The Cold Equations

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"The Cold Equations" is a science fiction short story by American writer Tom Godwin, first published in Astounding Magazine in 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), which debunks the premise, received the 1992 Analog Analytical Laboratory award as the readers' favorite Analog short story of 1991.

In 1999, Richard Harter wrote a detailed analysis of the story online, 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.[3]

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!"[4] 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."[5]

Similar concept in earlier stories[edit]

The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction points to Robert Cromie's "A Plunge into Space" from 1890 as having a plot very similar to "The Cold Equations", and the theme of Feldstein's story is itself similar to the story "Precedent", published by E. C. Tubb in 1949. As in "The Cold Equations", a stowaway must be ejected from a spaceship because the fuel aboard is only enough for the planned passengers.[6]

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.)"[7]


The story has been adapted for television at least three times: as part of the 1962 British anthology series Out of This World starring Peter Wyngarde and Jane Asher; as part of the 1985–1989 revival of The Twilight Zone ("The Cold Equations") and again in 1996 as a made-for-television film starring Billy Campbell and Poppy Montgomery on the Sci-Fi Channel.[8]

The story was also adapted into an episode of the radio program X Minus One in 1955, an episode of the radio program Exploring Tomorrow in 1958, in which the girl was trying to visit her husband to make amends for an affair she had. It was featured as a part of Faster Than Light on CBC Radio's Sunday Showcase in September 2002 by Joe Mahoney (hosted by science fiction author Robert J. Sawyer).[9]

The award winning 2014 short film, The Stowaway[10] is closely based on the story.

The fiction podcast The Drabblecast released a full-cast reading of the story on July 15, 2013.[11]


Tied for 9th place in Astounding/Analog magazine’s 1971 All-Time Poll short fiction category.[12]

Placed 8th in the 1999 Locus Awards for best novelette.[13]

Appears in[edit]

The following anthologies featuring literary works from the science fiction genre have included Godwin’s “The Cold Equations” in their publications:

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Cosmic Engineers: A Study of Hard Science Fiction", by Gary Westfahl; Praeger, 1996
  2. ^ ""Cold Equations and Moral Hazard", by Cory Doctorow". 2 March 2014.
  3. ^ (Internet archive)
  4. ^ "Our Five Days with John W. Campbell", by Joe Green, The Bulletin of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, Fall 2006, No. 171, page 13
  5. ^ "Cory Doctorow: Jeannette Ng Was Right: John W. Campbell Was a Fascist". Locus Online. 2019-11-04. Retrieved 2019-11-05.
  6. ^ Encyclopedia of Science Fiction
  7. ^ Godwin, Tom (2003) The Cold Equations & Other Stories "Afterword: Sometime It All Works" ISBN 9780743436014
  8. ^ "The Cold Equations (TV Movie 1996) - IMDb". Retrieved September 23, 2015.
  9. ^ "The Cold Equations". 17 April 2017.
  10. ^ The Stowaway
  11. ^ a full-cast reading of the story
  12. ^ "1971 Astounding/Analog All-Time Poll". Wayback Machine. Archived from the original on 2008-07-06. Retrieved December 8, 2019.
  13. ^ "1999 Locus All-Time Poll". Wayback Machine. Archived from the original on 2008-07-06. Retrieved December 8, 2019.
  14. ^ "Modern Science Fiction". Science Fiction Awards Database. August 23, 2014.
  15. ^ "The Road to Science Fiction #3: From Heinlein to Here". Science Fiction Awards Database. August 21, 2014.
  16. ^ "Asimov/Greenberg: Great SF Stories". Science Fiction Awards Database. November 28, 2018.
  17. ^ "The Ascent of Wonder: The Evolution of Hard SF". Science Fiction Awards Database. August 19, 2014.
  18. ^ "The World Turned Upside Down". Science Fiction Awards Database. August 23, 2014.

External links[edit]