How are life on Earth and life in outer space different in Tom Godwin's "The Cold Equations"?

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Tamara K. H. | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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In the short story "The Cold Equations," author Tom Godwin creates a very strong juxtaposition between Earth and outer space. The narrator describes Earth as a happy, peaceful place, where its occupants do their utmost to protect lives. But, in space, where there are very few occupants, any occupants are at the mercy of the laws of nature and chances of survival are few.

The narrator describes "gentle Earth" as being a "secure and peaceful" place, a place where "there was always assurance that tomorrow would come." While the description is a slight exaggeration, the description is certainly truer than it is for a remote place like the wilderness or outer space. On Earth, civilization creates security. While civilization can never completely win in the battle against the forces of nature, civilization can certainly subdue the potential total devastation of such forces. In contrast, in outer space, or even in the wilderness, where there is no civilization, the forces of nature are much more deadly.

Author Godwin gives us the tornado on Woden as an example. Only a total of 12 men are currently occupying Woden as they explore it, six men on one side of the Western Sea, six others "eight thousand miles away" on the other side of the Western Sea. Due to this lack of civilization, the tornado that tore through Group One's camp was completely devastating, tearing down all of its buildings. But the reason why it tore down all of its buildings was because there were so few in existence to begin with. In contrast, while a tornado in the middle of civilization on Earth certainly would cause a great deal of tragic destruction, the reality is that it would never cause total destruction because mankind has built far too many buildings for one tornado to destroy, making Earth a far more civilized place than any area lacking civilization like the wilderness or outer space.

Since outer space is not civilized, there are no ships that can speed to Marilyn's rescue the way they would on Earth. Since Marilyn is unaccustomed to anything but the civilization of Earth, when she acts upon impulse to stowaway, she does so because she can't fathom the extent of danger she could possibly put herself in. But, without civilization, she's subordinate to the laws of nature, and the laws of nature decree that her impulsive decision to stowaway can cost the lives of many people.

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