Response to “The Cold Equations”

I always hated the story The Cold Equations even though it’ll make me cry every time, because of the weird implicit chauvinism. Space, after all, is for hardened men who’ll do what must be done, and not for silly girls with all their emotions. It’s yet another narrative in which a woman is punished for straying beyond her domestic sphere – a young woman whose defining traits are her love for her family and her eagerness to please. It is men alone who are mentioned as working on the frontier, but more importantly, Godwin has contrived a universe in which a sort of rationalized callousness is necessary for these men. In effect, he pits the typically masculine (sullen, reason-bound, practical) against the stereotypically feminine (nurturing, helpless, submissive, emotional). The latter comes from, and belongs on, the privileged domestic sphere of earth; the former chooses the lonely life of the brooding adventurer, must push boundaries and further the human race through his hard rationality. When the woman transgresses, she must be punished – not out of cruelty, but simply because that is the logical thing to do, the only way for continued survival. And the worst part is: she acquiesces. (I would have shoved him out the airlock first!) She bows her head and goes willingly, apologizing for inconveniencing everyone.

Again, I cannot see this text as truly representing the “callousness of the universe”. It was a person who shot her out of the airlock, and people who designed these incredibly inconvenient ships that make it necessary for stowaways to be killed, and most importantly, it was a person who wrote this story, and decided that this was the particular way that this situation would work. These aren’t real “cold equations”, they are fictional plot rules written by an author with absolute control over his fictional universe. Godwin is not making a point about real scientific laws – he’s making a point about fictional science that he invented to be cold. I don’t mean to argue that Godwin sat down to write a deliberately misogynist text. But this story must be taken into context with the hundreds upon hundreds of narratives that punish women for entering the spaces of men, and transgressing the parameters set for their sex. Godwin chose to align these elements – he chose to write his story so that a woman’s death is the Rational, Right decision.

3 thoughts on “Response to “The Cold Equations””

  1. You have put to words the feeling that has been nibbling at the back of my brain!! Throughout the entire story, I anticipated the pilot jettisoning himself so Marilyn could live, but I guess self-sacrifice wasn’t on the author’s mind… Like you said, it’s really more expected from women.

  2. This is belated — but I was reading today about how the author had wanted to save her and kept sending drafts where she got saved but the editor (freaking John. W. Campbell) refused to let it happen. https://web.archive.org/web/20060618204513/http://www.challzine.net/23/23fivedays.html (Search “Save the girl” In here)

    Given how until even 30 years ago it was just common knowledge that you had to do what an editor wanted to get published or you were ‘hard to work with’, that does really make me feel for the poor author.

  3. I think it’s also interesting that the story would have been a quarter as long as it is if had been a man that stowed away but the “women and children first” view, which is the other side of sexism, made the situation somehow different and deserving of sorrow.

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