Saturday, July 26, 2008

The Ongoing Fiction Discussion Discussion

Today's Topic: "The Cold Equations," by Tom Godwin: A Work of Utter Brilliance or A Total Load of Crap?

John W. Campbell, Jr. In science fiction circles, the name is whispered softly, reverently. There are awards named after him. In a very real sense, science fiction as we know it today is the temple Campbell built. If you examine the history of the genre, there is a clear dividing line: there is everything that came before, and then, beginning when Campbell took over as editor of Astounding Science Fiction in 1938 and lasting for about 20 years, there is The Campbell Era.

The list of famous writers discovered and famous stories published by Campbell in those years reads like the combined who's who and Hall of Fame of science fiction. Robert Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke, Lester del Rey, A.E. Van Vogt, Theodore Sturgeon; the list goes on and on. And while Campbell was not the first to publish Isaac Asimov — that honor goes to Amazing Stories, for a story Campbell rejected — he did publish most of the series of short stories and novellas that were later collected and became Asimov's career-defining novels, Foundation and I, Robot.

Then again, Campbell also gave us L. Ron Hubbard and Dianetics, and in the 1950s was up to his elbows in the founding of Scientology. Worse, by the end of the 1950s Campbell apparently had come to believe that not only were psychic powers ("psi") real, but that he actually possessed them himself, and he took to telling people he hadn't flunked out of MIT but rather had been kicked out, because his radical ideas were too dangerous to scientific orthodoxy.

By 1959 the Campbell Era was effectively over, and even Heinlein was on record as saying he would rather not sell a story at all than have to deal with Campbell and his weird manias, minor madnesses, and obsessive, heavy-handed, meddling and rewriting in the guise of editing. In 1960 the name of the magazine was changed to Analog Science Fiction & Fact, in an effort to shed the taint of the past, but Campbell lingered on as editor until 1971, and it wasn't until Ben Bova took over after Campbell's death that Analog became the serious, staid, significant, and somewhat respectable magazine we know today.

And it is with all of this as backdrop that we discuss "The Cold Equations," by Tom Godwin. If you have not read this story already, do so now, as everything from here on out is spoiler. You will find the "The Cold Equations" online in the Baen Books anthology, The World Turned Upside Down, edit by David Drake, Jim Baen, and Eric Flint. God Bless the Baen Free Library.

With age, I've become a lot more sympathetic to Tom Godwin, perhaps because there are mornings when I look in the bathroom mirror and see his face. In 1953 Godwin was 38 years old and just launching what would turn out to be, sadly, a typically short literary career. He published 30-some short stories, mostly in Astounding and mostly in the 1950s, and then puttered on until his death in 1980 with perhaps a half-dozen more sales spread out over two decades, and some of them in some pretty dicey markets. (Remember The Man from U.N.C.L.E. magazine? Ed McBain's 87th Precinct Mystery Magazine?) He wrote three known novels: his first, The Survivors, flopped so badly that his original publisher didn't even bother to bind the last thousand books in the original print run of 5,000 copies, and it didn't even make it up to "modestly successful" level until it was retitled Space Prison, given a lurid pulp cover, and reissued in paperback a few years later. (In testimony to the fact that information rarely disappears entirely, though, you can find the complete text on Project Gutenberg.)

Campbell was an old-school editor. He did not merely buy and publish stories; he worked his authors, tossing out ideas, giving out assignments, and rewriting extensively. Before he took over the editor's chair at Astounding he had been a very successful and promising young writer — you've probably seen his story, "Who Goes There?" in one of its movie adaptations, and know it better by its movie title, The Thing — but after he became the editor he pretty much gave up writing fiction. When asked why, he reportedly said he no longer needed to write fiction, as the fun part was coming up with ideas, and now he had hundreds of writers eager to turn his ideas into stories.

That, reportedly, was the genesis of "The Cold Equations." Campbell came up with the idea and gave it to The New Guy, Godwin. (The story was either his fourth or fifth professional sale, and published less than a year after his first sale.) Godwin went and wrote the story, and Campbell rejected it because he didn't like the ending. According to Godwin, Campbell made him rewrite the ending three times before he finally got the message: he wasn't supposed to figure out a way to save the girl.

Once Godwin finally rewrote the story with the depressing ending Campbell wanted, Campbell bought it, and it was published in the August 1954 issue of Astounding. Thereafter Godwin's career meandered off to its ultimate dying whimper, while the story lived on, and was anthologized and reprinted beyond measure.

I first ran into "The Cold Equations" in 1973, in the anthology The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, which was being used as a textbook in some university "science fiction as literature" course I took and in which "The Cold Equations" was presented as the apotheosis of the Campbellian hard science fiction style. I hated the story then. I hate, hate, hate it now.

Why? To recap, the plot of the story is this: an invariably fatal epidemic breaks out among the research party stationed on a distant, barely explored planet. It's not possible to reroute a starship to deliver the desperately needed medicine that will cure the disease and save the research party, so a starship passing through the system drops off a space-launch carrying the medicine and a pilot. The launch has exactly, to the drop, only enough fuel to get to the planet and land safely.

Tragically, a pretty young 18-year-old girl has stowed away on the launch, because her brother is stationed on this planet and she's hoping to see him. But the addition of her 110 pounds is just enough weight to throw all the calculations out of whack and guarantee that the launch will crash, the medicine will be destroyed, and the entire research party will die. Therefore, because of "the cold equations," the pilot must boot her cute little butt out of the airlock and kill her, the sooner the better. After all, that's what the regulations demand. This leads into a protracted death scene in which the girl is at first horrified, then tries to bargain, then has a tearful last radio conversation with her brother, and then finally, bravely, accepts her fate, steps into the airlock, and goes SPLAT!

The end.

So why do I hate this story so much? Leaving out the inherent idiocy of the premise — even back in 1973, I knew quite a few aerospace engineers, and the idea of any sane engineer designing a system that had such an insanely slim margin of safety that it couldn't survive even the tiniest deviation from the flight plan —
"Barton, you'll have to make another pass! There's a cow on the runway and you must delay landing until we chase her off!"

"Sorry guys, the flight plan didn't allow for that. I've come ninety gazillion miles to rescue you but I don't have one drop of extra fuel. Now I'm going to crash and you're all going to die. Screw you."
— but never mind, we could spend hours on all the insanities and stupidities needed to make this story work —
If it's an instant-death-penalty crime to stow away aboard an EDS launch, why don't they invest a buck-and-a-half in a frickin' lock on the launch bay door? Why don't they spend two minutes on a pre-flight inspection to make sure there are no stowaways on-board? If this sort of thing happens often enough to warrant a regulation covering the situation and for the crew back on board the Stardust to get jaded about it, why don't they anticipate the problem and take steps to either prevent it or make it survivable?
I'm sorry. I can get quite wound up. I really hate this story. Which is strange, because it's been said that if you don't like this story, you just plain don't like science fiction. But I always thought I sort of did like science fiction. I've even written some stories. Even won some awards for some of the things I've written. So why do I hate this particular story so very, very much?

Because it's a set-up. The entire point of this story is to set the pretty girl up for the inescapable grotesque death scene. The whole story is a lie and a cheat, and the author — at the direction of the editor, let's not let him off scot-free — has shamelessly stacked the deck, mercilessly tossing all logic and sense aside, in order to get to this only-possible horrific ending.

If this is science fiction, then so is A Nightmare on Elm Street.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the argument was often made that science fiction was pure drivel and mind-rot: that it was merely the pretentious member of the horror family, trying to escape its trashy pulp adventure roots by replacing boats, guns, and monsters with rocketships, rayguns, and aliens, and geared entirely towards the fantasies of pimply-faced boys who probably didn't know many actual girls. Further, the stereotypes abounded that the reason why the audience for science fiction was fixated on menacing pretty girls was because they were largely latent misogynists, who carried deep in their hearts a burning resentment over the fact that cheerleaders preferred football players to members of the chess club; that most science fiction fans secretly loved stories in which pretty girls — the kind of girls they never had a chance at dating — suffered terrible retribution because they were too silly, shallow, and pretty to pay attention to the nerds; and above all, that this suffering and retribution was best when it got gory, and came in the tentacles of some goggle-eyed alien monstrosity that daily produced twice its own body weight in drool or in the mandibles of some atomic mutant grasshopper the size of a two-car garage, or at the very least was terribly painful and messy.

Hence, the entire output of American International Pictures, among many others.

And thus, the argument I now submit to you. If "The Cold Equations" is the best possible example of serious, hard, science fiction, then hard science fiction is merely the extraordinarily pretentious member of the exploitation horror family, and we should just give up on all this prattle about "scientific credibility" and "the literature of ideas" right now and go straight for the big splatter scenes. Preferably involving pretty young girls with really big breasts.

Your thoughts?