Reading Mindfully: Tom Godwin’s “The Cold Equations”

Reading Mindfully: Tom Godwin’s “The Cold Equations”

Each month, we offer you a chance to read mindfully, to use literature to think about your perceptions and reactions to the world in which we live and work. Through these short texts and accompanying questions, we hope to give you a small taste of Books@Work. Please grab a friend or colleague to read, share and discuss – and send us your thoughts.

Renowned and prolific science fiction writer Tom Godwin’s short story “The Cold Equations” takes place aboard a cargo spaceship bound for a far-off planet in need of medical supplies. The ship’s pilot finds himself and his ship in an unexpected predicament when he discovers a stowaway on board.

First published in Astounding Magazine in 1954, the story endured a lengthy editorial back-and-forth. After six revisions, editor John W. Campbell convinced Godwin to make substantial changes to the story’s ending an ending which cemented the story’s status in the science fiction canon. In 1970, the story was selected for inclusion in the first volume of The Science Fiction Hall of Fame.

As you read “The Cold Equations,” consider these questions:

  • Should decisions be rooted in reason or emotion? Are there decisions you’ve made in your own life that required you to put one or the other aside?
  • Do you think ignorance is an acceptable excuse for breaking the rules? Does it depend on the circumstances?
  • What would you do in the pilot’s situation?

The Cold Equations

By Tom Godwin

He was not alone.

There was nothing to indicate the fact but the white hand of the tiny gauge on the board before him. The control room was empty but for himself; there was no sound other than the murmur of the drives—but the white hand had moved. It had been on zero when the little ship was launched from the Stardust; now, an hour later, it had crept up. There was something in the supply closet across the room, it was saying, some kind of a body that radiated heat.

It could be but one kind of a body—a living, human body.

He leaned back in the pilot’s chair and drew a deep, slow breath, considering what he would have to do. He was an EDS pilot, inured to the sight of death, long since accustomed to it and to viewing the dying of another man with an objective lack of emotion, and he had no choice in what he must do. There could be no alternative—but it required a few moments of conditioning for even an EDS pilot to prepare himself to walk across the room and coldly, deliberately, take the life of a man he had yet to meet.

Continue reading “The Cold Equations” here.

Image: Konstantin Yuon, New Planet, 1921, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, Russia, [Public Domain] via

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Maredith Sheridan

Maredith Sheridan

Maredith Sheridan is a Development Communications Associate at the Cleveland Orchestra and a part-time member of the Books@Work team. She continues to write posts for our blog.