Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

the view from the moral mountaintop

Even at my advanced age, I can still never quite predict what’s going to agitate me. But here’s something that has me rather worked up. In a reflection on Ender’s Game — a story about which I have no opinions — Laura Miller relates this anecdote:

There’s a short story by Tom Godwin, famous in science fiction circles, called “The Cold Equations.” It’s about the pilot of a spaceship carrying medicine to a remote planet. The ship has just enough fuel to arrive at that particular destination, where its cargo will save six lives. En route, the pilot discovers a stowaway, an adolescent girl, and knowing that her additional weight will make completing the trip impossible, the agonized man informs her that she will have to go out the airlock. There is no alternative solution. 

 This story was described to me by a science fiction writer long before I read it, and since it contains lines like “she was of Earth and had not realized that the laws of the space frontier must, of necessity, be as hard and relentless as the environment that gave them birth,” I can’t honestly call it a must. The writer was complaining about some of his colleagues and their notions of their genre’s strengths and weaknesses. “They always point to that story as an example of how science fiction forces people to ask themselves the sort of hard questions that mainstream fiction glosses over,” he said. “That’s what that story is supposed to be about, who would you save, tough moral choices.” He paused, and sighed. “But at a certain point I realized that’s not really what that story is about. It’s really about concocting a scenario where you get a free pass to toss a girl out an airlock.”

If you’d like, take a few moments now and read “The Cold Equations” for yourself. If you’ve done so, then tell me: what in the story constitutes evidence for the claim that Tom Godwin’s story is fundamentally “about concocting a scenario where you get a free pass to toss a girl out an airlock”? Is is the ending, maybe?

... the empty ship still lived for a little while with the presence of the girl who had not known about the forces that killed with neither hatred nor malice. It seemed, almost, that she still sat, small and bewildered and frightened, on the metal box beside him, her words echoing hauntingly clear in the void she had left behind her:

I didn’t do anything to die for... I didn’t do anything...

Does that sound like delight in the death of a child to you?

How casually Miller’s friend attributed to someone he did not know, and with no discernible evidence, sick and twisted fantasies of murdering female children. And how casually Miller relates it and, apparently, endorses it not only as a true description of Tom Godwin but also of (male?) science-fiction fandom in general:

The heart of any work of fiction, and especially of popular fiction, is a knot of dreams and desires that don’t always make sense or add up, which is what my friend meant when he said that “The Cold Equations” is really about the desire to toss a girl out an airlock (with the added bonus of getting to feel sorry for yourself afterward). That inconvenient girl, with her claim to the pilot’s compassion, can be jettisoned as satisfyingly as the messy, mundane emotions the story’s fans would like to see purged from science fiction.

Miller and her friend just look down from their moral heights on Tom Godwin and people who have been moved by his story, and dispense their eviscerating judgments with carefree assurance. I can't even imagine what it’s like to live at that altitude. I hope I don't ever find out.


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