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06 September 2019 @ 08:05 am
Why fiction is not a guide to life  
Cory Doctorow on cold equations and lifeboat rules [Locus]
Kalimac: puzzlekalimac on September 6th, 2019 08:02 pm (UTC)
This would be a good point except for Cory's determined belief that the girl's death is intended as some sort of punishment for her foolishness. He's so sure he can read what the story's intentions are, why does he get this so wrong?
Elenbarathielenbarathi on September 7th, 2019 05:20 am (UTC)
??? Why do you think it's not punishment for her foolishness, especially since Campbell reportedly rejected three different methods of saving her? What do you think the author's intentions were?

Edited at 2019-09-07 05:21 am (UTC)
Kalimackalimac on September 7th, 2019 07:29 am (UTC)
Well, I read the story. At no point does the pilot chide or lecture the girl on her mistake. Instead, he repeatedly says he's sorry, that he would do anything he could to save her. Both he and the control center break regulations to make this as gentle as they can. And the narrative consistently emphasizes that, while the "no stowaways" rule is of human making, the consequence is not. The story's intent is to be a tragedy, with nobody at fault. The responsibility lies with the cold equations themselves - that's why that's the title - and they bear no malice, they just are. Of "Darwin's Law" smug glee that the stupid girl got what she deserved, the story is utterly absent, though I'm aware that some have (approvingly) read it that way.

Now, you can argue against any of the above, and Cory does so. I'm not endorsing it, and the holes in the logic are obvious. I'm just saying that that's what the story says.
Elenbarathielenbarathi on September 9th, 2019 04:22 pm (UTC)
It's certainly true there's no smug glee or sanctimonious moralizing in that story; it's just heart-breakingly sad. I'll never forget the first time I read it, walking home from music lesson when I was 13, tears running down my face the whole way. But "tragedy" does not mean "nobody at fault" - quite the contrary, in its original meaning.

"The responsibility lies with the cold equations themselves" - that's what the title implies, for sure, but is that true? After all, the equations didn't write themselves. Some human engineer calculated the mass-to-fuel ratio with so parsimonious a hand that an extra 100 lbs will crash the ship. But in the story, there's no suggestion that anyone is to blame but the girl herself. The kind and grieving men comfort her as best they can before sorrowfully sacrificing her to the Cold Equations - as the story's parameters require - but none of them, not even her brother, questions whether the Cold Equations were made by God/Science, or by man.

They were made by man. The girl dies thinking her death was her own fault - even though nobody's blaming her, she's still going out that airlock - how is that not punishment? But it's unjust punishment. The author is at pains to show that her family isn't rich (her cheap knock-off sandals) so clearly there will be no lawsuit for her wrongful death - that too is a 'cold equation' written solely by humans.

It's kind of a sad exercise, in (late) middle age to go back to the beloved SF of my adolescence and realize how benightedly un-woke most of it is. What can I say; I still love it; even Podkayne of Mars.
Kalimackalimac on September 9th, 2019 06:12 pm (UTC)
Well, now you're arguing with the framing of the story. With which you'll get no disagreement from me. But none of it means that the story intends that the girl's fate is a punishment.
Elenbarathielenbarathi on September 9th, 2019 08:19 pm (UTC)
Perhaps not. It couldn't be called an accident, though. A story doesn't write itself either, and can't have any intention - it's the author who has the intention, and only the author truly knows what it was.

I'm not actually arguing with the framing of the story, and don't grok why you think that. It's not an argument with the framing of the story to say that the design-flaws of a spaceship are the direct responsibility of the human designer, not of the immutable Laws of Physics.

It didn't occur to me before, but possibly it was the author's intention - through the framing of the story - to lead the reader to that very point. (Unlikely, I admit, but possible.) Whether he intended it or not, and whether his characters acknowledged it or not, it's still a statement of fact.
Kalimackalimac on September 9th, 2019 10:36 pm (UTC)
When I write "the story intends," that's just shorthand for "the intent of the author that is evident from reading the story." That may be different from the author's actual intent, for various possible reasons, in this case most specifically that the story as we have it is said to be as much Campbell's work as Godwin's, and without drafts or correspondence to study, I can't say which of them intended what.

You are indeed arguing with the framing of the story, because the text specifically denies the point you are making, when you say that the fault is that of the human designer. Here's what the story says: "It was a law not of men's choosing but made imperative by the circumstances of the space frontier. ... Men could learn to use them [the laws of nature] but men could not change them. ... inexorably controlled by the laws that knew neither hatred nor compassion. The men of the frontier knew - but how was a girl from Earth to fully understand?* H amount of fuel will not power an EDS with a mass of m plus x safely to its destination. ... to the laws of nature she was x, the unwanted factor in a cold equation."

That's as clear an argument as it could be: it's nobody's fault, it's just the way the cold equations work. And as far as pure physics goes, that's correct, and that's where people who defend the story's argument stop.

But we have to ask the next question, and you're asking it? Who says the EDS ship has to be built that way? Who says it has to have only that amount of fuel? Who says it has to carry extra weight like a chair and a closet door? (The Apollo lunar module had no chairs - to save weight. The pilots stood the whole flight.) The cold equations don't tell you that. They only tell you what happens if you do it that way.

And above all, who says that the warning signs against trespassing have to be so vaguely labeled in the presence of civilians, and that pre-flight check is so slipshod?

That's why the responsibility is not the cold equations'. It is, as you say, that of the designers and the bureaucrats.

You wonder if the story is intended to make you think of this? I'd say absolutely not: it's as dogmatic and certain of itself as any Campbellian story could be. And I can take from real-life experience with rigid people who argue that laws of nature or other inarguable facts require something to be done some way, it's very difficult to make them see that we choose our circumstances and consequently which facts are applicable.

*Here again it's emphasizing that it's not her fault.
Elenbarathielenbarathi on September 10th, 2019 03:56 am (UTC)
Hmm, okay; I see your point about the framing: in the viewpoint of the characters (the men at least,) the cold equations are basically an article of faith; it doesn't occur to them to question them. They don't see the girl's death as a punishment, but rather as an inevitable consequence of a tragic mistake. Her mistake though: she shouldn't have stowed away. Nobody in the story asks who the hell was in charge of Security, that some chickie could just waltz right onto the ship and not be discovered pre-flight.

"how was a girl from Earth to fully understand?* H amount of fuel will not power an EDS with a mass of m plus x safely to its destination"

One of the eerie things about reading vintage SF now is its low-tech version of the future. Do you remember the game 'Lunar Lander', that you could play on a TI calculator? It was all the rage in my sophomore year of high school; I spent more time playing it than I spent on homework - usually crashing with no survivors, despite the absence of stowaways - so "how was a girl from Earth to fully understand?" What, the girls of the future won't have video games, or science fiction, or (apparently) even science classes? Fuel-to-mass ratios may indeed be rocket science, but they're extremely basic rocket science; even cute chicks in hippie sandals can understand them.

As you say, it would have been a lot clearer if the sign on the door had said "Warning: Due to fuel limitations, all stowaways will be jettisoned", but if it had, the girl wouldn't be 'innocent'. It's kind of a fine line between being punished for breaking a human law, and being sacrificed because the Laws of Physics (as arranged and ordered by humans) demand it. On a 'meta' level, of course, it's really John Campbell that demanded it.

Interesting that there's a ton of comment on this - I thought this was the best one:
The whole point of the story, the point that Campbell was dead-set on making, was that in space, stupid people die, and the girl is stupid for not knowing the rules, and space is merciless, etc etc watch me jerk off at how brutal and hard-nosed I'm being.

Well, in space, stupid people *will* die. Smart people have died repeatedly.

The real problem with The Cold Equations is that in realistic rocketry, both the characters are dead, dead, dead. The ΔV was lost when they boosted the mass, and with the extra mass of the stowaway, they're sunk at that point. If they had exactly the fuel the needed to boost the pilot and the medical supplies, then slow them and dock them at the end of the trip, when they boosted the ~50kg of extra mass, they don't have enough fuel to slow into orbit and dock. Basically, our hero is going to slingshot right by the planet, then die. Hopefully, he walks out the airlock right behind her.

Oh, and in realistic rocketry, we try to have a reserve, in case things don't go quite right. Because, well, a system that needs everything to go right will go wrong.

Kalimackalimac on September 11th, 2019 12:04 pm (UTC)
What the Earth girl doesn't "fully understand" is not the physics, but the human-made restrictions under which the EDS operates. That's just more evidence that it's not the cold equations which are really responsible, but the humans who made the rules.

You're quite right about early SF being low-tech. I recommend watching SF movies of the period for a visual image of what sort of settings authors had in mind, or get hold of the original interior illustrations from the magazines if you can. But a lot is evident in the stories, and it's more extreme in earlier ones. The kind of Edison-like tinkering in E.E. Smith's The Skylark of Space (a touchstone work of the founding of the SF publishing genre, published 1928, but written several years earlier) was not an obsolete technology at the time but reads very oddly today. (It's also almost impossible to read today because the prose is terrible and the characterization worse. If you're wondering what good John W. Campbell did as an editor, he demanded prose which, if still wooden by today's standards, is a good deal better than that.)

The comment you quote is interesting, and I note that the story doesn't seem to say anything about what's supposed to happen to the EDS after it's delivered its cargo. But in the part being quoted at the start, again the girl is not intended to be stupid, nor to deserve her fate. She's ignorant and naive, which are very different from being stupid. But then some people can't tell the difference in real life either ...
Elenbarathi: Jessadriel_2016elenbarathi on September 11th, 2019 09:43 pm (UTC)
I've seen most of the SF movies of that time, and had read much of Doc Smith before I was 14. My father was a WWII Navy pilot and a lifelong SF geek; I grew up plundering his vast collection of paperbacks and magazines. My first memories of Halloween (in the early 60's) are of my Dad jerry-rigging a sound-system to broadcast the soundtrack of Forbidden Planet from our house. The first adult SF I ever read was I, Robot, when I was 8, in 1965. Being both a woman and a second-generation SF geek is always a little problematic, but especially at my age: a lot of people apparently don't realize that any Boomer women at all ever read science fiction. I certainly took more than my share of shit for it all through school.

In the story, the girl is not presented as stupid, no. If anyone is stupid, it's whoever thought an unguarded "AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY" sign on an unlocked door would suffice - but then, since the solitary pilot of this one-man vehicle is nevertheless packing a side-arm, apparently nobody DID think it would suffice. (Really, the more I look at this old story with today's eyes, the worse its premises appear.) The whole set-up is absurdly unrealistic: heads would absolutely be rolling for a security breach like that. But on the other hand - from a realistic viewpoint - the girl has made a monumentally stupid decision; not just "ignorant and naive" but actively bone-headed, in the characteristic boneheaded way of teenagers.

WTF did she think was going to happen? Obviously she didn't understand about the mass/fuel thing, but did she seriously think the authorities would just shake a finger at her, slap her wrist and let her see her brother anyway? The prospect of going to PRISON never even occurred to her? (Sheesh, prison on some back-water outworld; the airlock might be preferable.) Almost every female character from the Golden Age of Sci-Fi is fundamentally stupid, as well as being naive and ignorant - Susan Calvin is one of the rare exceptions, and even she is classically stupid whenever she's being portrayed as a woman, not (only) a robo-psychologist. But poor little Marilyn isn't anything but a sacrificial victim to a false god, as much as the poor girl in Stravinsky's 'Rites of Spring'. Her intellect, or lack of it, is almost wholly irrelevant to the story.

The ironic thing (or one of them) about 'The Cold Equations' is that it's supposed to be about Logic, but it only works on an emotional level. On that level, it works very well indeed, but after one stops weeping, one has to go "Wait a minute...", because the 'cold equations' add up to a very different sum than the one Campbell apparently wanted them to. It was human negligence killed that chick; the Laws of Physics were only accessories.