Stacking the deck is what writers do.

I like Tom Godwin’s short story The Cold Equations, but I think there’s some merit to the criticisms by Cory Doctorow and Marissa Lingen. Then again, some of what they say is daft.

The  story involves a rocket carrying a badly needed vaccine shipment. The pilot discovers a teenager stowaway who wanted to visit her brother on the destination planet. Oops: there’s zero allowance for excess weight so the ship can’t carry the girl and still reach its destination. The only way to deliver the life-saving drugs is to throw the stowaway out the airlock. The cold equations that govern the physics of space flight don’t care about innocent lives.

Lingen and Doctorow’s arguments are that Godwin “stacks the deck,” rigging the story so there’s only one possible outcome; b)the story strains logic to get there; c)the subtext of the story is that we have finite resources and therefore we have to be ruthless with them, which is the attitude we see in anti-immigration arguments that we simply can’t afford to take in people from foreign countries; finite resources justifies cruelty.

I think the first point is just bullshit. Yes, Godwin stacks the deck, but that’s part of writing. Cozy mysteries stack the deck so that the amateur detective has to investigate instead of leaving things to the cops. Noir thrillers stack the deck to create a corrupt, unjust world in which the most you can hope for is survival. Old Yeller stacks the deck by giving Yeller rabies so he has to be put down. Stories that show the bad guys can be reasoned with or that the only solution is violence both stack the deck to make their point. I can’t fault Godwin for stacking the deck so things end in tragedy.

The argument that the deck is stacked very poorly makes more sense: why is there no margin for error? Why is there no security against stowing away — or at least the pilot could have searched for stowaways before take off. Having seen inefficiency and gross stupidity in the business world (both at companies I’ve worked for and at friends’ employers) I don’t find it impossible, but it is a stretch.

But I think the real issue for Lingen and Doctorow is the “don’t like the movie” argument: Godwin stacking the deck is bad because they don’t like the way the cards fall at the end. Which is a perfectly reasonable reaction. I hate comic book stories (and a lot in other media) that stack the deck so that killing bad guys is justifiable. However, the Lingen/Doctorow reaction to Godwin’s story isn’t one I share. Their criticisms are well-reasoned but they don’t change my feeling that Cold Equations is just a tragic, well-executed short story; I don’t feel like Godwin was trying to make a larger statement about resources or ruthlessness or anything. That doesn’t make Lingen and Doctorow wrong, but their arguments don’t move me at all.

#SFWApro. Don’t know cover artist, all rights to image remain with current holders.


Filed under Reading, Writing

2 responses to “Stacking the deck is what writers do.

  1. Pingback: Stacking the deck: Twilight Zone’s “Miniature” | Fraser Sherman's Blog

  2. Pingback: The Rise of Skywalker and the Redemption of Sith Lords | Fraser Sherman's Blog

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