Some responses to “The Cold Equations”

Here’s a roundup of some responses to, and works that could be seen as being in dialogue with, Tom Godwin’s 1954 story “The Cold Equations.” (The original story is also available online.) The first five links below are nonfiction; the rest are fiction.

I should note that I don’t really want to host yet another round of the long-running floating online argument about “The Cold Equations.” Pretty much every point that I’ve seen made about the story, either pro or con, is covered in one or more of the below links.

If you already know all about the story and the arguments, then the one potentially new thing below is the link to the 2021 Aimee Ogden story “The Cold Calculations.”

Nonfiction links

  • Richard Harter’s thorough 1977/1997 analysis and critique of “The Cold Equations.” (My favorite line: “The original posting triggered an extended discussion, conducted in the calm, even-handed, dispassionate style [that] usenet is famed for.”)
  • James Nicoll’s related but less thorough 2019 critique. (“Science fiction celebrates all manner of things; one of them is what some people might call ‘making hard decisions’ and other people call ‘needless cruelty driven by contrived and arbitrary worldbuilding chosen to facilitate facile philosophical positions.’ Tomato, tomato.”)
  • Cory Doctorow’s 2014 critique of this story and of Heinlein’s Farnham’s Freehold.
  • Many arguments for and against various details of the story at TV Tropes.
  • Mike Brotherton’s 2011 overview of other works that cover similar and related ideas, published both before and after “The Cold Equations.”

Fiction links

  • Aimee Ogden’s 2021 story responding to “The Cold Equations”: “The Cold Calculations,” which is both an impassioned critique of capitalism and a partially steelmanned response to the original story (that is, it fixes some flaws in the original and then critiques the improved version). I’m especially impressed with this one for responding on multiple levels—both to some underlying unspoken assumptions, and to specific details. Several of the specific critiques here have previously been covered in various of the above nonfiction responses, but even so, good stuff.
  • I don’t know of an authorized online version, but Don Sakers’s 1991 story responding to “The Cold Equations”: “The Cold Solution,” in which the solution involves cutting off limbs and tossing them out the airlock.
  • James D. Macdonald’s 2017 story responding to “The Cold Equations”: “The Coldest Equations Yet,” featuring another solution.
  • Cora Buhlert’s 2020 piece “The Cold Crowdfunding Campaign,” featuring yet another solution, albeit not one that works in the context of the original story.
  • Jack London’s 1908 story “To Build a Fire.” (You don’t need to go to space to set up a situation where cold + nature + poor planning + human mistakes = death—although Wikipedia says that in the original 1902 version of the story, the protagonist survives!)
  • Kelly Jennings’s heartbreaking and superb story “In the Cold,” published in Strange Horizons in 2012—I don’t know whether this was intended to be partly in dialogue with “The Cold Equations,” but I feel like it’s worth mentioning in this context.

4 Responses to “Some responses to “The Cold Equations””

  1. Sumana Harihareswara

    Ooooh, neat! Thanks for putting this up – I can predict I will refer to it later!

  2. Jo

    Thanks for this post!
    I’d been unfamiliar with the original story. I’ve just spent the last couplefew hours reading it and then all the links.
    I especially love the Ogden. My gosh.


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