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Cory Doctorow: Cold Equations and Moral Hazard

Legendary science fiction editor Gardner Dozois once said that the job of a science fiction writer was to notice the car and the movie theater and anticipate the drive-in – and then go on to predict the sexual revolution. I love that quote, because it highlights the key role of SF in examining the social consequences of technology – and because it shows how limited our social imaginations are. Today, we might ask the SF writer to also predict how convincing the nation’s teenagers to carry a piece of government-issued photo ID (a driver’s license) as a precondition for participating in the sexual revolution set the stage for the database nation, the idea that people are the sort of thing that you count and account for, with the kind of precision that the NSA is now understood to bring to the problem.

The thing I treasure about science fiction is its utility as a toolkit for thinking about the relationship between technological change and human beings. This is why I value ‘‘design fiction’’ so much: an architect might make a visualization that flies you through her as-yet-unbuilt building, an engineer might build a prototype to show you what he’s thinking of inventing, but through design fiction, a writer can take you on a tour of how a person living with that technology might feel. That’s the kind of contribution to the discussion about which technology we should make, and how we should use it, that can make all the difference.

Like you, I am a human being alive in a period of unprecedented technological upheaval, and like you, I’m a person who reads a lot of science fiction. Every question today, from climate change to education, from social justice to public health, is an intensely technological one. Like you, I unconsciously parse out complex technological questions all day long: at the grocery store, at the office, at home, and out in the wider world. My impressions of daily life are often accompanied by remembered scenes from stories and novels.

Two of these stories have been coming to mind more often than the others lately, and not because of their wisdom: rather, because they embody the worst parts of modern shortsightedness. They present a kind of blueprint for disaster, a willful and destructive blindness whose self-deception is perfectly mirrored in these two classics of SF.

The first is ‘‘The Cold Equations’’, Tom Godwin’s classic 1954 Astounding story about a shuttle pilot who has to kill a girl who has stowed away on his ship. The pilot, Barton, is on a mission to deliver medicine to a group of explorers on a distant world. They have contracted a fatal disease, and without the medicine, they will all die. The pilot has just gotten underway when he sees his fuel gauge dropping at a faster rate than it should. He deduces from this that there’s a stowaway aboard and after a search, he discovers a young girl.

She has stowed away in order to be reunited with her brother, who is on the plague-stricken world (though he’s a continent away from the sickness). She believes that she is to be fined for her rule-breaking, but then a stricken Barton explains the facts of the universe to her. The rescue ship has only enough fuel to reach the plague-planet, and with the girl’s additional mass, it won’t arrive. She will have to be pushed out of the airlock, otherwise the sick explorers will die of the plague. If Barton could, he’d sacrifice himself to let her live, but she can’t land the spaceship. It’s entirely out of his hands.

As the truth dawns on her, she weeps and protests: ‘‘I didn’t do anything!’’

But we know better, as does Barton – and as, eventually, does she. She has violated the laws of physics. The equations are there, and they say she must die. Not because the universe thirsts for her vengeance. There is no passion in her death. She must die because the inescapable, chilly math of the situation demands it.

Barton wanted her to live. Apparently, editor John W. Campbell sent back three rewrites in which the pilot figured out how to save the girl. He was adamant that the universe must punish the girl.

The universe wasn’t punishing the girl, though. Godwin was – and so was Barton (albeit reluctantly).

The parameters of ‘‘The Cold Equations’’ are not the inescapable laws of physics. Zoom out beyond the page’s edges and you’ll find the author’s hands carefully arranging the scenery so that the plague, the world, the fuel, the girl and the pilot are all poised to inevitably lead to her execution. The author, not the girl, decided that there was no autopilot that could land the ship without the pilot. The author decided that the plague was fatal to all concerned, and that the vaccine needed to be delivered within a timeframe that could only be attained through the execution of the stowaway.

It is, then, a contrivance. A circumstance engineered for a justifiable murder. An elaborate shell game that makes the poor pilot – and the company he serves – into victims every bit as much as the dead girl is a victim, forced by circumstance and girlish naïveté to stain their souls with murder.

Moral hazard is the economist’s term for a rule that encourages people to behave badly. For example, a rule that says that you’re not liable for your factory’s pollution if you don’t know about it encourages factory owners to totally ignore their effluent pipes – it turns willful ignorance into a profitable strategy.

‘‘The Cold Equations’’ is moral hazard in action. It is a story designed to excuse the ship’s operators – from the executives to ground control to the pilot – for standardizing on a spaceship with no margin of safety. A spaceship with no autopilot, no fuel reserves, and no contingency margin in its fuel calculations.

‘‘The Cold Equations’’ never asks why the explorers were sent off-planet without a supply of vaccines. It never asks what failure of health-protocol led to the spread of the disease on the distant, unexplored world.

‘‘The Cold Equations’’ shoves every one of those questions out the airlock along with the young girl. It barks at us that now is not the time for pointing fingers, because there is an emergency. It says that now is the time to pull together, the time for all foolish girls to die to save brave explorers from certain death, and not the time for assigning blame.

But if a crisis of your own making isn’t the time to lay blame, then the optimal strategy is to ensure that the crisis never ends.

Which brings me to Farnham’s Freehold, a strong contender for the most offensive of all of Heinlein’s novels. Published in 1964, it features a nuclear holocaust and a post-apocalyptic world in which African-Americans are ascendant and have enslaved the remaining white people, whom they occasionally eat. Incredibly, this does not automatically qualify Farnham’s Freehold for Heinlein’s Most Offensive prize, because his typewriter also produced books like Sixth Column (America under the cruel dominion of the Yellow Peril), Friday (sure, rape’s bad, but hey, relax and enjoy it, why don’t you?), and I Will Fear No Evil (there are no words).

Most of the criticism of Farnham’s Freehold quite rightly focuses on its blatant racism and, secondarily, on its vile sexism. But for this essay, let’s focus on ‘‘Lifeboat rules.’’

Hugh Farnham, the hero of Farnham’s Freehold, has a signature move: when people disagree with him, he barks ‘‘Lifeboat rules!’’ at them and pats his sidearm. Hugh Farnham is the proprietor of a nuclear fallout shelter that has managed, thanks to his excellent timing and foresight, to have rescued his family and some of their friends. The shelter is their ‘‘lifeboat,’’ the only thing standing between them and certain death in an uncaring universe where the cold equations of nuclear fission dictate that rules must be followed.

Poor Hugh is a good guy, but he has the responsibility of taking care of the lifeboat’s passengers. That means that he’s got to bear the sidearm, and threaten his friends and family with lethal violence if they get out of line. It’s for their own good.

Heinlein’s Hugh Farnham is a character who is in charge of everything except the circumstances that led to him having to coerce, cajole, and terrorize the people around him. He’s that character because Heinlein wrote him that way.

Every once in a while you find yourself in a lifeboat where a single stupid move can kill everyone. But a science fiction writer whose story’s boundary extends to the boat’s gunwales, and no further – not to the poleconomy that convinced a nation to build backyard bunkers rather than rising up en masse against Mutually Assured Destruction, say – is a science fiction writer who has considered the car and the movie and invented the drive-in without ever thinking about the sexual revolution or the database-nation.

The thing about Cold Equations is that they aren’t the product of unfeeling physics. They are parameterized by human beings.

The thing about lifeboat rules is that they are an awfully good deal for lifeboat captains.

Even saints get exasperated with other humans from time to time. What a treat it would be if the rest of the world would just realize that what’s best for you is simply the best course of action, period. That’s the moral hazard in cold equations, the existential crisis of lifeboat rules. If being in a lifeboat gives you the power to make everyone else shut the hell up and listen (or else), then wouldn’t it be awfully convenient if our ship were to go down?

Every time someone tells you that the environment is important, sure, but we can’t afford to take a bite out of the economy to mitigate global warming, ask yourself what’s out of the frame on this cold equation. Every time you hear that education is vital and taking care of the poor is our solemn duty, but we must all tighten in our belts while our lifeboat rocks in the middle of the precarious, crisis-torn economic seas, ask yourself whether the captain of our lifeboat had any role in the sinking of the ship.

Science fiction is supposed to teach us how to think about the future. The intellectual dishonesty in ‘‘The Cold Equations’’ and Farnham’s Freehold are not isolated incidents, though: they’re recurring motifs that persist to this day (just have a look at Sandra Bullock’s struggles with the cold equations of Gravity if you don’t believe me, then watch Jack Bauer torture a terrorist on 24 to see some modern lifeboat rules).

They have something to teach us, all right: that stories about how we can’t afford to hew to our values in time of crisis are a handy addition to every authoritarian’s playbook, a fine friend of plutocrats, and they reek of self-serving bullshit every time they’re deployed.


Comment from D. G. Grace
Time March 2, 2014 at 12:15 pm

I hate “me too” posts, but this is astonishing. I wish I’d written this; it incorporates arguments I’ve been making for years against “The Cold Equations” and against several Heinlein works. Of _I Will Fear No Evil_, Cory Doctorow says “there are no words.” Here I have to disagree. There are many words–too many, in fact to fit into so small a space. Still, brilliant arguments. Wonderful piece of writing.

Comment from O. Milne
Time March 3, 2014 at 12:03 am

Interesting piece. I actually read Farnham’s Freehold as a heavy-handed anti-racism screed, along the lines of ‘LOOK HOW BAD RACISM IS WHEN IT GOES THE OTHER WAY!’ but I guess that might just have been the most charitable interpretation, having not read any other Heinlein.

Comment from CaptSutter
Time March 3, 2014 at 12:11 am

The Greens in Germany said much the same thing before voting for joining the war in Afghanistan.
I guess it is important to remember how you got here and where you want to go. “Life Boat Rules” says a lot about revenge and justice. On the outside chance that the captain led you into this mess, then mutiny the bastard, you are better off without him.

Comment from Christian
Time March 3, 2014 at 1:36 am

Hi Cory, really like this piece. I agree though I wonder where you would put the Walking Dead in that analysis. As someone who has promoted this particular version of bourgeois apocalypse over the years, don’t you agree that it is the ultimate example of lifeboat rules and the framing of conditions that justify the worst in humans?


Comment from Dave Bush
Time March 3, 2014 at 1:40 am

Have I missed something? To me Gravity was all about a series of 1 in a million chances for survival when all the sensible precautions had been taken and failed.

(The rest I completely agree with.)

Comment from Henry
Time March 3, 2014 at 3:47 am

I worry that the people who are pushing “climate change” as a reason to radically hobble our economy in ways that fit their ‘progressive’ agenda are guilty of calling “lifeboat rules” in this very manner.

Comment from konshtok
Time March 3, 2014 at 4:03 am

“lifeboat rules”=”lifeboat earth” ?

but then again lefties are notoriously non self reflective

Why not write a follow up story about the inquest into the circumstances of Ms Cross’ death? a unfanfic if you will

Comment from Bob LeDrew
Time March 3, 2014 at 4:23 am

Thank you for a very thought-provoking post. Also for confirming that I probably don’t need to read any more Heinlein than I already have.

Comment from Hugh Spencer
Time March 3, 2014 at 6:09 am

Yes. And the intellectual dishonesty goes much further than science fiction. I’ve always viewed Survivor and many of the competition based “reality” TV shows as training videos for Social Darwinism.

Comment from kingLu
Time March 3, 2014 at 6:18 am

where it says ;
“Barton wanted her to live. Apparently, editor John W. Campbell sent back three rewrites in which the pilot figured out how to save the girl. He was adamant that the universe must punish the girl.”
the pronoun “He” is for me ambiguous… editor, writer, or spaceship pilot ?

Comment from Lexasaurus
Time March 3, 2014 at 7:39 am

Whatever you may think of Naomi Klein, she had a good point in The Shock Doctrine about the advantages (for some) of provoking crises. There are an awful lot of powerful people who go around breaking windows at night, and then showing up the next morning with a glazier’s truck demanding profits and praise. In Michigan, this takes the form of cutting funding for schools and municipalities, then appointing emergency managers (lifeboat captains?) to deal with the inevitable crisis by selling off public assets and ignoring democratically elected leadership. Urban school districts have lost 57% of their funds in the past few years, but they aren’t allowed to cut costs nearly as fast. But obviously their problems are their own fault because of mismanagement. An emergency manager from the corporate world will fix things, and his friends who run for-profit charter schools will get richer in the process.

Comment from strangefriend
Time March 3, 2014 at 8:46 am

You’re criticizing Heinlein? Gasp.
But you’re right. If I had really know the libertarian/paleoconservative bent of his politics, I wouldn’t have thought he was so cool in my teens.

Comment from JonO
Time March 3, 2014 at 10:06 am

Obviously the beginning of Doctorow’s companion piece to “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Publishing Science Fiction” to be called the Complete Idiot writes about Science Fiction.

Mr. Doctorow any work of fiction, including War and Peace, The Great Gatsby, Hamlet, or Farenheit 451 can be shown to induce what you think of as moral hazard because the author deliberately creates the circumstances that his characters must create. To condemn Hugh Farnum because MAD seemed to be the only response to the threat from Russia (it really existed and all your wishing won’t make it unreal) is, quite simply, your own creation of a “moral hazard.”

Comment from Kevin Carson
Time March 3, 2014 at 12:50 pm

The ship apparently lacked medical equipment capable of performing limb amputations on enough of the crew to equal the girl’s weight, which I expect many of them would have volunteered for.

Comment from David Dyer-Bennet
Time March 3, 2014 at 2:32 pm

Lifeboats are mentioned exactly twice in FF (regexp search for life.*boat finds only two lines, both of which are valid hits), so describing this as any kind of “signature line” for Hugh Farnham is nonsense.

As to moral hazard, “The Cold Equations” is about the pernicious human belief that the power of human emotion can rise above the laws of physics.

Comment from Debussy Fields
Time March 3, 2014 at 4:48 pm

If the girl had been saved, the story would have given one a period of tension, then a pleasant sense of relief. You are criticizing it for not following the standard template. You behave as if the author and editor have actually killed a person. There is a difference between reality and the contrivances of fiction. Quite an embarrassingly uninsightful essay.

Comment from Andrew Kane
Time March 3, 2014 at 8:17 pm

While “Lifeboat Rules” might not be a prominent phrase in “Farnham’s Freehold”, the phrase does figure prominently in “The Number of the Beast”.

For those who criticize Heinlein as a “paleoconservative” or “authoritarian”, a reminder that he was a Socialist as well as campaign manager for Upton Sinclair’s run for Governor of California.

Read him or don’t, but he was a real, complex person, not a bogeyman or a cartoon.

Comment from Fitz
Time March 3, 2014 at 8:42 pm

Nice article…I was probably 11 or 12 when I first read The Cold Equations, and I recall sympathizing rather strongly with Marilyn. Re-reading as a young adult didn’t change that much.

Comment from John
Time March 3, 2014 at 9:16 pm

@ Dyer-Bennet, bravo. The basic idea that feelings trump reality underpins most political arguments today (from “both” sides, sadly). That the paleo-libertarians (the only ones willing to say “we can’t afford your wars OR your social services”) are so hated by the left was such a surprise to me as a youth – “I want you to be free to be who you want to be, and want you to let me be” was and is somehow . . . hateful? I believe in all of the Bill of Rights, not selective ones. And, Apple was started by Jobs and Woz, not by the NSA.

Cory, Fiction is where an author sets up a situation to tell a story. I thought you wrote books? I won’t push that further . . . but . . .

You are ignoring the cold equations. Postulating that anthropogenic global warming is real, study after study shows that spending money on mitigation produces far more net good for humanity than choking down economies with carbon taxes. I’m afraid you have tried (poorly) to create your own Cold Equations that show that extending misery to humanity through destruction of economic progress is somehow superior to building strong economies that have the financial wealth to react to global warming.

The Cold Equations show that the Great Society has not decreased poverty, but has increased single-mother-led households, which produce children (of all races!) who will experience a never-ending stream of men in their lives, none of which will do what your father did for you. Education, yes? Helping the poor up? Sure. Creating dependency without end? The Cold Equations point out all of the negative social consequences of well meaning, feeling-based policies.

I still enjoy reading Boing-Boing, though.

Comment from Chris DeVito
Time March 3, 2014 at 9:29 pm

“The Cold Equations” bears a more-than-passing resemblance to “Precedent” (New Worlds, May 1952, E.C. Tubb writing as Charles Gray). I’ll bet you dollars to bitcoins JWC swiped the plot wholesale and prodded Godwin into writing it (with the ending JWC preferred, i.e., shoving the dumb bitch out the airlock).

Comment from Yoik
Time March 3, 2014 at 11:38 pm

I am unsuprised that you dislike RH’s politics, but his approach to examining implications of ideas is one I would love to see you emulate. He was often a “shock jock” of SF willing to put inconceivable ideas into contexts that made them sound realistic. The most shocking thing for me about Farnam was well thought out rules and policies for managing slaves. I never researched whether they were cribbed from history or his inventions, but was forced to engage the possibility of a slave owner who was not mindlessly evil.

Comment from Thorne Lawler
Time March 4, 2014 at 12:12 am

Thank you Mr Doctorow for criticizing contrived scenarios which purport to justify the author’s ethical kinks!

I agree with you, but I have to wonder if there is something a little contrived about Little Brother – The clownish, irrational fury with which its fictionalized DHS stomps on California, the seeming impotence of the bay area’s local government and citizens to resist.

Every author has an agenda, a bias.
This makes contrived settings, which arguably make worse writing.
The thing is – writing which does not do this teaches us _nothing_!

It seems like you’re objecting to the wrong thing: Contrivance *is* science fiction. Making a point is what makes much of SF great! The problem isn’t with the mechanism, it’s with the dehumanizing, obscenity-justifying points which these particular stories choose to make.

You write stories in which the contrivance justifies questioning authority, personal accountability, technological competence as a kind of literacy – all things I wholeheartedly endorse. If you weren’t making those points, I might find the scenario unpalatable, but I don’t, because I agree with you.

Or, in brief:
Contrived premises are ok, but don’t be a d*ck!

Comment from Jim Henley
Time March 4, 2014 at 4:51 am

As to moral hazard, “The Cold Equations” is about the pernicious human belief that the power of human emotion can rise above the laws of physics.

As opposed to the pernicious human tendency to lay off ethical and social dysfunction on supposed natural law.

“The Cold Equations” is comfort food for nerds. There’s a reason why the killer is the viewpoint character rather than his victim.

Comment from Stephen S. Power
Time March 4, 2014 at 10:37 am

I don’t get your outrage over “Cold Equations.” If there was an easy way out, say, throw all the baggage out of the air lock, there’s no story, which is a straight out of Spock (and Mill) Utilitarian situation: she has to die so many more can live. That she got herself into the situation by stowing away and that the reader sees and can, thus, sympathize, with her instead of the dying men on the destination planet, only makes it more tragic by tuggng at the reader’s hearstrings.

In addition, I think your argument has another side with undermines yours. Yes, the author set her up to die. But he could have also made our naif with sweet motives a murderer trying to escape justice. How readers might have cheered his escaping one frying pan only to fall into the fire of physics and just desserts by getting thrown out their airlock.

Comment from RHJunior
Time March 4, 2014 at 3:07 pm

you’ve got your lifeboat scenarios reversed. It’s the environmentalists, not the rest of us, who are ranting and raving that we are on a leaking lifeboat. It is the social engineers and their government programs, not the sensible economists, who are trying to roar up a panic about sinking boats. In fact their first cry in both cases is that they can’t wait for the actual science to come in, we must ACT…!!!

But on the core of your column, you are correct. It’s bloody obvious that the Cold Equations was a contrived scenario, one fabricated to rationalize cold blooded murder— and every re-edit required making the scenario more and more unlikely. It’s the sort of story that appeals to those who wish to blame God, or Fate, or the cold uncaring universe, for their own wretched situation and for their own cold, uncaring actions, and to justify their sloth in finding a way to amend the crisis without selling their souls.

Comment from Slex
Time March 5, 2014 at 3:29 am

I’m all for tackling global warming and affordable education, but I find the link from “The Cold Equations” to the opposition of these overtly strenuous.

I also challenge the application of the term “moral hazard” to this situation. You have moral hazard when someone is willing to get into a (potentially) profitable situation when the costs (should they arise) are borne by somebody else. Were they borne by the very same person, he/she wouldn’t do it.

There is a difference between making a choice of entering a certain situation with certain tradeoffs and making a choice with certain tradeoffs should a situation arise. To make it a moral hazard, the protagonist in the story should have at least known the tradeoffs (girl vs. the others) in advance.

Also, speaking of economics, another term of interest in this context would be “sunk costs”. Whether the ship sunk because of the captain’s actions or because of an iceberg should be irrelevant from the point of view of getting the most out of the circumstances.

This piece too self-righteous, IMO. What’s next on the line – “Sophie’s Choice”?

Comment from Rascal Face
Time March 5, 2014 at 1:45 pm

Lol I love the climate change deniers trying to flip the metaphor. Are there any good science fiction stories where the captain denies the ship is sinking in the first place?

Comment from Roman
Time March 5, 2014 at 3:29 pm

Great article Cory, but read some books about WW2

Comment from Stuart in Austin
Time March 5, 2014 at 8:44 pm

I notice many appeals to the laws of physics including the one by the original author of the story. Let us assume for a moment that the mass of a teenage girl is enough to prevent the ship from reaching its destination. (Think for a minute though what percentage of the mass of the entire system she represents.) By the time the pilot notices the excess fuel consumption, the issue has already been decided. The ship won’t make it. The people who appeal to the laws of physics need to learn some physics. I would like to see the letters Campbell received after he published this. He was full of crap. Cory understands quite well that an author sets the boundaries within which his characters work. He is pointing out here that some authors are honest and some are not. The field of science fiction is not well served by the dishonest authors.

Comment from strannik
Time March 6, 2014 at 9:13 am

Well, it’s true that context matters, and the stories cited here don’t do an effective job at building believable context. But it doesn’t follow that the questions posed by ‘lifeboat’ stories are “self-serving bullshit”. Asking whether certain morally objectionable actions can be justified under a particular set of circumstances is a perfectly fine thing to do in fiction; just because Godwin did a poor job of posing the question doesn’t mean that the question itself isn’t legitimate. I’m reminded of the old cliche, ‘Do the ends justify the means?’ To which the correct answer is, ‘Whose ends? By what means?’

Comment from Thomas Parker
Time March 6, 2014 at 4:24 pm

We’re stopping the presses to trumpet that writers – all writers – are deck stackers? Must have been a slow news day.

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