The Cold Equations

by Tom Godwin

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Contrasts between life on Earth and life in outer space in "The Cold Equations."


"The Cold Equations" contrasts life on Earth, which is governed by human emotions and societal norms, with life in outer space, where survival depends on strict adherence to unyielding physical laws. Earth offers comfort and leniency, while space demands harsh decisions, as seen when the protagonist must eject an innocent stowaway to save the mission.

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How does life on Earth contrast with life on the space frontier in "The Cold Equations"?

One important difference this story shows between life on Earth and life in space is that on Earth, there is room to make mistakes and rules are not so harsh. On Earth, people are allowed to try again if they fail at something. If we make a miscalculation, we have the opportunity to retrace our steps and start over. We can come up with creative solutions to difficult problems that might seem to have only one answer from the start. In space, however, the rules are much more harsh and strict. Because of the risk that comes with space travel, there is only one chance, one answer, and no room for error.

In “The Cold Equations,” the space ship on which the story takes place is equipped with exactly the right amount of fuel to complete its mission, which involves transporting medical supplies. When the pilot of the spaceship, Barton, discovers the stowaway, Marilyn, he is faced with a choice. Her weight was not part of the calculation when they fueled the ship, so it’s going to throw off the mission. The only option is to get rid of the stowaway, which will mean ending Marilyn’s life. Failure to eject Marilyn will cost the life of the colonists who are awaiting the medical supplies.

If this situation were to happen on Earth, it might have a much rosier outcome. When Barton first finds Marilyn and she expects to simply have to pay a fine as a stowaway, he thinks:

In a way, she could not be blamed for ignorance of the law; 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.

This line epitomizes the difference between Earth and the space frontier. Where Marilyn comes from, rules are made to be broken, and she expects to discover a similar attitude when she is found on the ship. Sadly, though, there is absolutely nothing Barton can do to save her, and they both must face the cold, hard facts of reality.

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"The Cold Equations" contrasts life on earth with life in the space frontier. In what important ways are those settings different?

The central difference, which of course relates to the title of this chilling short story, is that life in the space frontier is much harsher and crueller than life on earth. Note how the narrator tells us, as Barton contemplates the way he must eject his stowaway into space to face a certain death, that this was the "law" and there was no "appeal":

It was a law not of men's choosing but made imperative by the circumstances of the space frontier.

The narrator goes on to explain how fuel is measured out exactly and even a slight addition in the weight of space shuttles would result in their destruction:

The stowaway had signed his own death warrant when he concealed himself on the ship; he could not be permittted to take seven others with him.

Such "cold equations" rule the space frontier, causing Barton, even though he would love to be able to save the life of Marilyn, to actually have to be the agent of her death. The realities of life in the space frontier call for such hard and unyielding rules that result in such difficult consequences for people such as Marilyn. This is the biggest central difference between life on earth and life in space.

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How does life on Earth differ from life in outer space in "The Cold Equations"?

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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