Cold Equations and Moral Hazard: science fiction considered harmful to the future


1 Like

I never liked The Cold Equations for exactly this reason, but I can’t imagine it’s still considered relevant in this day and age, being literally 60 years old now. Heck, I kinda wonder if it ever was.

Remember folks, Science Fiction has it’s fair share (or more) of terrible contributions. Especially Sci-Fi from the early developmental years, when the genre was still trying to find itself and the concepts at play where still so very shockingly new.

In 1954, television was only eighteen years old, and for about half of that time it was restricted to around 40,000 or so units in and around New York city. Nuclear weapons were still less than a decade old, and nuclear power was only invented in 1951. The Sound Barrier had only been officially broken a scant seven years prior, the same year microwave ovens became available.

More striking, perhaps, are the things which had not yet even been invented. Space Flight was not yet a reality. Sputnik wouldn’t enter orbit until 1957, and no human would leave the atmosphere until 1961. The world’s first programable digital robot went into service the same year. The world’s first laser went into operation a year before that, in 1960.

The world was a bizarre, exciting, horrifying place at the time. New, revolutionary technologies were emerging right and left, all under the spectre of potential nuclear annihilation as the Cold War got going in full earnest. People were only just really starting to recover from the exhausting years of WWII, and now things were changing faster and more unpredictably than anyone had ever known them to at any time in history.

Godwin’s story was a product of it’s times - fueled at least in part by general social fears and hopes for technology, and anxiety over the very real possibility of mankind unleashing entirely avoidable attrocities upon itself by virtue of being too inflexible and absurdly self-limiting.

Was Godwin aware of this when he wrote The Cold Equations? I doubt it. Does it excuse the underlying absurdity of the story? Not really.

The more fascinating question, in my mind, is why does this story crop up again and again? It was called rubbish when it came out, then it languished in obscurity for awhile. In 1970 the SFWA revived interest by inexplicably giving it an award and entering it into their Hall of Fame, and it’s limped on ever since. In the 90’s there were a few critical responses, including satires and direct parodies of the piece, and it fell out of favor again.

Why is it every 20 years or so, this story comes back to haunt us?


A lovely piece of writing. I wish you’d put the last sentence up front though. It’s a pearl and I bet a lot of people won’t get to it. So I’m pasting it here:

[Science fiction stories] have something to teach us, all right: that stories about how we can’t afford to hew to our values in time of crisis are a handy addition to every authoritarian’s playbook, a fine friend of plutocrats, and they reek of self-serving bullshit every time they’re deployed.


My Old Man subscribed to F&SF and Asimov magazines for many years; still has them proudly lined up on shelves…easily 20’ of short stories: the muddle, the dreck…and the genius.

One story I read…it had to be over 25 years ago. The title, the author…no clue. But the premise was pretty simple: some guy has a Universal Future Transmogrifying Pod and charges ridiculous amounts of credits to use it. The dial can be turned to Happy Positive Future or Inevitable Apocalypse Future. The guy is a shyster, the Pod is a humbug…but by the end of the tale he thinks ‘Some of the richest and most powerful people in the world have come to me, and the majority of them…have chosen a future of annihilation. Is that going to be a problem?’


The Cold Equations wasn’t even a new idea, even the Howard Hughes’ film “Hell’s Angels” used the idea of the laws of physics calling for deaths to keep a Zeppelin from crashing,and looked a little hinky even then.

So it was the author committing murder? I say throw the book at him.


I have a similar experience with a “Mystery Story” where I don’t know the author or the title, but I rather liked the content.

It was a rather short story, I imagine, either that or a brief excerpt of something larger. The bit I remember is two people in a lab, scientists or engineers or similar, and I think one was a woman and the other a man. They’re discussing an insectoid robot on the table, and the man wants to demonstrate something to the woman, so he has her pick up a hammer and try to destroy it.

She takes up the hammer, shrugs, swings mercilessly, cripples the 'bot by cracking its shell and blasting apart a couple legs without any real concern, rears back calmly for another blow, and suddenly drops the hammer in horror as the robot lets loose a shrill screaming cry, as if in excruciating animal pain, the red luster of the previously innocuous pooling lubricant or hydraulic fluid or whatever leaking from the frame turning sharply sinister.

I wish I knew the name of the piece. It so very powerfully demonstrates one of my great complaints about the “humanization” of robots, how the popular notion of making robots more identifiable is inherently manipulative and consequently dangerous. When a machine is built to prey upon our instinctual drives - to influence us in ways that are unconscious, on a primal level beneath rationality and logic - that strikes me an abhorrant corruption of basic human trust, with immense potential for malicious abuse.


There are always people looking to justify killing.

The early years of the Cold War had a lot of guilt floating around (having just come out of WWII and the Korean War), and one way to cope with it was to claim it was unavoiadable and necessary. A lot of terrible things were done that haunted not only those directly involved in carrying them out, but even those who were merely guilty by association.

Combine that with rampant technological advancement being a symbol of great productive and destructive powers comingled, and you get an atmosphere where someone who is conflicted over their hopes for a brighter tomorrow resting on the shoulders of technology that could destroy the world might write a story much like this one.


“… stories about how we can’t afford to hew to our values in time of crisis are a handy addition to every authoritarian’s playbook, a fine friend of plutocrats, and they reek of self-serving bullshit every time they’re deployed.” – C Doctorow

is certainly the chunk I’d’ve twote (twitten?), were it shorter and attributable in a single tweet. Although shouldn’t it be cleave rather than hew?

1 Like

I always liked Ruby’s short speech from Cold Mountain for the very same reason:


Hard to Twitterise indeed… :slight_smile:

I’ll leave others to debate “hew” versus “cleave”. I’d have said “hew to” is synonymous with “adhere”, but that might be because I’m Australian (with a fairly British view of English), and so I think Cory is right. People from other parts might disagree…

I Will Fear No Evil (there are no words).

Come on, Cory. You can at least try.

1 Like

J. Michael Straczynski (of Babylon 5 fame) describes turning The Cold Equations into an episode of the 1985 Twilight Zone series. The studio fought hard to change the ending:

1 Like

There’s another, related moral hazard I’ve been worrying about, occaationally, for years. So many geeks take it as an article of faith that one day we will fly to the stars in our faster-than-light Enterprises. If this is true then ultimately pollution and climate change and mass extinction are just data points - we can always find a new, pristine world.

But what if Einstein was right, and Roddenberry was wrong? What if we never get to Alpha Centauri? Or what if we get there at a cost of trillions, and it takes a century, and the survey-bots find nothing but Marses and Jupiters?

What if this planet is not disposable because it’s all we get… forever?


I’ll just note that Heinlein wrote I Will Fear No Evil while deathly ill, and it was published with no rewrites in order to pay the large hospital bills for same. Not an excuse, but an explanation.

It’s probably also worth noting that the Sixth Column story was proposed by John W. Campbell, Jr., and Heinlein subsequently tried to minimize the racism.

The story is called, digs back in memory, something, something Mark IV Beast(?)… Google searches didn’t help.

Edited to add: Found it! The Soul of the Mark III Beast

1 Like

Didn’t one Mr. John Milton write a story whose most interesting character took the concept of ‘better to rule in hell than serve in heaven’ quite literally indeed?

1 Like

“…we can’t afford to hew to our values in time of crisis…” Also called “TINA - There is no alternative”.

I actually enjoyed “Friday”, but then it’s a long time since I read it. I don’t remember any rape.

Apart from that, +1. Very important points to make.

This reminds me of some (not all are that bad) social psychology experiments that ask people to react to incredibly contrived situations. Questions such as “would you push one fat bastard over the rails to block a runaway tram to save a group of poor children downhill?” or something like that.

It’s like asking people “let’s say a perfectly normal die is cast 99 times and turns up a 6 every single time; what is the probably of getting a 6 the 100th time?” – the answer to which is, “what’s the probability that no one’s cheating with that die and is it significantly less than 1/6^99?”

1 Like