Sunday 29 March 2020

Cold Comparisons

By Michael Hoskin, friend of the blog
Science fiction has long been a genre that is rife with references to previous works. As Jo Walton has noted, the genre is often in conversation with itself.

The new ideas of the genre are often ones that are built upon decades of previous works. As I’ve previously written, to a great extent the genre depends on it; if Karel Čapek’s R.U.R. were the only created work on robots, we would have been denied the works of Asimov, Star Wars, and more.

Some works make no attempt to camouflage the works which inspired them – look at any number of
L. Sprague de Camp at Boskone 9
(Image via NESFA)
the pastiche works in the genre, from Manly Wade Wellman’s Sherlock Holmes’s War of the Worlds to L. Sprague De Camp’s Conan of the Isles.

It is interesting to note however, that some works are written even more directly as a commentary on another piece of speculative fiction. There is value in examining how these works offer direct counterpoints to the works they interrogate. 

Tom Godwin’s 1954 story ‘The Cold Equations’ is among the most heavily criticized works in the genre because so many people are unsatisfied by the very premise of the story. It tells of an astronaut who finds a stowaway aboard his ship; due to the precise fuel calculations of his vessel, he cannot afford to bring the stowaway to his destination – therefore, the stowaway must die.

The dilemma of the story is that the astronaut has no other option but to let the stowaway die. There is no clever solution to the dilemma, no deus ex machina to thwart the dilemma – and so, it has been a subject of great debate over the decades.

In 1991, Don Sakers published his short story ‘The Cold Solution’ as a direct response to ‘The Cold Equations.’ This newer story exists in a universe which explicitly references Godwin’s story as an existing piece of fiction. Once again, an astronaut faces a similar dilemma – but not an identical one – and a solution is found (because of the difference in the nature of the stowaway between stories). Sakers wrote the story because he felt “Just as SF once needed to hear that there were times when the girl had to go out of the airlock, in 1991 SF needed to hear that the girl didn't always have to go out the airlock.” It won the Analog award for Best Short Story of 1991.

L. Sprague De Camp was even more prone to criticizing previous works through his fiction. His best-known novel (Lest Darkness Fall, 1941) and best-known short story (‘A Gun for Dinosaur’, 1956) were each written in response to existing works of speculative fiction that De Camp disagreed with, much like Sakers did to Godwin’s story.

Lest Darkness Fall was written in answer to Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889). Twain’s comedic novel concerns a 19th century man who finds himself in Medieval England and uses his knowledge of the future to alter the past, introducing 19th century inventions hundreds of years in advance. Twain intended to satirize tales of romantic chivalry, but De Camp, at least, was not amused. In De Camp’s Lest Darkness Fall, a 20th century archaeologist time travels to 6th century Rome and uses his foreknowledge to prevent the Roman Empire from collapse.
The Cold Equations by
Tom Goodwin may be
one of the most debated
SF stories of all time.
(Image via Goodreads)

The difference between the two is that De Camp earnestly believed in the romance of the fallen Roman Empire and in the ability of a red-blooded intelligent American to alter history for the better.

Similarly, ‘A Gun for Dinosaur’ was written as a response to Ray Bradbury’s ‘A Sound of Thunder’ (1952), both tales being concerned with time traveling safaris where men hunt dinosaurs using advanced technology. The difference between the two lies in their approach to time paradoxes – Bradbury’s tale is very clear on the rules of time travel and depicts how even a slight inadvertent change to history has unforeseen consequences.

Again, De Camp rejects this; in his version, time paradoxes are impossible, but in a fuzzy sort of way… the forces of time itself prevent one of the hunters from being assassinated via time travel. Yet at the same time, we’re assured that going to the past, massacring dinosaurs and hauling their trophies back to the future does not create any paradoxes. That in itself feels… paradoxical.

Unlike ‘The Cold Solution,’ it is very possible for a reader who has neither read nor even heard of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court to read and enjoy Lest Darkness Fall without being aware of any connective tissue between the two. Likewise for ‘A Gun for Dinosaur’ and ‘A Sound of Thunder’. The story of ‘The Cold Solution’ is not, I think, of any interest to people who are unfamiliar with ‘The Cold Equations’.

Beyond Sakers’ meta-references to Godwin’s story within his text, the dilemma of his tale and its seemingly-simple solution is not liable to be interesting to anyone unless they recognize it as a critical response to Godwin. Lest Darkness Fall and ‘A Gun for Dinosaur’ are proper stories; ‘The Cold Solution’ is a letter to the editor in disguise.

What these examples hold in common proves Walton's thesis on science fiction's conversation with itself. Science fiction is richer for the interplay between different authors' works, like what a jam session between rival jazz artists or a rap response are to music. The art of science fiction is richer for having a sense of one-upmanship.

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