Doctorow's Cold Equation
Cory Doctorow (who has served as this publication’s white whale) has a new piece entitled “Cold Equations and Moral Hazard” up at Locus. Doctorow recognizes (elliptically) a serious flaw in Science Fiction as a genre: too often SF narratives are devised as circumstances, into which a character is then placed. There is no real world equivalent to this, because circumstances arise organically around us and we as human beings evolve and change in relation to them.
In mainstream literature the circumstances are at least as important as the characters constrained by them, but too often in Science Fiction, the character is an afterthought (ironically, I’ve felt this on a regular basis about Doctorow’s work). Doctorow writes, “The thing about Cold Equations is that they aren’t the product of unfeeling physics. They are parameterized by human beings.”
Too often SF narratives endeavor to pursue or explore a certain set of circumstances (post-apocalyptic fiction, steampunk, alien invasion) and the characters merely facilitate the setting. And so the SF author, thinks very hard about these circumstances (how will people scavenge for food? what type of government would fill the void?) without feeling anything.
That kind of Science Fiction may be many things (including popular and profitable) but it is not art. Art can never be about the dry, emotionless arrangement of circumstance, but must always attempt to chronicle the interface, the nexus between human action and the circumstances they find themselves in.
Doctorow is right, in a story like “The Cold Equations” too much energy was spent warping reality to create a compelling narrative, and what was left out tells us a lot about the culture and time that helped to create it. But the story fails to address the uniquely human bullshit that creates fucked up circumstances like the one in the story (in which a young girl must be killed to conserve fuel for an airlifting of medicine to a colony on another planet).
“‘‘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.”
But the solution is not some circumstance-heavy retelling of the story in which we explore why the rescue mission is so poorly equipped. In order to make art we must show the uniquely human tendencies that lead to these types of situations. Perhaps a retelling of “The Cold Equations” could show the ruthless capitalist oligarch cruelly computing a slightly wider profit margin for a mission with inadequate fuel and safety precautions. See that’s where Doctorow doesn’t seem to make the connection. We fight, not with more politically correct circumstances, but with a real examination of how these circumstances arise from our own flawed humanity.