, actually. Maybe it is true that cheerful, upbeat stories have a hard time being taken seriously. Bah :(

  2. Actually, a lot of my favorite podcasts have been running Golden Age science fiction stories, and people keep commenting on how upbeat the stories are- and frankly I have the opposite view of a lot of them. There's a Clarke story called "Rescue Mission" that ran at Escape Pod, wherein a pan-galactic peaceful civilization comes to earth to rescue humanity from a nova, only to find the whole planet has already evacuated. They find the human fleet and marvel at their cleverness and resolve, but the implied ending is that humanity eventually destroys them or at least seriously knocks them back. On the one hand, it's nice that humanity didn't riot or leave anybody behind. On the other, humanity destroys millions of years worth of interspecies cooperation because it's just that bloody-minded.

    If you're minded to do so, you can make the argument that nobody in The Cold Equations is particularly cruel- they're all horrified at the situation (in a way that honestly seems dated and naive to me, but hey, I did actually like that aspect)- and that it reflects a brave, kind humanity trying its best in a universe that's too big for it.

    But yeah, the Golden age is so much grimmer than people give it credit for.

    As for cheerful stories specifically, my kneejerk reaction is to say that the stories that tend to last are the ones that say something big about humanity in general. I can think of a fair few stories that end on an up-note or with some hope, but those tend to go to a very dark place first (Ursula LeGuinn's Those Who Walk Away From Omerlas, for example, has a really ugly setup, but ends on one of the more positive notes in science fiction, if you ask me). I think the feeling of truth partially comes from having a recognizable mix of good and terrible in your stories- too little evil and it feels saccharine and trite, too much and it feels like melodrama or torture porn. It really is just as easy to roll your eyes at something relentlessly horrible and disregard it as it is to blow off the light stuff. The line's a little different depending on who you are and what your taste is, but I think the formula's basically right.