Have you cold bullshit cake and eat it too. 20

Recently, my buddy Paul mentioned the science fiction short story I love to hate, The Cold Equations.


To be honest, if you want a description of why I find the story morally reprehensible, just go read what Cory Doctorow wrote about it over two years ago and imagine me pointing to every word and screaming, “YES, THIS.” But one thing I do want to talk about is that I think it’s also, frankly, shitty writing craft.

Let me take a moment to raise the drawbridge, I can sense the mob lighting its torches. There we go.

I don’t know if I’ve ever made my disdain of Chosen One/Prophecy/Do X Or The World Blows Up stories clear on this blog, but there it is. I really don’t like stories that are predicated upon removing one of the major choices of its protagonist. Particularly the last – no one short of a sociopath would realistically, upon being told that the world will literally end if they don’t carry the Magic Arglebargle to the Forbidden Closet of Trumblebutt, would say nah, I think I’m good. The understandable period of denial on that one is really just playing coy with the inevitable.

Stories like The Cold Equations are that kind of agency removal on steroids, except at the end you feel like no matter how many showers you take, you will never be clean again. The entire point of the story is the removing all character agency so they are left with one shitty, reprehensible choice. They make the choice, story ends, everyone feels so bad for the poor character and the way they were railroaded by fate in the form of very particular authorial (or in the case of TCE, editorial) choices. Stories that spend a significant amount of words building baroque and frankly unbelievable systems just to force a perfectly good character into a corner aren’t so much stories as torture devices.

They’re also damn boring in my opinion, but that’s because I’m a big fan of character-driven stories. I don’t really want to see someone get moved to and fro by the winds of fate while they feel bad about the situation and do absolutely nothing.

That these stories are often hailed as being somehow realistic is even more problematic. In real life, the number of times someone is backed into a corner where they literally have only one possible choice are vanishingly small. Often times, all of the choices are varying shades of bad, but they are still there. You may feel like you have no choice, but that is not the same as objectively having no choices like occurs in The Cold Equations.

This is not to be confused with a character making a reprehensible choice and then justifying it to themselves with the mantra of “I had no other choice.” That is an intensely realistic reaction. People build their own internal narratives so that they are the hero, or they go mad.

Rather, stories like The Cold Equations are an intrusion of the author into the moral universe of the audience, an attempt to force the character’s internal narrative of “I had no other choice” onto us. They quite literally had no choice, don’t you see? You must remain on their side, dear reader. It’s a cheap way to allow a character to do something utterly terrible and still keep the audience on board. To sympathize with them. Because really, if we were put in the same ridiculous, artificial situation, we’d have to do the same, right?

Recently at a writing workshop, a friend of mine was taking critique on a chapter of his novel. (This story is being told with his permission, by the way.) He had a situation where his main character needed to pretend to have done something terrible to an innocent woman. All right. But then he asked if we, as readers, would still like the character if he roughed the woman up a little to give his charade verisimilitude. Okay, but what if he really, really felt bad about it? What if he had no other choice?

That was the point where I interjected with this question: “Why are you trying to make it okay for your character to beat up a woman?”

Later when we talked a bit more about it, he mentioned that he wanted to be unflinching in his writing. Which strikes me as something a lot of people strive toward. I have opinions about “gritty” fiction that don’t need to be expounded upon here. But my question is why, if you want to be unflinching about the badness of the situation your character is in, do you then flinch away from the negative reaction your audience may have to their choice?

When I was a baby writer, I found writing plots that forced the characters into corners so they had to make the choices I wanted, often in the pursuit of being “gritty” and “edgy.” I have since course corrected, and all of those stories have been mercifully exiled into the Trunk of Awfulness, never to see the light of day. But as I look over those early efforts, I can’t help but feel more than a little creeped out. Because in real life, I can tell you who most often uses the “I had no choice,” narrative to justify the unjustifiable.

I didn’t want to, but you made me hit you. Why would I want to build worlds in which there is no choice but the most immoral? Why would I want to convince readers that it’s a something to sympathize with? It’s something that just couldn’t be helped, because that’s the way the world is?

These are not absolutes, of course. Nothing in art is. Nothing in life is. But the next time you find yourself engineering a situation where your character has no choice, ask yourself why. Ask yourself what you are trying to accomplish. And be unflinching in your answer.

20 thoughts on “Have you cold bullshit cake and eat it too.

  1. Reply Thomas Pluck Dec 18,2016 11:04

    I’d never read that story. I did today. It’s the most virulent political propaganda I’ve read in some time. It’s the equations you see. Not the people who designed the ship. Or who decided that extra fuel was an unnecessary expense. And of course the writer for contriving it and taking the side of those who blame physics for their own greed and uncompassion.

  2. Reply Chris Gerrib Dec 19,2016 10:37

    My thoughts on this are here

  3. Reply JohnD Dec 19,2016 16:27

    I understand the arguments against TCE but I disagree with them. Please hear me out before lighting the torches and sharpening the pitchforks!

    As Chris points out on his blog post, one of the purposes of TCE was to counter the idea that “Space is Good”. I’d take it a step further and say that it was also to show that science couldn’t cure everything (a radical notion at the time) and that not all adventures have a happy ending. As we would see with Apollo 1 and Apollo 13 and the Challenger and the Columbia, space travel is very dangerous; forgetting to follow the laws of physics and chemistry can and will get people killed. (There is also the problem of incompetent management but that’s a whole ‘nother rant.)

    I also tend to view TCE as an early version of the Trolley Problem in experimental ethics. You know the one – there’s a trolley running on a track. If it is not switched it will run over and kill five people. If it is switched, it will kill one person. Do you switch it? Now most of Doctorow’s objections to TCE would also apply here – why are those the only choices? Does the real world actually work like that? And, as it turns out, it just might; we are looking at real-life versions of the Trolley Experiment with the rise of autonomous vehicles. Experimental ethics is a thing and it is a thing that we need to look at and think about a lot more than we have.

    But that also explains why TCE had a black-or-white choice. It and the Trolley Problem and the other gedankenexperiments of experimental ethics work best when there are only two possible outcomes simply because that helps us understand how people make what they consider to be moral choices.

    Now you might complain that TCE was written in a style that makes glurge look good; every scene is squeezed for maximum heartbreak and pathos. But that is a stylistic choice, separate from the ethical choice. And I’d argue that the ethics, though unpleasant, are worth looking at just so we don’t fall afoul of real life’s cold equations.

  4. Reply decaying_orbits Dec 24,2016 20:21

    The reason the choices are limited in TCE is because it’s a fucking short story.

    If it explored every permutation of options: more fuel, autopilot, blah, blah, blah, it’d be a bloated space opera nobody wants to read.

    It was written in the 1950’s. Are we seriously getting outraged about a short story from the Eisenhower era?

    Good grief.

    • Reply Alex Dec 25,2016 00:24

      Considering it’s a short story from that era that is still constantly held up as a Great Story Everyone Should Read Because It’s So Well Written? Yes. (And yes. As a writer I have been told multiple times what a fantastic story the Cold Equations is, whence why I’m so bloody annoyed by it.) Its age does not represent an expiration date on criticism, particularly not when it’s held up so often as an exemplar of a good story. And really, continued discussion is part of the reason the so-called classics survive. If we weren’t still talking about them, they would be totally irrelevant and forgotten.

      Also, the short story excuse is bullshit. If the writer hadn’t been aiming at that ending, the entire thing would have been put together differently. (And let us consider as well that it was rewritten under the guidance of Campbell to reach the conclusion it had.) The reason the choices are limited is because it’s a goddamn story about the pilot having no recourse but to space a girl.

    • Reply Alex Dec 25,2016 00:31

      I’m also rather amused by the characterization of me thinking this story is shitty writing as “outage.”

  5. Reply decaying_orbits Dec 25,2016 05:51

    It’s not so much shitty writing. A story that meets all of your hallmarks of a good story could be shittily written.

    You just don;t like the idea of the story — a story that is supposed to highlight someone’s struggle when they are faced with a horrible dilemma.

    Like in the final episode of “MASH” when Hawkeye is talking to his shrink about a lady who suffocated a chicken she was holding so it wouldn’t make noise and they’d be found out by North Korean troops in their hiding place. But it wasn’t a chicken. He then remembered, it was a child. Or Greg Egan’s “The Four Thousand, The Eight Hundred.”

    These stories are about a moral dilemma. I just find it shocking you have a problem with that.

    • Reply Alex Dec 25,2016 06:06

      A large part of why I object to it is that it isn’t actually a dilemma. The pilot has no alternative other than to eject the girl into space. If there had been an actual moral dilemma (eg: There is an autopilot of some sort, but the chance the girl will be able to land the ship if there is any kind of problem are vanishingly small. Pilot has to weigh preserving her life against risking the lives of those he’s taking the medicine to, since he knows the solid likelihood that something goes wrong during landing.) then I’d have found the story quite interesting even if I hadn’t liked whatever decision the pilot made. But the story is written in such a way that there isn’t even a question. There isn’t an actual decision he has to make. The conclusion is foregone and, as they say, it’s all over but the crying before it even starts.

      If that doesn’t bother you, that’s fine. People have different tastes. And I know there are certainly plenty of people that don’t think the Cold Equations is trash like I do. But I think that’s an incredibly shitty plot structure, and plot structure is a definite element of writing craft. And this post does not delineate all my hallmarks of a good story. Just one element that I think is contrived and bad. My goodness.

  6. Reply Chris Gerrib Dec 29,2016 08:56

    The plot in TCE is contrived. So is the plot in Jack London’s “To Build A Fire.” But we see the contrivances in TCE because other parts of the story are flawed. (That and Alaska is a real place that gets really cold.)

    The flaw that breaks TCE and highlights the other flaws is the (lack of) agency of anybody. The pilot MUST kill the girl and the girl and NO IDEA her life was at risk. In the Jack London story, the man is explicitly warned that his trip is potentially life-threatening. He goes anyway.

    To make TCE “work” one really needs two things. 1) narrow it down to just the pilot 2) have the pilot accept an especially risky mission (one with abnormally low fuel reserves) and due to reasons run out of gas.

    But that’s just my two cents worth.

    • Reply Alex Dec 29,2016 08:58

      I would concur with that.

    • Reply JohnD Dec 29,2016 10:21

      The thing is, she was warned.
      “‘I knew I would be breaking some kind of a regulation’. In a way, she could not be blamed for her ignorance of the law; she was of Earth and had not realized that the laws of the space frontier must, of necessity, be as hard and relentless as the environment that gave them birth. Yet, to protect such as her from the results of their own ignorance of the frontier, there had been a sign over the door that led to the section of the Stardust that housed the EDSs, a sign that was plain for all to see and heed: UNAUTHORIZED PERSONNEL KEEP OUT! ”

      But, just as happened in “To Build A Fire”, she chose to ignore the warning. Having worked in a public science museum, I can tell you that people ignore warning signs all too often – and then blame anyone other than themselves for the problems that ensue. Witness the people who build on sandy cliffs or in flood zones or on barrier islands or who choose to “ride out” the hurricane. To that extent, her actions are realistic.

      As for the fuel reserves, that part also rings with verisimilitude. Moving anywhere in space with chemicals is expensive and takes a lot more fuel than most people think. Let’s look at a real-life example. The Falcon 9 has a mass of 549,054 kg and delivers 22,800 kg to LEO; that means that only 1/24th of the mass makes it to where it is going, the rest is expended. The Falcon Heavy will have a mass of 1,420,788 kg and put 54,400 kg into LEO; that gives it a payload fraction of 1/26th. Why the difference? Because some of the fuel is used just to lift the fuel. As a result, putting too much extra fuel into a rocket is self-defeating. That’s why the ship had been given extra reserves but not enough to accommodate an extra passenger.

      • Reply Alex Dec 29,2016 14:09

        I think the part that lacks verisimilitude is that a manned mission of any kind would be without useful reserves or failsafes in order to make this lack of choice and agency possible.

        • Reply JohnD Dec 29,2016 14:35

          Are you forgetting Apollo 11 which only had 25 seconds worth of fuel reserves when it landed?

          As for failsafes, the problem is that people rely on them and they fail. Again, note the people who build in a flood zone despite being told not to do so. Or the people who drive around with “Engine Warning” lights on. Or the folks who run yellow lights. As one wag put it, artificial intelligence is no match for human stupidity.

          Now if you want to complain that if the ship is that sensitive to weight concerns then the closet shouldn’t have a door, I’ll agree with you. Heck, it shouldn’t have a closet. And if you want to complain that there should have been more than a perfunctory check of the craft’s mass before launch, I’ll agree with you. And if you want to complain that even for the era the writing was overly emotive, I’ll cheer along. But people do ignore failsafes and they do launch craft with just enough and no more.

          • Reply Alex Dec 31,2016 11:38

            Again. My entire complaint begins and ends with the structuring of the story as one that removes the agency of the characters and makes it a foregone conclusion that the girl has to die and it’s no one’s fault. Getting lost in the minutiae is really missing that point.

          • Reply JohnD Jan 1,2017 12:41

            Except all of the choices that remove that agency are what you are calling minutiae.

            Can you name something that isn’t minutiae that removes the agency and isn’t something that we’ve seen a real life example of?

          • Reply Alex Jan 1,2017 12:52

            Let me rephrase.

            I seriously do not care how accurate or inaccurate the physics are. All of the minutiae were chosen by the writer for the purpose of creating a story in which the is actually no moral dilemma because there are no choices. I think that is an incredibly shitty way to put a plot together, etc. You can disagree with me, as you do, and that’s totally fine. But I’m not going to sit here and argue about detail accuracy when the entire problem I have is with the authorial decisions of the story structure. We’re talking about a fictionalized future in which the writer could literally have come up with any set of social rules (and hell, some different yet still not miraculous technology) to govern humanity’s interactions with the physics.

  7. Reply decayingorbits Dec 31,2016 11:16

    When the story was written in 1954, our understanding of spaceflight was in it’s infancy. Sputnik was still 3 years away. Your criticism of “fuel reserves and “failsafes” might be valid for a story written today, but not then.
    Thus, I think your criticism is really misguided.

    • Reply JohnD Jan 1,2017 12:38

      That’s just it. It doesn’t matter when the story was written; the laws of physics that determine fuel reserves have been known since 1813. Any rocket that flies *must* obey the Tsiolkovsky rocket equation, period. Heck, Goddard based his rocket designs in 1926 on those equations.

      And the problem with fail safes has been known since the days of the Jacquard loom, back in 1725. Again, this is not news, not to anyone in the field.

      The only people who are surprised by the idea that there are limits to fuel reserves and fail safe warnings are the very audience that TCE was addressing.

      • Reply Chris Gerrib Jan 2,2017 11:24

        No, JohnD, you’re missing the point. The story could just as well have decided that no flight would be sent unless it could meet 20th century commercial air transport safety levels. For example – no rocket launches unless it has fuel to go to a divert landing area, which is a requirement in modern aviation. In TCE, given that the planet in question has tornadoes and it’s storm season, that requirement would actually make sense.

        • Reply JohnD Jan 2,2017 21:41

          No, Chris, you’re missing the physics. They sent the rocket with enough fuel to make the needed safety levels – but only for *one* passenger. Adding the extra mass meant that the safety margin was gone.

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