Legendary science fiction editor Gardner Dozois once said that the job of a science fiction writer was to notice the car and the movie theater and anticipate the drive-in – and then go on to predict the sexual revolution. I love that quote, because it highlights the key role of SF in examining the social consequences of technology – and because it shows how limited our social imaginations are. Today, we might ask the SF writer to also predict how convincing the nation’s teenagers to carry a piece of government-issued photo ID (a driver’s license) as a precondition for participating in the sexual revolution set the stage for the database nation, the idea that people are the sort of thing that you count and account for, with the kind of precision that the NSA is now understood to bring to the problem.
The thing I treasure about science fiction is its utility as a toolkit for thinking about the relationship between technological change and human beings. This is why I value ‘‘design fiction’’ so much: an architect might make a visualization that flies you through her as-yet-unbuilt building, an engineer might build a prototype to show you what he’s thinking of inventing, but through design fiction, a writer can take you on a tour of how a person living with that technology might feel. That’s the kind of contribution to the discussion about which technology we should make, and how we should use it, that can make all the difference.
Like you, I am a human being alive in a period of unprecedented technological upheaval, and like you, I’m a person who reads a lot of science fiction. Every question today, from climate change to education, from social justice to public health, is an intensely technological one. Like you, I unconsciously parse out complex technological questions all day long: at the grocery store, at the office, at home, and out in the wider world. My impressions of daily life are often accompanied by remembered scenes from stories and novels.
Two of these stories have been coming to mind more often than the others lately, and not because of their wisdom: rather, because they embody the worst parts of modern shortsightedness. They present a kind of blueprint for disaster, a willful and destructive blindness whose self-deception is perfectly mirrored in these two classics of SF.
The first is ‘‘The Cold Equations’’, Tom Godwin’s classic 1954 Astounding story about a shuttle pilot who has to kill a girl who has stowed away on his ship. The pilot, Barton, is on a mission to deliver medicine to a group of explorers on a distant world. They have contracted a fatal disease, and without the medicine, they will all die. The pilot has just gotten underway when he sees his fuel gauge dropping at a faster rate than it should. He deduces from this that there’s a stowaway aboard and after a search, he discovers a young girl.
She has stowed away in order to be reunited with her brother, who is on the plague-stricken world (though he’s a continent away from the sickness). She believes that she is to be fined for her rule-breaking, but then a stricken Barton explains the facts of the universe to her. The rescue ship has only enough fuel to reach the plague-planet, and with the girl’s additional mass, it won’t arrive. She will have to be pushed out of the airlock, otherwise the sick explorers will die of the plague. If Barton could, he’d sacrifice himself to let her live, but she can’t land the spaceship. It’s entirely out of his hands.
As the truth dawns on her, she weeps and protests: ‘‘I didn’t do anything!’’
But we know better, as does Barton – and as, eventually, does she. She has violated the laws of physics. The equations are there, and they say she must die. Not because the universe thirsts for her vengeance. There is no passion in her death. She must die because the inescapable, chilly math of the situation demands it.
Barton wanted her to live. Apparently, editor John W. Campbell sent back three rewrites in which the pilot figured out how to save the girl. He was adamant that the universe must punish the girl.
The universe wasn’t punishing the girl, though. Godwin was – and so was Barton (albeit reluctantly).
The parameters of ‘‘The Cold Equations’’ are not the inescapable laws of physics. Zoom out beyond the page’s edges and you’ll find the author’s hands carefully arranging the scenery so that the plague, the world, the fuel, the girl and the pilot are all poised to inevitably lead to her execution. The author, not the girl, decided that there was no autopilot that could land the ship without the pilot. The author decided that the plague was fatal to all concerned, and that the vaccine needed to be delivered within a timeframe that could only be attained through the execution of the stowaway.
It 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 every bit as much as the dead girl is a victim, forced by circumstance and girlish naïveté to stain their souls with murder.
Moral hazard is the economist’s term for a rule that encourages people to behave badly. For example, a rule that says that you’re not liable for your factory’s pollution if you don’t know about it encourages factory owners to totally ignore their effluent pipes – it turns willful ignorance into a profitable strategy.
‘‘The Cold Equations’’ is moral hazard in action. It is a story designed to excuse the ship’s operators – from the executives to ground control to the pilot – for standardizing on a spaceship with no margin of safety. A spaceship with no autopilot, no fuel reserves, and no contingency margin in its fuel calculations.
‘‘The Cold Equations’’ never asks why the explorers were sent off-planet without a supply of vaccines. It never asks what failure of health-protocol led to the spread of the disease on the distant, unexplored world.
‘‘The Cold Equations’’ shoves every one of those questions out the airlock along with the young girl. It barks at us that now is not the time for pointing fingers, because there is an emergency. It says that now is the time to pull together, the time for all foolish girls to die to save brave explorers from certain death, and not the time for assigning blame.
But if a crisis of your own making isn’t the time to lay blame, then the optimal strategy is to ensure that the crisis never ends.
Which brings me to Farnham’s Freehold, a strong contender for the most offensive of all of Heinlein’s novels. Published in 1964, it features a nuclear holocaust and a post-apocalyptic world in which African-Americans are ascendant and have enslaved the remaining white people, whom they occasionally eat. Incredibly, this does not automatically qualify Farnham’s Freehold for Heinlein’s Most Offensive prize, because his typewriter also produced books like Sixth Column (America under the cruel dominion of the Yellow Peril), Friday (sure, rape’s bad, but hey, relax and enjoy it, why don’t you?), and I Will Fear No Evil (there are no words).
Most of the criticism of Farnham’s Freehold quite rightly focuses on its blatant racism and, secondarily, on its vile sexism. But for this essay, let’s focus on ‘‘Lifeboat rules.’’
Hugh Farnham, the hero of Farnham’s Freehold, has a signature move: when people disagree with him, he barks ‘‘Lifeboat rules!’’ at them and pats his sidearm. Hugh Farnham is the proprietor of a nuclear fallout shelter that has managed, thanks to his excellent timing and foresight, to have rescued his family and some of their friends. The shelter is their ‘‘lifeboat,’’ the only thing standing between them and certain death in an uncaring universe where the cold equations of nuclear fission dictate that rules must be followed.
Poor Hugh is a good guy, but he has the responsibility of taking care of the lifeboat’s passengers. That means that he’s got to bear the sidearm, and threaten his friends and family with lethal violence if they get out of line. It’s for their own good.
Heinlein’s Hugh Farnham is a character who is in charge of everything except the circumstances that led to him having to coerce, cajole, and terrorize the people around him. He’s that character because Heinlein wrote him that way.
Every once in a while you find yourself in a lifeboat where a single stupid move can kill everyone. But a science fiction writer whose story’s boundary extends to the boat’s gunwales, and no further – not to the poleconomy that convinced a nation to build backyard bunkers rather than rising up en masse against Mutually Assured Destruction, say – is a science fiction writer who has considered the car and the movie and invented the drive-in without ever thinking about the sexual revolution or the database-nation.
The thing about Cold Equations is that they aren’t the product of unfeeling physics. They are parameterized by human beings.
The thing about lifeboat rules is that they are an awfully good deal for lifeboat captains.
Even saints get exasperated with other humans from time to time. What a treat it would be if the rest of the world would just realize that what’s best for you is simply the best course of action, period. That’s the moral hazard in cold equations, the existential crisis of lifeboat rules. If being in a lifeboat gives you the power to make everyone else shut the hell up and listen (or else), then wouldn’t it be awfully convenient if our ship were to go down?
Every time someone tells you that the environment is important, sure, but we can’t afford to take a bite out of the economy to mitigate global warming, ask yourself what’s out of the frame on this cold equation. Every time you hear that education is vital and taking care of the poor is our solemn duty, but we must all tighten in our belts while our lifeboat rocks in the middle of the precarious, crisis-torn economic seas, ask yourself whether the captain of our lifeboat had any role in the sinking of the ship.
Science fiction is supposed to teach us how to think about the future. The intellectual dishonesty in ‘‘The Cold Equations’’ and Farnham’s Freehold are not isolated incidents, though: they’re recurring motifs that persist to this day (just have a look at Sandra Bullock’s struggles with the cold equations of Gravity if you don’t believe me, then watch Jack Bauer torture a terrorist on 24 to see some modern lifeboat rules).
They have something to teach us, all right: that stories about how we can’t afford to hew to our values in time of crisis are a handy addition to every authoritarian’s playbook, a fine friend of plutocrats, and they reek of self-serving bullshit every time they’re deployed.