Doctorow, Nihilism, and “The Cold Equations”

by Jake

I’m rather fond of Cory Doctorow. I’ve had drinks with him, watched him perform music in a hotel room, and have been an avid supporter of his efforts with the EFF. I also admire how he embraces Creative Commons ideals and the idea of content sharing. I’m also a huge fan of his website Boing Boing. He’s an author I respect. What I’m not fond of is his recent attempt at literary criticism involving Tom Godwin’s “The Cold Equations.”

He starts the essay outlining what he likes about science fiction. This is great, because we get to see the ground rules that Doctorow is going to work with:

The thing I treasure about science fiction is its utility as a toolkit for thinking about the relationship between technological change and human beings. This is why I value ‘‘design fiction’’ so much: an architect might make a visualization that flies you through her as-yet-unbuilt building, an engineer might build a prototype to show you what he’s thinking of inventing, but through design fiction, a writer can take you on a tour of how a person living with that technology might feel.

I couldn’t agree more with this sentiment. Certainly science fiction as a genre is bigger than just “design fiction,” but this is one of the ways that it is particularly relevant to a world technologically evolving at ever-increasing speeds. Doctorow then does something odd. He attacks two classics of SF literature for embodying “the worst parts of modern shortsightedness. They present a kind of blueprint for disaster, a willful and destructive blindness whose self-deception is perfectly mirrored in these two classics of SF.”

This is a provocative statement, and could be taken to mean that Doctorow is disavowing “design fiction” that aims to design “disaster.” That’s an odd point to make, as it seems to disavow dystopian fiction. As you read further, however, Doctorow isn’t disavowing dystopian fiction, necessarily, he is disavowing fiction that investigates hopelessness and nihilism. As I’m intimately familiar with Tom Godwin’s “The Cold Equations” (disclaimer: I wrote an homage to the story titled “The Old Equations”), I will focus on his comments on that work.

For those unfamiliar with “The Cold Equations,” you can read it here. Here we have a story where all of the variables–all the equations, as it were–lead to tragedy. It is the ultimate no-win situation. This stark illustration of innocence faced with no future is what Godwin is examining. In many ways “The Cold Equations” has a lot more in common with the dark noir of the period that you see written by authors like Jim Thompson than golden age science fiction. It is undeniably nihilist, and you can’t help but see that when you read the final paragraph. Reality is a harsh place where bad things happen to good people for no reason. It is dark. It is horribly depressing. And it is powerful:

He saw that the white hand of the supply-closet temperature gauge was on zero. A cold equation had been balanced and he was alone on the ship. Something shapeless and ugly was hurrying ahead of him, going to Woden, where her brother was waiting through the night, but the empty ship still lived for a little while with the presence of the girl who had not known about the forces that killed with neither hatred nor malice. It seemed, almost, that she still sat, small and bewildered and frightened, on the metal box beside him, her words echoing hauntingly clear in the void she had left behind her:

I didn’t do anything to die for … I didn’t do anything …

Doctorow’s assessment is that “It is, then, a contrivance. A circumstance engineered for a justifiable murder.”

Of course, the first point is that all fiction is a contrivance. We as creators arrange all the pieces on the page, the screen, or the stage so that our story and message is told and seen and heard. So it must be the next sentence where Doctorow’s key issue lies: Godwin has created (“contrived”) a piece where the pilot Barton’s reluctant and sad need to sacrifice an innocent child is “justifiable murder.”

Doctorow places a provocative label “justifiable murder” on a complex situation, and this would make for a powerful discussion emanating from the piece: What is justifiable murder? Is it murder if by saving the child, a colony of other people die? Is it murder if the choice is between two people dying or one person dying? Unfortunately, Doctorow completely bypasses this discussion. To him, it is simply “justifiable murder.”

The entire point of the story is that there is no justification needed for what happened. There was, indeed, no choice at all. Every result involves death, and every result is horrible. As I mentioned earlier, Godwin is making an explicit statement that sometimes bad things happen to good people for no reason. Doctorow could have examined this, as well, delving into Star Trek morality with a discussion of the Kabayashi Maru or Spock’s statement that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. Or, if Star Trek doesn’t provide enough gravitas, he could have compared the story to William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice. In the end, however, underlying it all is a harsh reality that sometimes there are no good choices and every choice means death. But Doctorow examines none of these things.

Instead, Doctorow states: “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.”

If you read between the lines here, Doctorow is making an absurd statement: An author who “contrives” to create a scenario where death at the hand of another is the only outcome is doing something immoral. He is a purveyor of “moral hazards.” I can’t help but wonder if Doctorow has ever read Sophie’s Choice or Of Mice and Men or any number of works from the fifties that embrace a nihilistic worldview.

And, ultimately, I think that’s what the fundamental issue is here. Doctorow either doesn’t understand or is extremely uncomfortable with the idea that sometimes there is no one to blame. There is no evil. There is no one “contriving” to do harm. As he further explains:

“The Cold Equations’’ shoves every one of those questions out the airlock along with the young girl. It barks at us that now is not the time for pointing fingers, because there is an emergency. It says that now is the time to pull together, the time for all foolish girls to die to save brave explorers from certain death, and not the time for assigning blame.

Doctorow wants there to be someone to blame. He finds it unacceptable for fiction to embrace a situation where a scenario just is, whether it is “The Cold Equations,” Sophie’s Choice, Of Mice and Men, or a noir crime novel set in the grimy streets of New York. And the author who creates such a scenario is contriving a “moral hazard.”

But to believe Doctorow’s point-of-view is to believe that dystopian stories, stories without hope, and nihilism have nothing to teach us. That real life always has a murderer who knows why he is pulling the trigger or an engineer who happily designs unsafe structures because no one will ever know he was behind the building collapse. But life isn’t like that. Children die of cancer. Rob Hall dies on the top of Everest, talking to his wife before his death as the young girl in The Cold Equations does with her brother.

And that, ultimately, is the power of “The Cold Equations.” Tom Godwin shoved our faces up to the abyss and showed us a dark place. It wasn’t nice. It wasn’t fun. But it gave us a glimpse of a part of ourselves. It is what Faulkner famously described as “the human heart in conflict with itself.” That’s art, however uncomfortable it makes us.