We are living through dark times, which is reflected in our preferences in art and entertainment. For years Americans have shown an insatiable appetite for post-apocalyptic and dystopian stories, perhaps to help themselves cope with the real-world dystopia we often seem to be living in.
I’ll admit to sharing this fascination with dystopia. My fiction writing often explores how good human beings cope with breakdown. My novel The Lords of Harambee is about how members of a shoe-string peacekeeping operation confront a genocide, and I’m finishing the first draft of a post-apocalyptic novel set in Jordan.
My ruminations on breakdown are firmly rooted in the real world. I have given twenty years to military service. I spent much of that time studying how to prevent state collapse and restore order in shattered countries. It’s easy to feel like all that was in vain, especially as I watch the political turmoil in our own country and contemplate the disastrous end to the American expedition in Afghanistan.
Yet in the past few months, a new current in Science Fiction has caught my interest: many SF writers are tired of dystopia.
I recently came across the term hopepunk, a nerdish label for stories that pushes back against the bleak dystopianism of our age. It sits between nihilistic grimdark tales and noblebright stories that pit white-shielded knights the forces of evil. Alexandra Rowland, who coined the term, wrote that the fight is the essential thing. “Hopepunk says that genuinely and sincerely caring about something, anything, requires bravery and strength.” The genre is about a relentless fight to build a “better, kinder world, and truly believing that we can get there.” Hopepunk makes an existential proclamation to the universe.
The label has flaws, as numerous critics pointed out. It is nebulous enough to mean almost anything. I agree, but the term resonates. We need it today. Even if the term is superficially banal, the “punk” reminds us that such determined hope is countercultural in today’s world. This kind of hope is angry and hard-edged, but it’s still hope—and it should inspire us to action.
Tracing the The Cold Equations
I’m on vacation today, and spent my morning tracing the lineage of a famous SF short story called The Cold Equations. What makes the story fascinating is that writers keep revisiting it, and each retelling reflects the spirit of the age. In this lineage we can see status-quo resignation evolve into fiery determination to create change.
What set me on this exploration was Aimee Ogden’s new story The Cold Calculations (read for free, consider supporting Clarkesworld), a retelling that brings a hopepunk spirit to this old classic.
(spoilers follow for the older stories but not Ogden’s)
Godwin’s “The Cold Equations” (1954)
In Tom Godwin’s “The Cold Equations” (1954, full text here), the pilot of an Emergency Dispatch Ship (EDS) discovers a teenage girl stowaway. These lightweight ships have little mass and carry razor-thin fuel margins, so the extra mass of a stowaway will cause a ship to run out of fuel and crash. Physics dictates a brutal necessity, codified in law: stowaways must be jettisoned out the airlock. The compassionate pilot tries to find some way to escape the cold equations, but in the end, he succumbs and jettisons the girl.
I vividly remember reading the story as a teenager. It felt contrived but also powerful—a way of capturing the hard austerity of space, but also a vivid thought experiment. I thought a lot about the story when I wrote Celestial Object 143205, which is more optimistic but presents a similar vision of the unforgiving harshness of space.
However, the story has provoked no shortage of outrage.
Some saw a streak of misogyny, as the story’s male characters suffer in their effort to save a woman from the consequences of her foolishness.
Many felt the story was too contrived. Godwin had to carefully engineer every aspect of the story to justify its appalling conclusion. This was not easy to do; editor John Campbell sent back three drafts in which Godwin found ways to save the girl, insisting she must die.
Cory Doctorow wrote a scathing critique. The cold equations did not kill the girl; the author did. Doctorow writes, “[The story] is, then, a contrivance. A circumstance engineered for a justifiable murder. An elaborate shell game that makes the poor pilot—and the company he serves—into victims.”
By focusing on the inexorable logic of the cold equations, the author lets the real culprits off the hook: executives, managers, and engineers who designed such a tenuous interplanetary resupply infrastructure.
Sakers’ “The Cold Solution” (1991)
Almost forty years after “The Cold Equations” appeared, Don Sakers published The Cold Solution in Analog, which won a “Reader’s Favorite” award that year. The story exactly mirrors the original, except a female pilot discovers a young boy stowed away. In the end, the captain says she would give anything to save his life—and a solution becomes clear. She and the boy wake up in a hospital ward, regenerating missing multiple limbs that she sacrificed with her laser knife.
In an afterword, Sakers writes that he saw the grimness of “The Cold Equations” as a necessary corrective to an earlier generation of SF “that said it was always possible to come up with a new force, ray, or vibration that could save the day.” At the same time, however, he saw “The Cold Equations” as rooted in a debunked view of the universe: clockwork Newtonian mechanics, hierarchical, rules-based, binary, and stereotypically male.
Sakers wanted to write in a stereotypically female “networked, exceptions-based, fuzzy-logic way” more consistent with a quantum mechanics universe (he issues appropriate caveats about the limits of these gender stereotypes).
I found this story a bit tedious, particularly reading it back-to-back with the original. Its main contribution is suggesting a “solution,” but if you view the original merely as a provocative thought experiment, then a solution was never really needed.
Still, the story is interesting because of how it reflects changing attitudes between 1954 and 1991. Authors like Sakers refused to accept a rigid, hierarchical view of the world that implicitly justified the status quo.
Ogden’s “The Cold Calculations” (2021)
Aimee Ogden’s new story in Clarkesworld takes this critique a step further. Ogden isn’t content to save one stowaway; she is indignant at a system that creates such appalling moral dilemmas in the first place. In the first lines she asks, “when once upon a time becomes so many, many times, surely someone must think to ask: had to die? On whose authority?”
The cold equations are simple physics, she writes… “Unless, of course, someone’s been fudging the numbers.”
The story has the same setup as “The Cold Equations”: a dropship pilot discovers a young female stowaway. Ogden breezes through the necessary contrivances in the first few paragraphs so we can get to the real story: how the pilot will cope with a broken system that has forced this choice upon him.
Ogden’s anger is rooted in the real world. She makes that clear by interweaving multiple vignettes from modern history, in which characters suffer at the hands on corrupt organizations focused on power and enrichment. I found these disorienting at first until, on second reading, I googled and realized they were all based on real people and situations (the vignette about Soyuz-1 was chilling; I can’t believe I never knew that piece of history).
This is a grittier story than its predecessors, deliberately harnessing pain and anger, with a ship’s supply worth of F-bombs along the way. Yet it also burns with compassion and self-sacrifice. This is a protagonist who will not go quietly into the night, nor will the supporting characters in the vignettes.
I won’t spoil the ending, except to say that the story ends with an ambiguous twist that raises more questions than it answers, and leaves the reader wanting a full accounting from the corporation. It was perhaps too ambiguous, hinting at sinister machinations that aren’t adequately explained, but I thought it was a great story overall.
From Surrender to Agency
These three stories reflect a broad societal trend from accepting power structures to overthrowing them. Ogden’s story even features an omniscient narrator urging readers to find their anger and overturn the tables. This is potent stuff, revolutionary stuff, Jesus-in-the-temple-throwing-out-the-moneychangers-with-a-whip stuff.
The characters across these stories show increasing agency. In “The Cold Equations”, the protagonist is helpless; in “The Cold Solution”, she finds a way to save a life; and in “The Cold Calculations”, he stands ready to challenge an entrenched interstellar corporation.
As a political scientist and military officer, I have mixed thoughts about calls to overturn power structures. On the one hand, mass mobilization against entrenched power structures has led to some of the greatest advances for justice and equality in history. On the other hand, human societies need some measure of hierarchy to function. Revolutionary fervor goes so quickly awry, and the inability to form hierarchical institutions spells anarchy (you can read my dissertation if you’re bored). A healthy civilization requires a constant tension between stability and revolution.
Despite my broader reservations, I do support the role of writers and artists who embody the force for change and renewal. They play a critical role in a democratic society. More than anything, I’m inspired by the SF movement underway, during these dark times, to present optimistic visions in which heroes turn anger into hope and fight to build better futures.
Image Credit: “Sci Fi Space Airlock” by Shaun Davies