The Cold Equations by Tom Godwin

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“The Cold Equations” is a 1954 science fiction novelette by Tom Godwin. It is about a pilot who finds a stowaway girl on his Emergency Dispatch Ship.

Non-Spoiler Summary In A Nutshell:

Barton is the pilot of an EDS, a small spacecraft carrying emergency medical supplies to a survey crew on the planet Woden. His small ship was dispatched from the cruiser Stardust with exactly the right amount of fuel to land him on the surface. All seems to be planned out to perfection, except for that pesky gauge that indicates the presence of someone else on the EDS! Barton knows what he has to do, but when he learns who is hiding on his ship the decision becomes much, MUCH more difficult.

He looked again at the telltale white hand, then rose to his feet. What he must do would be unpleasant for both of them; the sooner it was over, the better. He stepped across the control room, to stand by the white door.

“Come out!” His command was harsh and abrupt above the murmur of the drive.

It seemed he could hear the whisper of a furtive movement inside the closet, then nothing. He visualized the stowaway cowering closer into one corner, suddenly worried by the possible consequences of his act and his self-assurance evaporating.

“I said out!”

He heard the stowaway move to obey and he waited with his eyes alert on the door and his hand near the blaster at his side.

The door opened and the stowaway stepped through it, smiling. “All right—I give up. Now what?”

It was a girl.

My Two Cents:

• The good:

  • This is definitely a story that will make you think long and hard about its plot… and whether or not it was morally correct… and about what you might have done.
  • I always disliked stories that ended with some “happily ever after” scene. Well, “The Cold Equations” doesn’t end like that.

• The bad:

  • This is a very sad and melancholy story – almost makes you want to cry!
  • You can tell “The Cold Equations” was written a long time ago, because the characters do things like reads numbers over the radio, input manual course corrections, and write letters with pencils and notepads!
  • There is not a lot of action in this story – it is about the cold, hard and uncompromising laws of nature.

Fact Sheet:
• Page Count: 17
• Word Count: 10,081
“The Cold Equations” garnered the following awards:

  • It placed 9th in the 1971 Astounding / Analog All-Time Poll for short fiction.
  • It was listed at number eight in the 1999 Locus All-Time Poll for best novelette.

Where you can find “The Cold Equations”:

  • This novelette first appeared in the August 1954 issue of Astounding Science Fiction.
  • “The Cold Equations” is included in the collection also entitled The Cold Equations. (Learn more about this book at , or search for it on eBay)
  • You can read a free online version at The Fifth Imperium website. (This is a Baen free book in which “The Cold Equations” comprises chapter 19.)
  • I also found a nice pdf version of this story at the Oak Meadow homeschool curriculum website. This version is an entire English lesson – complete with questions, notes and short author bio.

Some Interesting Links:

  • Thanks to our friend Tinkoo over at Variety SF for highly recommending this story.
  • Did you know that this story has been adapted for the small screen a few times? Yep, most recently in The Cold Equations – the 1996 Sci-Fi original TV movie.

Craving More Stories?
If you enjoyed this story then you might also like Small Moments in Time, about a time traveling man working in turn-of-the-century Kansas, and the horrible secret he discovers there, by John G. Hemry.

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5 thoughts to “The Cold Equations by Tom Godwin”

  1. That Baen book link is very good; guess I need to begin paying closer attention to Baens.

    Also look for these stories in the book you link above: Campbell’s “Who Goes There?” & C L Moore’s “Shambleau”. Later is nowhere near Moore’s best (in fact, it’s her first published story), but may be the among the most interesting vampire variants I’ve seen.

  2. Hi can you tell me if Nancy Kress’ celebrated short story Beggars in Spain is online anywhere ? I guess it was later expanded into novel length book.

  3. “The Cold Equations” is a classic for sure. It would be interesting to make a list of all the stories it has inspired. For example, “Think Like a Dinosaur” by James Patrick Kelly has a cold equation in it too. Every now and then I come across a story that uses that plot trick. Rusty, can you think of any more?

    Thanks for the Baen link, I’ll head on over there.


  4. Jim,

    Off the top of my head I am not able to think of any other stories that were inspired by “The Cold Equations.” (That would make a great post though!) I will definitely check out “Think Like a Dinosaur”, however.

    Perhaps some of our readers can help – does anybody else know of stories inspired by “The Cold Equations?”

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