The Cold Equations

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I regularly listen to short stories on podcasts, among them also The Drabblecast, which recently had a somewhat longer story: The Cold Equations.

Normally, these stories don’t elicit a very strong reaction from me, but this time, it did. (From now on: spoiler warning, in case you want to listen to the story first. Do it, it’s worth it.)

There were two things that I realised while listening to the story. For one thing, the story was not exactly suited to be produced as a radio play. Or rather: the idea of the story would have been well suited: one room, two people talking about what it means to reach for the outer corner of the known universe. Perfect. In this case, however, the source was very literary. The dialogue sounded stilted on one hand, on the other hand the same dialogue was interspersed with the narrator’s philosophical musings that mostly spelled out the story’s main point, repeated over and over again, making it painfully clear what the author was aiming for.

The second thing I noticed was that during my listening, I was quite sure the author would go with a happy ending – no way he would jettison a young girl into space, right? The story was set up for some deus-ex-machina-like contraption that would turn the whole thing into roses and merriment. Of course, this ending would go against everything the story set up so far: that physics are physics, that action begets reaction without fail.

My surprise was all the bigger when I finally realised that the girl would be jettisoned. It did deliver the necessary, final punch to the story, that made it stand out in my eyes. It is also a testament to how much a good editor can actually improve a story. Apparently, the first draft of the story featured the happy ending the whole story seems to aim for, and only through the intervention of the editor the author came to the only logical ending …

As such, it is classic science fiction: the “future” as a tool to meditate about some human condition. The story for me is not so much about the hard rules of physics, but to a larger degree about de-humanised people that are so bound by rules that they forget their humanity in order to comply with those rules. It’s not the equations that are cold. Humans are.