Thursday, November 30, 2006

Stories About Stories

National Novel Writing Month is over, and I have...well, not a novel. I doubt I even have much of a short story. I spent all of three evenings actually writing, then after about 5000 words, completely lost motivation and interest in continuing.

So that didn't exactly work out.

One thing that did happen, though, over the past month is that I read someone else's story - specifically Tom Godwin's "The Cold Equations", a story that's been bandied about as one of the classics in science fiction short-storydom. It's part of a Baen Books anthology, The World Turned Upside Down, in which the editors chose stories that had profoundly affected them as teenagers and 'turned them on' to SF.

The book had managed to get Eric Burns of Websnark excited, so I figured I should check it out, and when I saw it for sale on the shelf at the downtown Borders, I picked it up and glanced through the table of contents.

The editors of the anthology, based on their picks, were almost certainly a generation older than me. I recognized a few writers, but no stories from my own late childhood and adolescence, none of the tales that had 'turned me on' to SF way back when.

That's probably worth an aside, to be honest.

When I was young, I ended up skipping second grade. After a few years of being advanced, it came time to 'graduate' on to junior high, yet I was still just ten years old, and would turn eleven over the summer. My mother met with the head guidance councilor for the school, who recommended that I repeat sixth grade, as I wouldn't be physically mature enough to keep up with my classmates. Mom agreed - they technically asked me, too, but I was too young to really understand the decision I was making - and I repeated sixth grade. For the most part, it was one of the worst years of my life.

Except for the library.

I'd already sat through all the lessons a year before, so the administrators knew enough not to try to keep my interest by doing all the same work again. They thought that giving me an 'independent study' packet of material might keep me busy, but I burned through that with ease - testing showed that I was already reading at a high school level, so no work that they thought was appropriate for an eleven-year old was going to keep my busy for any significant amount of time. At some point, it was simply accepted that, since I wasn't a behavior problem, and I needed some degree of stimulation, that I'd be given extended access to the school library.

That became the one saving grace of that repeated sixth-grade year. And if you think that the selection of fiction in an elementary school library might be somewhat lacking, keep in mind that this was the late 1970s in suburban Minneapolis - not a hotbed of reactionary or fundamentalist thought.

The two stories that rocked my world, and got me hooked on SF ever since, were Ray Bradbury's "A Sound of Thunder" (the time-travel story that literally gave us the phrase 'butterfly effect'), and Philip K. Dick's "Second Variety". As I grew older, I discovered other SF writers: Asimov, Heinlein, Clarke, and more. But Bradbury and Dick remained - and still remain - my favorite short story writers. If I were putting together a book like "The World Turned Upside Down", Dick and Bradbury would be in it, and those two stories in particular, if I could swing it.

Neither Dick nor Bradbury made Baen's book, though. Dick's absence is understandable - most of the stories in Baen's book were originally published in the '40s and '50s, and though Dick started his writing career in the early '50s, he didn't really become known until the tumultuous 1960s. Bradbury's absense is harder to explain by timing - collections of Bradbury's work were published throughout the late '40s and '50s, including his most famous short stories. In Bradbury's case (and in Dick's as well, I suppose) a bigger factor has to be that he wasn't really a 'hard SF' writer in the sense that an Arthur Clarke or, to a lesser degree, a Robert Heinlein was - nor was either man very sentimental about the military. Military SF is among the most common entrants in Baen's catalog of works, and one of the editors in particular, David Drake, is known for his 'hard' militaristic SF, much in the Heinlein mode.

Glancing through the table of contents, I recognzied many of the authors - it would be odd if any fan of SF couldn't recognize at least half the authors listed - but only two stories grabbed my attention enough to convince me to read them as soon as possible after purchasing the book: Gordon R. Dickson's "St Dragon and the George", and Godwin's tale.

I'd read of Godwin's tale as a story of harsh necessity and reality, one of those stories that wakes you up to the understanding that the universe is a lot harsher than human beings generally suspect. I'm a subscriber to that belief myself, so I was eager to find out just how Godwin had managed to capture that nugget of philosophy in his story.

At the risk of ruining "The Cold Equations" for those of you who haven't read it, the plot, such as it is, is simple. In the far future, an emergency shuttle is headed to a frontier planet, delivering needed medicine so that a group of terraformers won't perish of disease brought on by natural disaster. The pilot of the shuttle finds a stowaway, but rather than the dangerous criminal he expects to find, it turns out that the stowaway is simply a young girl who overheard that the shuttle was on its way to the very planet where her brother is serving as a terraformer, and had a sudden larking urge to tag along in order to see him. The shuttle, it turns out, has only enough fuel to land the pilot and his cargo - the girl is an unexpected additional mass, and 'the cold equations' of physics won't allow the shuttle to arrive safely with her aboard. If she stays, she, the pilot, and the terraformers will die; instead, the pilot carries out his duty and convinces the girl to enter the shuttle's airlock to be left to her death in space.

I was very grateful for the comments of editor Eric Flint:

What aggravates me about "The Cold Equations" is that the blasted plot makes no sense. The powerful impact of the story - and it is powerful, no question about it - is based entirely on a premise which I find completely implausible: to wit, that a spacecraft carrying critical supplies would be designed with no safety margin at all.

Oh, pfui. They don't make tricycles without a hefty safety margin. And I'm quite sure that if you traveled back in time and interviewed Ugh the Neanderthal, he'd explain to you that his wooden club is plenty thick enough to survive any impact he can foresee. He made damn sure of that before he ventured out of his cave. He may have a sloping forehead, but he's not an idiot.

In fact, it's more than just the premise - the plot itself is filled with such railroading. The ship that launches the shuttle is the only ship close enough to deliver the supplies in time. Thers's a second team of terraformers on the planet, but even they are too far away to reach the doomed group in time. The girl's brother is in the second group, stationed on a different part of the planet, but when the shuttle calls so that the girl can speak to her brother for what is to be the last time, he's not there - he's not only out in a helicopter, but coincidentally, the radio in the helicopter isn't working. It's basically an intricately worked-out plot in which a girl is required to be killed because she decided, on the spur of the moment, to violate a law.

And I thought Heinlein had tendencies toward fascism in his stories...

There is one thing that Godwin captures well in his tale, and this is likely what makes it considered a 'great story' - he captures the sense that nobody involved in this nightmare scenario wants to be considered responsible or be the one required to make the actual decision to kill the girl. The buck gets passed as much as it is humanly possible until everyone involved can simply point to the 'cold equations', shrug their shoulders, and wash their hands of the whole affair:

"I can go alone or I can take seven others with me -- is that the way it is?"

"That's the way it is."

"And nobody wants me to have to die?"


"Then maybe -- Are you sure nothing can be done about it? Wouldn't people help me if they could?"

"Everyone would like to help you, but there is nothing anyone can do. I did the only thing I could when I called the Stardust."

This is a story where everyone involved is very, very sorry, but all responsibility is ultimately pushed off onto the laws of physics - the 'cold equations' of the title.

The story is wrong - the tale hits you because it's a human tragedy, not merely the operation of unfeeling, unthinking physical laws. They designed the shuttles this way, then passed laws to ensure that the pilots could operate them as guilt-free as possible, and nobody anywhere along the line thought to ask if maybe they could just carry a bit more decelerant, just in case.

I can see thinking that this is a significant story in SF, no question. But I'm going to borrow a phrase from Pete VonderHarr and say, if you actually enjoy this story, then you are a syphilitic Fascist.

My own NaNoWriMo project is fairly dark, in a 'rocks fall, everyone dies' kind of way. If I ever do manage to pick it up and finish it, I'll make danged sure that I don't try to excuse human tragedy by invoking the laws of physics.

Thanks, Eric Flint.