The Cold Equations

by Tom Godwin

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What are the pilot's characteristics in "The Cold Equations" by Tom Godwin?

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In the short story "The Cold Equations," the pilot Barton develops as the story progresses. Since that's the case, author Tom Godwin first depicts Barton as possessing the characteristics of emotional distance and the ability to rationalize, but Marilyn's presence soon brings out his empathetic nature.

Barton's emotional distance and ability to rationalize are portrayed in his reaction towards death at the beginning of the story. He is so accustomed to thinking rationally that he no longer feels emotional at the sight of men's deaths. His emotionless, objective rationality stems from his work as a pilot of an emergency rescue vessel. Due to his work, Barton has long since accepted the fact that men colonizing outer space are at the mercy of the laws of nature; there are few chances of survival. Yet, though Barton views death objectively and distantly, he must steel his nerves the moment he discovers there is a stowaway onboard because he is very reluctant to take any stranger's life:

[H]e had no choice in what he must do. There could be no alternative—but it required a few moments of conditioning for even an EDS pilot to prepare himself to walk across the room and coldly, deliberately, take the life of a man he had yet to meet.

Hence, Godwin does not characterize Barton as a cold person but rather as an emotionally distant person who has been desensitized by his environment. As the story progresses, his sensitivity returns.

When Barton realizes the stowaway is a young girl named Marilyn, his caring, empathetic characteristics emerge. Barton displays empathy for Marilyn by doing everything he can to try and save her or at least prolong her life, including contacting his commander to ask if there was a chance of an emergency rescue and receive permission to reduce his deceleration speed for a time. His empathetic, caring nature is further depicted when he says to Marilyn, "You'll never know how sorry I am," and reflects to himself that she'll return each night to his dreams to die all over again. His reflection shows just how much he will grieve her death.

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What does the pilot want in the Tom Godwin story "The Cold Equations"?

Tom Godwin's story "The Cold Equations" is a science fiction story about a girl who stows away on a supply ship bound for a planet called Woden.

Like any good science fiction, the story derives its drama from a realistic and believable situation that involves science. The story is set in the future when interplanetary travel has become frequent and mankind has begun to colonize other worlds. 

The story takes place inside a space vehicle called an Emergency Dispatch Ship, or EDS. These ships carry a relatively small amount of rocket fuel that is carefully calculated to be just enough to get them to their destination and back. When the girl stows away in hopes of visiting her brother on Woden, she adds extra weight to the ship. This will cause the ship to burn more fuel than expected, which would lead to its destruction.

The ship's pilot, Barton, discovers the stowaway and contacts his superior for instructions. In fact, Barton knows that he is supposed to jettison the girl to save the ship and its supplies, but he is hoping that his commander will give him permission to try to carry out the mission with her on board. Instead, the commander says this:


So you called me in the hope I could do something? I'm sorry--I can do nothing. This cruiser must maintain its schedule; the life of not one person but the lives of many depend on it. 

So what Barton wants is to try to save the girl. What he actually does is follow orders and jettison her to her death in space. You possibly also argue that what he most wants is to survive and stay out of trouble with his superior, since he is unwilling to defy his orders. 

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