When I was a kid, I read a short story called “The Cold Equations,” by Tom Godwin. It scared me to death. It was wonderful, but it scared me to death. That there could be a situation wherein the milk of human kindness had no power, that there could be a situation wherein someone, of her own free will, could happily and blindly enter into something with the best of intentions, and die for it, gave me nightmares for years. The cold fact that there are, indeed, cold facts, still gives me the shakes.
Now, equations are made up of factors, and once certain factors are selected, the combination thereof is an absolute, unless the factors are changed. However, UNLESS the factors are changed, the answer can’t be any different than the natural result of those particular factors.
When the weather is such that it creates snow, or tornadoes, or rain, etc, those things are the natural result of a combination of factors which have no choice but to produce that particular outcome.
It’s an equation. It’s a cold equation. When the factors are there, the product, or outcome, is assured.
When the equation is set. . . when the factors are selected. . . . when the product is assured. . . . no amount of bargaining or begging can change the natural outcome of this equation, whether it concerns math class, or the weather, or a spaceship on which everything was measured and weighed and ANY additional ANYTHING will result in the loss of many lives. Even if the additional something is a sweet, innocent teenage girl who just wanted to see her brother. Even then.
As humans, we don’t like cold equations. I don’t like them. You probably don’t like them, either. They’re too, well, cold. Humans have compassion. We love. We make adjustments and we adapt circumstances to meet other circumstances.
Every once in a while, “Values Clarification” makes a comeback, is tried, and is rejected again. Compassionate people don’t like to think that any of us would ever toss someone in a lifeboat overboard, even if doing so would insure the safety and survival of everybody else in the lifeboat. I know I would not want to make that decision.
There are aspects of life, however, that make use of cold equations. Math. Science. I’ve read that many people think they dislike math and science when it’s really the idea of a cold equation that they dislike.
With math, there’s not much we can do with a cold equation. 2+2 is going to equal 4, and there’s nothing we can do about it.
In science, sometimes we can. Oh, there are cold equations in science, but we can almost always do some experimenting. Sure, if you drop Mentos in a bottle of Diet Coke, the result is pretty much assured, but what if we drop more, or fewer, or diet, or flavored Mentos? What if we use Fanta soda? The variety of factors, while sticking to the gist of the equation, can yield all kinds of products.
Tom Godwin’s short story is about an equation that allowed no deviation. It’s truly a cold equation. The young girl begs for her life, and insists that she didn’t do anything to die for.
But child, you did.
Of her own free will, she inserted herself into an already factored equation, and the addition did not fit. Any altering of the equation would bring death to several others. There could only be one solution.
Most situations allow for variation, but not a cold equation. Not everything can be altered. Sometimes, we have to alter ourselves, FORCE ourselves to do things we really would rather not do. Those who insist that life be altered to suit them are living in a fool’s paradise. All the insistence in the world will not stop a tornado in its path, or make a tidal wave change its mind and turn back. The factors in such equations can only equal a set product.
Human beings have the power to set the factors and change them if we desire, in order to produce the product we desire. Not always, but sometimes. We have to deal with some cold equations, but most human experiences do allow for deviation.
Now, click on the link in that first paragraph and go read the short story, “The Cold Equations.” Don’t read it right before bedtime. Tom Godwin, your story is absolutely superb. I was horrified, and terrified, and lost in admiration.