1950s Short Story: The Cold Equations by Tom Godwin

“The Cold Equations” by Tom Godwin
Published 1954

I read “The Cold Equations” way way back in junior high school.

It’s a sci-fi short story that I hope is still included in at least a few lesson plans.

The good news for you: it’s public domain and only 16 pages long. You can read it for free here.

This short story was written in 1954, but set far in the future, where interplanetary travel is, if not commonplace, at least regularly scheduled. A planet is on the brink of ruin, so an astronaut is on his way with much-needed supplies.

There’s just enough fuel to get him there. When the stowaway, a teenage girl desperate to visit her brother on the destination planet, comes out of her hiding place, the astronaut is faced with a dilemma.

Send the girl off the rocket and to her death, or kill himself, the girl, and the entire planet when the rocket runs out of fuel early and crashes, disintegrating into so much ash.

The law is clear:

” ‘Any stowaway discovered in an EDS shall be jettisoned immediately following discovery.’
It was the law, and there could be no appeal.”

I think you know what the only answer can be, but that doesn’t make it go down any easier.

Science fiction of the 1950s crackled with fear of the uncontrollable. Visions of Cold War danced in people’s heads, creating fear and uncertainty in everyday life. Many science fiction stories of the 1950s, including my favorite, “There Will Come Soft Rains,” feature far-flung worst-case scenarios of what happens to the innocents when we take technology too far.

“The Cold Equations” is no exception, bringing a painfully human element to science.

In the course of the story, we fall for the girl. She’s a sweet young woman on the brink of adulthood, still with one foot rooted in girlhood. Bubbly and friendly, she misses her brother terribly.

She puts a human, emotional face to science fiction. It’s a strange mix. Science fiction is mound-bending and sometimes horrifying, but tearful? It’s a bit of a departure.

It’s the worst “would you rather?” scenario. Both options are horrible.

“We must say goodbye so soon — but maybe I’ll see you again. Maybe I’ll come to you in your dreams with my hair in braids and crying because the kitten in my arms is dead; maybe I’ll be the touch of a breeze that whispers to you as it goes by; maybe I’ll be one of those gold-winged larks you told me about, singing my silly head off to you; maybe, at times, I’ll be nothing you can see, but you will know I’m there beside you.”

Just TRY to read this story without getting emotional. I dare you.