The Cold Equations

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The Cold Equations
by Tom Godwin
Genre(s)science fiction
Published inAstounding
Publication typemagazine
Publication dateAugust 1954

"The Cold Equations" is a science fiction short story by American writer Tom Godwin, first published in Astounding Magazine in August 1954. In 1970, the Science Fiction Writers of America selected it as one of the best science-fiction short stories published before 1965, and it was therefore included in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume One, 1929–1964. The story has been widely anthologized and dramatized.


The story takes place entirely aboard an Emergency Dispatch Ship (EDS) headed for the frontier planet Woden with a load of desperately-needed medical supplies. The pilot, Barton, discovers a stowaway: an eighteen-year-old girl. By law, all EDS stowaways are to be jettisoned because EDS vessels carry no more fuel than is absolutely necessary to land safely at their destination. The girl, Marilyn, merely wants to see her brother Gerry and was not aware of the law. When boarding the EDS, Marilyn saw the "UNAUTHORIZED PERSONNEL KEEP OUT!" sign, but thought she would at most have to pay a fine if she were caught. Barton explains that her presence dooms the mission by exceeding the weight limit, and the subsequent crash would kill both of them and doom the colonists awaiting the medical supplies. After contacting her brother for the last moments of her life, Marilyn willingly walks into the airlock and is ejected into space.


Critic and engineer Gary Westfahl has said that because the proposition depends upon systems that were built without enough margin for error, the story is good physics, but lousy engineering, and that it frustrated him so much he decided it was "not worth (his) time. Very poor Engineering."[1] Writer Cory Doctorow has made a similar argument, noting that the constraints under which the characters operate are decided by the writers, and not therefore the "inescapable laws of physics". He argues that the decision of the writer to give the vessel no margin of safety and a marginal fuel supply focuses reader attention on the "need" for tough decisions in time of crisis and away from the responsibility for proper planning to ensure safety in the first place. Doctorow sees this as an example of moral hazard.[2]

Writer Don Sakers' short story "The Cold Solution" (Analog, July 1991),[3] which deconstructs the premise, received the 1992 Analog Analytical Laboratory award as the readers' favorite Analog short story of 1991.[4]

In 1977 Richard Harter wrote a detailed analysis of the story, with special attention to the possible negligence of those who designed the situation such that dilemmas like this could occur, and how this paralleled similar concerns involving industrial safety legislation. He later reprinted the article as a web page and then posted it in usenet discussion group.[5][6]

The story was shaped by Astounding editor John W. Campbell, who sent "Cold Equations" back to Godwin three times before he got the version he wanted, because "Godwin kept coming up with ingenious ways to save the girl!"[7] In a 2019 essay in Locus, author Cory Doctorow criticized Campbell's decision as one to turn the story "into a parable about the foolishness of women and the role of men in guiding them to accept the cold, hard facts of life."[8] In 2016, Campbell biographer Alec Nevala-Lee noted that the story was published at a time when Campbell had embraced contrarianism, on the basis that (in Campbell's words) there was "no viewpoint that has zero validity — though some have very small validity, or very limited application"; Nevala-Lee also revealed that Campbell described the story as a "gimmick on the proposition 'Human sacrifice is absolutely unacceptable.' So we deliberately, knowingly and painfully sacrifice a young, pretty girl… and make the reader accept that it is valid!"[9]

Similar concept in earlier stories[edit]

The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction points to A Plunge into Space (Robert Cromie, 1890)[10] as having a subplot very similar to "The Cold Equations".[11] "A Weighty Decision" (Al Feldstein in Weird Science, 1952)[12] and the story "Precedent" (E. C. Tubb in New Worlds, 1952).[13] also have been cited as potential inspirations. In all three, as in "The Cold Equations", a stowaway must be ejected from a spaceship because the fuel aboard is only sufficient for the planned mission mass.[14]

David Drake stated "The plot is lifted directly from 'A Weighty Decision,' a story in the May–June, 1952, issue of the EC comic Weird Science. I don't believe that coincidence could have created plots so similar in detail" and ends with "The plot is such an obvious steal from the comic that I think Godwin would have concealed it better if he hadn't intended to use a completely different ending. I can also imagine that Godwin wouldn't have expressed his qualms at changing the ending to Campbell, who wouldn't have winked at direct plagiarism. (Not that EC had any legitimate gripe: Bill Gaines laughed in later years about the way he and his staff at EC stole plots from SF stories and ran them without credit.)"[15]


Film and television[edit]


  • The story was also adapted into an episode of the radio program X Minus One in 1955. In a 1958 episode of Exploring Tomorrow in 1958, the stowaway is a woman trying to visit her husband to make amends for an affair.
  • Another adaptation featured as a part of Faster Than Light on CBC Radio's Sunday Showcase in September 2002 by Joe Mahoney. The program was hosted by science fiction writer Robert J. Sawyer.[20]


The fiction podcast The Drabblecast released a full-cast reading of the story on July 15, 2013.[21]


Tied for 9th place in Astounding/Analog magazine's 1971 All-Time Poll short fiction category.[22]

Placed 8th in the 1999 Locus Awards for best novelette.[23]

Publication history[edit]

Original publication:

  • Godwin, Tom; Freas (illus.) (August 1954). "The Cold Equations". Astounding Science Fiction. Vol. LIII, no. 6. New York City: Street & Smith Publications. pp. 62–84.

The following anthologies have included "The Cold Equations":

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Westfahl, Gary (1996). Cosmic Engineers: A Study of Hard Science Fiction. Praeger. ISBN 9780313297274.
  2. ^ ""Cold Equations and Moral Hazard", by Cory Doctorow". 2 March 2014.
  3. ^ Sakers, Don; Harris, Dell (illus.) (July 1991). "The Cold Solution". Analog Science Fiction and Fact. pp. 211–219.
  4. ^ "The Cold Solution". Internet Speculative Fiction Database. Retrieved 29 April 2021.
  5. ^ Harter, Richard (December 1999). "The Cold Equations - A Critical Study". Archived from the original on December 8, 2013.
  6. ^ The Cold Equations - A critical study (1977) by Richard Harter, rec.arts.sf.written Nov 30, 1999, 3:00:00 AM
  7. ^ Green, Joe (Fall 2006). "Our Five Days with John W. Campbell". The Bulletin of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. No. 171. p. 13. Archived from the original on June 18, 2006.
  8. ^ "Cory Doctorow: Jeannette Ng Was Right: John W. Campbell Was a Fascist". Locus Online. 2019-11-04. Retrieved 2019-11-05.
  9. ^ Astounding Stories #13: “The Cold Equations”, by Alec Nevala-Lee, at; published July 6, 2016; retrieved November 7, 2020
  10. ^ Cromie, Robert (1890). A Plunge into Space (PDF). London: Frederick Warne and Co. Retrieved 28 April 2021.
  11. ^ "Cromie, Robert". The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. November 13, 2019. Retrieved 29 April 2021.
  12. ^ Feldstein, Al; Wood, Wally (pencils) (May 1952). "A Weighty Decision". Weird Science. Vol. 1, no. 13.
  13. ^ Gray, Charles; Clothier (illus.) (May 1952). "Precedent". New Worlds. Vol. 5, no. 15. pp. 28–39. Retrieved 28 April 2021.
  14. ^ Brotherton, Mike (July 2011). "The Cold Legacies". Lightspeed. Retrieved 28 April 2021.
  15. ^ Godwin, Tom (2003). The Cold Equations & Other Stories. "Afterword: Sometime It All Works". ISBN 9780743436014.
  16. ^ "The Cold Equations (TV Movie 1996) - IMDb". Retrieved September 23, 2015.
  17. ^ The Stowaway
  18. ^ Sci-Fi Short film 'The Stowaway' | DUST on YouTube
  19. ^ Berlatsky, Noah (April 22, 2021). "How 'Stowaway' Solves a 67-Year Old Sci-Fi Problem". Observer. Retrieved 28 April 2021.
  20. ^ "The Cold Equations". 17 April 2017.
  21. ^ a full-cast reading of the story
  22. ^ "1971 Astounding/Analog All-Time Poll". Locus. Archived from the original on 2008-07-06. Retrieved December 8, 2019 – via Wayback Machine.
  23. ^ "1999 Locus All-Time Poll". Locus. Archived from the original on 2008-07-06. Retrieved December 8, 2019 – via Wayback Machine.
  24. ^ "Modern Science Fiction". Science Fiction Awards Database. August 23, 2014.
  25. ^ "The Road to Science Fiction #3: From Heinlein to Here". Science Fiction Awards Database. August 21, 2014.
  26. ^ "Asimov/Greenberg: Great SF Stories". Science Fiction Awards Database. November 28, 2018.
  27. ^ "The Ascent of Wonder: The Evolution of Hard SF". Science Fiction Awards Database. August 19, 2014.
  28. ^ "The World Turned Upside Down". Science Fiction Awards Database. August 23, 2014.

External links[edit]