Want to Understand Arizona's Immigration Law? Read "The Cold Equations"

Despite being written in 1954, Tom Godwin's "The Cold Equations" is shockingly relevant to today's world. A space noir, it's a claustrophobic look at a spacecraft with some doomed extra (and very human) baggage.

Originally published in Astounding Science Fiction, "Cold Equations" is mainly a two-character story of a nightmare scenario- a ship with fuel for one finds a stowaway. It's an idea of instant tension- no wonder The New Twilight Zone adapted it for an episode.

The story concerns an Emergency Dispatch Ship (EDS) tasked with bringing supplies to one of the burgeoning frontier's exploration parties, stricken with disease. On his way to the colony, the pilot finds a stowaway. Although just a teenage girl, the stowaway's extra weight will doom the ship, prompting the pilot's impossible decision.


"The Cold Equations" is a rough story, unrelenting in its display of its characters humanity and the things that restrain them. It's no one's fault that Mariyln, the stowaway, has to die. It's not the pilot's fault, he didn't know she was there. It's not the Stardust's fault, they are too far away to do anything. It's not the exploration party's they broke their supplies by mistake. It's certainly not Marilyn's fault that she had the bad fortune of taking a ship that couldn't carry her.

It's not the people that cause the tragedies in Godwin's story, it's the institutions that let people down. Lurking behind every hindrance of "Cold Equations" is a law, a regulation, put up in expedience rather then caution. It's a system that leaves people who don't belong without a safety net, without protections of any sort. It's cheaper to give ships the minimal amount of fuel, to chalk accidents up to the unpredictable nature of the job. It is a system destroys families not because it wants to, but rather because it can see no other option. It's not that hard to find a society like this, Arizona has embraced EDS culture with the recent passing of SB 1070. There are obvious differences between this story and the story of a modern undocumented immigrant- no one is directly killed from SB 1070, for one. But the similarities seem overwhelming- equations after equations were determined long ago, only to leave the people who need help holding the bag. Or the airlock door.

Discussion Questions:

Where are these laws and regulations coming from? Godwin acknowledges a governing body, he doesn't say if it's a government or corporation or something else. Is this ambiguity important?

Am I completely off-base reading a political message here? There are definitely other ways to read the story.

Wouldn't it have been cool if Mariyln was a actually a freaky ninja, like in Firefly?



Corpore Metal

I don't think it's a good idea to mix the story up with what's happening in Arizona at the moment.

In my opinion, Arizona's SB 1070 is a really foolish law that won't solve a perceived problem. (Imagine if the Native Americans greeted the Pilgrims this way?) But I don't think this really has anything to do directly with the Cold Equations. I'd rather discuss the story by itself.