The Cold Equations

Something made me think of this. I can’t quite work out what but it reminded me of a short story I read in a compilation when I was a kid. The story had been adapted several times for radio and television but I encountered it again as a Twilight Zone episode that I had happened upon years later. The story is a science-fiction classic: ‘The Cold Equations’ by Tom Godwin, originally published in Astounding Science Fiction in 1954. It tells the story of an Emergency Dispatch Ship (EDS) making its way across an interstellar frontier, carrying urgently needed medical supplies for a colony on a distant planet called Woden. The only crew is a single pilot called Barton, who discovers a stowaway aboard the ship – an eighteen year old girl. The girl, called Marilyn, hid aboard the vessel to see her brother, who is stationed on the colony on Woden. The problem is that the frontier is colossal and empty. The Emergency Dispatch Ships are disposable, one-way vessels – carrying only enough fuel to get their essential cargo, pilot and vessel itself to the planet surface of their destinations. Marilyn’s extra weight has used more fuel than the vessel can afford and the ship’s computer informs Barton that unless the problem is rectified, the ship will run out of fuel and crash into the planet surface. Both Barton and Marilyn will be lost, as well as the precious medical cargo that will save the lives of Woden’s colonists. Barton and Marilyn are confronted with ‘The Cold Equations’ of the story title and hard choices must be made.

I won’t ruin the ending but upon a re-read and re-watch, ‘The Cold Equations’ impressed me with its simplicity and power. It is widely anthologised, multiply-adapted and is respected as one of the best science fiction tales ever told. It is not without its flaws but for such a short piece of fiction it delivers on multiple levels: it’s a puzzle, a moral quandary, a tragic drama and a cautionary tale. I encourage you to experience it as short story (‘The Cold Equations’ by Tom Godwin – Public Domain copy) or the twenty minute, nineties low-budget television adaptation. Enjoy.

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