The Cold Equations

by Tom Godwin
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What is the plot summary of "The Cold Equations"?

"He was one of many. We were few."

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"The Cold Equations" tells the story of a spaceship carrying medical supplies to a colony planet. Within the context of the story's setting, interstellar transport has been streamlined down to the smallest degree, so that any external factors outside those initial mission parameters (added mass for example) would cause the mission to fail. For this reason, it is standard protocol that any stowaway be jettisoned into space.

In this story, the spaceship's pilot discovers that a young girl, Marilyn Cross, has sneaked onboard, in the hopes of visiting her brother in the colonies. However, in the process of sneaking onboard, she has endangered the mission, with the ship's fuel allocations no longer sufficient to carry it to its destination. Marilyn herself had been unaware of these factors when stowing aboard. The title of the story reflects the cruel situation she and the pilot find themselves in, with Marilyn killed for the sake of the mission.

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"The Cold Equations," by Tom Godwin, is essentially a science-fiction interpretation of philosophy's trolley car problem in space. It follows the character of Barton, a starship pilot who discovers a stowaway on board his vehicle. The "cold equation" in the situation is that any extra mass—that is, the stowaway—will irrevocably burn out the ship's fuel faster and cause it to crash before it reaches its destination. The only way to prevent this from happening is by jettisoning the unwanted cargo from the ship. There is only one problem, however. The stowaway is a young girl name Marylin from Earth who had no idea how fixed and unfeeling the laws of space are. Complicating the problem further is the fact that the ship carries medicine required to save half a dozen people at the ship's destination. In the end, the cold equation comes down to whether to save one person and kill several others or kill one person and save the rest. Despite every attempt to save Marylin from her fate, nothing can be done. After a brief hour on board the ship, Marylin is finally ejected by the pilot. Tragic as that may be by Earth standards, that is the cold logic of the frontier in space.

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In "The Cold Equations," what follows is a science fiction short story with a very definable plot.  Plot involves six main elements:  the exposition, the conflict (or inciting incident), the rising action, the climax, the falling action, and the resolution.  Each can be found within "The Cold Equations."

The exposition of a story is where we learn about the setting, characters, and general situation.  The exposition of "The Cold Equations" is when readers learn all about a spaceship called Stardust which is an EDS (an Emergency Dispatch Ship) and its mission:  to find the pioneer planet of Woden and bring medical supplies to the residents there.  Next comes the conflict (or the inciting incident) which is what causes tension to rise.  The inciting incident here is when Marilyn is found on the ship.  From here on, the tension rises.  We learn all about Marilyn who is eighteen and stowed away on the ship in order to simply see her brother, who is one of the injured colonists on Woden.  We learn that Marilyn had no idea about the important law that now governs her fate:  anyone found on a starship is rocketed into space.  Why?  These ships on medical missions hold only the amount of fuel needed,  not even enough to transport one more passenger.  The tension rises even further in the rising action when Marilyn states her case, indicating she thought a fine would be appropriate, but not death.  The captain disagrees and, in the climax of the story, sends Marilyn rocketing into space.  It is Barton's explanation that makes up the resolution here:  if Marilyn was not sent to her death, it would have meant the deaths of all of the other colonists on Woden, including Marilyn's own brother.  Marilyn's fate, then, saves the mission.

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"The Cold Equations" by Tom Godwin is a science-fiction short story that tells of a teen-aged girl, Marilyn, who sneaks aboard a space craft bound for a colony where her brother is stationed.  Although she realizes that being a stowaway is breaking the law, she believes that she will simply have to pay a fine.  When the pilot discovers Marilyn, however, he informs her that she must be ejected from the ship, because her additional weight will jeopardize the entire voyage and the lives of the sleeping crew members.  Ultimately, Marilyn accepts her fate and is jettisoned into space.

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