What is the main theme in the story "The Cold Equations" by Tom Godwin?

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shake99's profile pic

shake99 | Teacher | (Level 3) Senior Educator

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In Tom Godwin's science fiction story “The Cold Equations,” a young girl makes the fateful decision to stow away on a spaceship, hoping to visit her brother on a galactic outpost. She doesn't realize that her extra weight, as small as it might be, will cause the supply ship to run out of fuel and crash, necessitating the fatal need to force her off the ship and into the certain death of outer space.

Students usually say that the theme of this story is something along the lines of “the universe is a cold and uncaring place—its laws cannot be avoided.” While this is obviously true, we also have to look at how the human beings in the story react to what is happening. The pilot, whose life was endangered by the girl's thoughtless behavior, goes out of his way to help her speak to her brother one last time.

By the end of the story the girl is able to face her situation, walking into the air lock seconds before her death with “her head up,” instead of being emotionally broken.

With this in mind, the theme has to include something of the better side of human nature. It should be something like: even when events and circumstances are tragically beyond their control, human beings still have the ability to care for each other and find value in life.

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gbeatty's profile pic

gbeatty | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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The main theme of "The Cold Equations" is also the aspect of the story that makes it striking and important. It is the inexorable nature of the physical universe.

The cold equations that give the story its title are the math equations governing the pilot's decisions. Barton (the pilot) is not free to act on his own, and can't allow Marilyn to stay on board, because there is not enough fuel. As his commander says over the communicator, " You know you have a limited supply of fuel; you also know the law as well as I do."

It is these equations, and the strict laws of the physical universe that they express, that force Barton to jettison Marilyn. Because he knows the rules of the universe and she does not, he cannot try to take her to see her brother, or compromise in any way, because if he does, all the sick people on the planet Woden will die.

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troutmiller's profile pic

troutmiller | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Educator

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The main theme of "The Cold Equations" is about sacrifice.  One person, although a young, pretty teen who has seen very little of life yet, has to be sacrificed for the good of others.  Along with the pilot of the EDS, seven other people would die if she remained.  Her life was just one life.  If the pilot would not have followed the law, eight more lives would be lost. There had to be a sacrifice, and hers was the smaller of the two choices.

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