Thursday, March 3, 2016

The Hope Spot #16 "Deconstructing the Cold Equations"

Last month we began to take a look at two developing genres called “rational fiction” and “rationalist fiction” in order to see what they might be able to lend to horror. This month we will continue by taking apart a story that has been both lauded and maligned, in order to teach by example. 

The core element of both rational and rationalist fiction is that “the rules of the fictional world are sane and consistent.” Some stories fail on both of these counts. Others manage to be consistent, but are far from sane. The following story is science fiction, not horror, but the lesson can be applied to any genre. 

The Cold Equations was written in 1954 by the author Tom Godwin. In brief, the story is about an emergency vessel that is being sent to deliver badly-needed medicine to a colony planet. The pilot discovers that there is a stowaway, which is an issue because the amount of fuel on the ship is carefully-calibrated and any additional weight will mean that the ship will not be able to land safely. Alas, the stowaway is a teenage girl who did not know this and merely wanted to visit her brother. Still, the laws of physics are the laws of physics, and since either the pilot or the girl must go, and the pilot is the only one who can land the ship, the girl must be thrown out lickety-split. “It has to be that way,” the protagonist says,” and no human in the universe can change it.” 

The story could make a good example of “paleo” rationalist fiction if it weren’t for a few problems—or rather the same problem, repeated over and over. As Gary Westfahl summed up: “Very poor Engineering.” On TV Tropes, the Headscratchers article for The Cold Equations is more than half the length of the ten thousand-word story itself. 

There is a puzzle, of sorts, in this story: How does one make sure that the medicine gets to the colony, so that nobody dies from kala fever? The solution, Tom Godwin asserts, is that the girl has to go. But there is a chair. There is a supply cabinet with, one might reasonably suppose, supplies. There are clothes, “identification disks”, a gun, paper, pencils, and other miscellany. The girl weighs about a hundred pounds; is there really no way to get rid of that relatively small amount of weight? An “answer story” called The Cold Solution sees the pilot going so far as to lop off some limbs. 

Let us assume, however, that there is not enough miscellany to toss out, that the chair cannot be removed, that lost limbs will put the pilot in shock so that he cannot do his job as a pilot, and so on. A puzzle that sought to portray a good person who was honestly trying every possible alternative—as the story clearly meant to do—should at least have its protagonist consider these possibilities, even if they became unfeasible. By skipping over these possibilities the story betrays that things are happening “solely because ‘the plot requires it’”, which rational fiction is rather opposed to. 

Even so, the story still fails on the aforementioned count of the fictional world being “sane and consistent.” They are consistent, certainly, but are they sane? Absolutely not. 

If stowaways pose such a danger, then the girl should not be able to say, “I just sort of walked in when no one was looking my way… I slipped into the closet there after the ship was ready to go just before you came in.” Something as simple as a locked door would have nipped this plot before it even started. Or a sensor that alerted the pilot to weight and “some kind of a body that radiated heat” before liftoff, instead of an hour later. 

Most radical of all, perhaps the society that designed these ships could rediscover a concept called “safety margins” and actually adhere to them. This is a principle that is basic to all engineering. Yes, the story breaks down completely and you have no plot at all, if there was a little more fuel on the ship. But while the rules of the story may be consistent, they apparently correspond to a greater world that is utterly insane. As Cory Doctorow says, the ideas in this story “present a kind of blueprint for disaster, a willful and destructive blindness…”  

As the story’s existence goes to show you, it is possible to write a tale whose logic goes out the window as soon as you start asking what sort of world it exists in. Indeed, since the editor sent it back three times because he disliked Tom Godwin’s “ingenious ways to save the girl” you can even learn that there are some people who will not accept a story that demands to exist in a reasonable world. Nevertheless, as can be demonstrated just as easily by the story’s reception (especially in present times), you still can’t make a story like that and have it be good

There is a glut of horror fiction featuring characters whose actions do not make sense, and who do not inhabit a world that makes internal sense. This is different from saying that a story about time-traveling robots doesn’t make sense on the basis of our world, which has a conspicuous lack of time-traveling robots. If there are problems with the internal logic of The Terminator then it is because, for example, we are never told why Skynet sent a robot to assassinate a woman in the past before her son became a threat, when an equally-viable strategy for a time-traveling AI would have been to simply start the war decades earlier.

Don’t take this to mean that the film isn’t good. Since we all have different tastes in fiction, and there is even a market for drugstore romance novels with nearly-indistinguishable plots, I can’t even say that The Terminator would have been an objectively-better film for somehow resolving this issue. All that I can say is that neither The Terminator nor The Cold Equations can be considered rational fiction, let alone rationalist.

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