Hard science fiction epitomized. An unforgettable, ruthlessly logical, perhaps misogynistic short story by Tom Godwin.
A ship has been sent to deliver a serum that can save the lives of an exploration party on a distant planet. The pilot finds a stowaway on his ship, a teenage girl hoping to visit her brother, one of the explorers. The ship is carrying minimal fuel; with the added mass of the girl it will be unable to decelerate for a landing. The pilot jettisons the girl out the airlock, to die in the vacuum of space.
She had violated a man-made law that said KEEP OUT but the penalty was not of men's making or desire and it was a penalty men could not revoke. A physical law had decreed: h amount of fuel will power [a ship] with a mass m safely to its destination; and a second physical law had decreed: h amount of fuel will not power [a ship] with a mass of m plus x safely to its destination.
That I have given away the ending is irrelevant; the ending is never in doubt. Godwin makes it clear from the first page that the girl must die. However much the pilot and everyone else involved will regret her death, the laws of nature, the "cold equations" of mechanics require it. Greek tragedy is whimsical by contrast.
The men of the frontier had long ago learned the bitter futility of cursing the forces that destroy them for the forces were blind and deaf; the futility of looking to the heavens for mercy, for the stars of the galaxy swung in their long, long sweep of two hundred million years, as inexorably controlled as they by laws that knew neither hatred nor compassion.
More than anything by Godwin's colleagues in science fiction, "The Cold Equations" recalls Jack London's stories of the Klondike, with their view of a hard, impassive nature that punishes the weak and foolish. In "To Build a Fire," for instance, a newcomer to the Klondike fails to heed the warnings of an old-timer and freezes to death, alone in the wilderness. But Godwin's story is purer and harsher even than London's. The protagonist of "To Build a Fire" dies through a combination of hubris and bad luck. The girl in Godwin's story, once she boards the ship, is beyond the reach of luck. And her error is not a product of pride, but of ignorance, even innocence:
She had never known danger of death; had never known the environments where the lives of men could be as fragile and fleeting as sea foam tossed against a rocky shore. She belonged on gentle Earth, in that secure and peaceful society where she could be young and gay and laughing with others of her kind; where life was precious and well-guarded and there was always the assurance that tomorrow would come. She belonged in that world of soft winds and warm suns, music and moonlight and gracious manners and not on the hard, bleak frontier.
The stowaway is the one female character in the story; the pilot, the brother, and all the other officials and explorers are men. It may be that part of Godwin's message, or the message taken by his original audience of 1950s adolescent boys, was that space is no place for girls. The text of the story undermines that interpretation, though: the girl quickly comes to terms with her situation, and acts with admirable self-control as she steps into the airlock. More likely Godwin made the stowaway female not as a comment on the abilities of her sex but to draw on the visceral sympathy men (among both his characters and his audience) feel for women in danger. The contrast drawn is not between men and women but between those who have stayed safe and comfortable on Earth and those who have risked their lives at the frontiers of human knowledge.
"The Cold Equations" was originally published in 1954, in John W. Campbell's Astounding Science Fiction. An adaptation of the story was filmed in 1988 as an episode of "The New Twilight Zone."
Godwin, Tom. "The Cold Equations." The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume One, 1929-1964. Robert Silverberg, ed.
New York: Tom Doherty Associates, 1970. 449-471.