Cold Equations and Moral Hazard: science fiction considered harmful to the future

My latest Locus column is "Cold Equations and Moral Hazard", an essay about the way that our narratives about the future can pave the way for bad people to create, and benefit from, disasters. "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?"

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.

Cold Equations and Moral Hazard

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  1. I never liked The Cold Equations for exactly this reason, but I can't imagine it's still considered relevant in this day and age, being literally 60 years old now. Heck, I kinda wonder if it ever was.

    Remember folks, Science Fiction has it's fair share (or more) of terrible contributions. Especially Sci-Fi from the early developmental years, when the genre was still trying to find itself and the concepts at play where still so very shockingly new.

    In 1954, television was only eighteen years old, and for about half of that time it was restricted to around 40,000 or so units in and around New York city. Nuclear weapons were still less than a decade old, and nuclear power was only invented in 1951. The Sound Barrier had only been officially broken a scant seven years prior, the same year microwave ovens became available.

    More striking, perhaps, are the things which had not yet even been invented. Space Flight was not yet a reality. Sputnik wouldn't enter orbit until 1957, and no human would leave the atmosphere until 1961. The world's first programable digital robot went into service the same year. The world's first laser went into operation a year before that, in 1960.

    The world was a bizarre, exciting, horrifying place at the time. New, revolutionary technologies were emerging right and left, all under the spectre of potential nuclear annihilation as the Cold War got going in full earnest. People were only just really starting to recover from the exhausting years of WWII, and now things were changing faster and more unpredictably than anyone had ever known them to at any time in history.

    Godwin's story was a product of it's times - fueled at least in part by general social fears and hopes for technology, and anxiety over the very real possibility of mankind unleashing entirely avoidable attrocities upon itself by virtue of being too inflexible and absurdly self-limiting.

    Was Godwin aware of this when he wrote The Cold Equations? I doubt it. Does it excuse the underlying absurdity of the story? Not really.

    The more fascinating question, in my mind, is why does this story crop up again and again? It was called rubbish when it came out, then it languished in obscurity for awhile. In 1970 the SFWA revived interest by inexplicably giving it an award and entering it into their Hall of Fame, and it's limped on ever since. In the 90's there were a few critical responses, including satires and direct parodies of the piece, and it fell out of favor again.

    Why is it every 20 years or so, this story comes back to haunt us?

  2. A lovely piece of writing. I wish you'd put the last sentence up front though. It's a pearl and I bet a lot of people won't get to it. So I'm pasting it here:

    [Science fiction stories] 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.

  3. Interesting article.

    Science fiction may well be a way we create the future, but if we look back at SF of the past, it certainly looks like it tends to tell us more about the time it was written in, rather than how things turned out. There are innumerable stories out there which have technology changing incredibly rapidly, but society remains stuck in one place. I mean, just look at all those zeerusty 50's stories populated by walking film noire clichés and hysterical housewives.

    I think that SF can't help but produce flawed futures. Stories always tend to go to conflict to provide the plot. No matter how shiny and perfectible the technology is, we can't get away from the characters being human.

    Anyway, I'm rambling now, but in conclusion, SF has a chance to be both a profoundly revolutionary genre which tells us what we can change and what we can achieve, while at the same time being doomed to being profoundly conservative, when it tells us that some things are unchangeable, whether by accident or design.

  4. contrivance: a thing that is created skillfully and inventively to serve a particular purpose.

    To accuse the situations presented in any story as being mere contrivances of the author, is accusing them of being part of a story. You might as well proudly walk up to Grumpy Cat and go "Hah, you're a feline!" All stories are contrivance, including Lord of the Rings, and Little Brother--worlds created deliberately for conflict.

    I think Doctorow can't appreciate the moral hazard genre because it doesn't align with what he values in science fiction. Godwin wasn't writing design fiction. He created that particular universe, and set events in motion, to explain how humans can come to the reluctant conclusion that they must do something awful.

    It may be true that Godwin leaves loads of unanswered questions--this isn't "design fiction" after all and a detailed description of every policy, procedure, and engineering detail would fast bore the reader. However you do him a disservice when you dismiss the situation presented as mere contrivance. The moral of such tales is generally that stuff happens, and things break in the right circumstances--even if they're ethical constructs.

    History has shown that is that people will do distasteful, awful, and horrible things given the right set of circumstances. Godwin is simply pointing out that people will retain that capacity in the future.

    This sort of story is not there to provide convenient ideological fodder for wannabe lifeboat captains. Rather they are cautions against getting ourselves into positions where "lifeboat rules" are a real necessity. They are the futurist equivalent to a shop teacher graphically describing what can happen if your clothes get caught in an engine lathe.

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