Movies

Stowaway Continues an Argument Sci-Fi Fans Have Been Having for Decades

There’s a long, and problematic, history behind Netflix’s latest hit.

Anna Kendrick in Stowaway.
Anna Kendrick in Stowaway. Netflix

Embedded in the narrative DNA of the new Netflix movie Stowaway is one of the most iconic and controversial science-fiction short stories ever published, “The Cold Equations,” by Tom Godwin. Like “The Cold Equations,” Stowaway is the story of a spaceship journey that hits a snag when an additional passenger is discovered onboard. The ship can’t complete its trip with the extra drain on its resources, so somebody has to go out the airlock.

“The Cold Equations” first appeared in the August 1954 edition of Astounding magazine, whose editor, John W. Campbell Jr., played a major role in defining the genre of “hard science fiction”—that is, stories fundamentally concerned with the accurate depiction of science and technology. According to legend, Campbell sent the story back to Godwin several times because the author kept trying to find a way for the characters to wriggle out of the story’s central dilemma and achieve a happy ending. Campbell refused to accept anything but the bleakest conclusion.

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In Stowaway, a crew of three astronauts on a two-year mission to a colony on Mars find an unconscious launch technician, Michael (Shamier Anderson), in a compartment on their ship. At first, they train Michael to become a member of their team, but eventually, the ship’s captain (Toni Collette) realizes that the ship doesn’t have enough oxygen to support four people for the entirety of its mission.* Like Godwin, the ship’s crew spend a lot of time trying to figure out a way around this limitation to little avail—their finite supply of oxygen is an example of one of the “cold equations” in Godwin’s story, an implacable law of nature that cares nothing for human life.

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The publication of “The Cold Equations” caused a sensation within the sci-fi world because stories like it usually ended with human ingenuity and grit saving the day just as all hope seemed lost. We’re all familiar with endings like this from countless action and adventure movies, and the shock of being denied that reassurance hit readers much like the death of Ned Stark—the apparent main character in George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones—as the violation of an unspoken compact between a genre-fiction author and his audience.

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In Godwin’s story, a pilot named Barton is flying a small Emergency Dispatch Ship delivering a load of serum to a planetary colony afflicted by a deadly fever. The EDS carries just enough fuel to get him and the medication to its destination. He discovers a stowaway, a teenage girl from Earth who wants to visit her brother on the planet and who isn’t aware that strict regulations dictate that any stowaway “shall be jettisoned immediately following discovery.” If Barton doesn’t eject the girl to her death, he won’t be able to deliver the serum and more people will die.

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The story is a version of the ethical thought experiment known as the trolley problem: Five people are tied to a trolley track with a car bearing down on them. You can throw a switch redirecting the car to another track to which only one person is tied. What do you do, take responsibility for the death of one person or allow five others to die by doing nothing? In a further iteration of the problem, the five people can only be saved if you physically push a fat man onto the track to stop the car with his body. Many people find the direct contact with the potential victim far more difficult to contemplate than pulling a lever to switch the tracks. In “The Cold Equations,” Barton knows Marilyn’s name and learns some of her history, while to him the threatened colonists are a faceless and nameless mass.

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For some science-fiction fans, “The Cold Equations” became a touchstone of the genre. James Gunn, an author, anthologist, and scholar of the genre, wrote, “If the reader doesn’t understand it or appreciate what it is trying to say about humanity and its relationship to its environment, then that reader isn’t likely to appreciate science fiction.” In this view, science fiction emphasizes the primacy of “the laws of nature, irrevocable and immutable,” over the squishy ambiguities of human emotions and manners, which are the subject of most fiction. The genre is seen by these fans as a sanctuary for those who appreciate hard truths and the men who face up to them.

Behind the technological gloss (much of the story is taken up with discussing the ship and how it works), “The Cold Equations” clearly illustrates the genre’s roots in the Western. Space and the planets settled by the colonist are referred to as the “frontier,” and Marilyn, in her feminine ignorance of the tough conditions there, makes a fatal mistake closely linked to her gender. Like the countless schoolmarms who arrive in semi-lawless Wild West towns in such movies as 1939’s Dodge City, “she belonged in that world of soft winds and a warm sun, music and moonlight and gracious manners, and not on the hard, bleak frontier.” In order to “civilize” the frontier and make it safe for such tender creatures, the male hero must make painful decisions and commit terrible actions that leave him so damaged he’s unsuitable for civilized company.

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Although “The Cold Equations” became one of the most anthologized stories in a genre notable for the importance of its anthologies, in recent decades it is far more likely to be criticized than praised. Complaints about the story typically hinge on its contrived premise. Even within the story’s own value system, a mission designed without the redundancy to cope with the unexpected is simply bad engineering, rather than a demonstration of the universe’s indifference. The writer Cory Doctorow declared the story an example of a “moral hazard,” a term that economists use to describe a situation that encourages an economic actor (such as a corporation) to behave unethically by shielding that actor from the consequences of that behavior.

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But I think the friend who first told me about “The Cold Equations” put it best when he described the story as an elaborate excuse to toss a girl out the airlock and then feel sorry for yourself afterward. As is sometimes the case with genre fiction, it is a fantasy about being forced to do what you secretly want to do so that you can disclaim your own desires even as you indulge in them. It’s both sadistic, as it lingers over Marilyn’s despair, and masochistic, as it wallows in Barton’s helpless stoicism.

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Stowawayand here’s where you might want to stop if you’re trying to avoid spoilers—complicates and extends the basic premise of “The Cold Equations” while updating its gender politics, to a point. Zoe Levenson (Anna Kendrick), an M.D. and the mission’s medical researcher, is no clueless Marilyn, but when the crew exhausts the last of its desperate gambits to escape having to sacrifice one of its members, she volunteers for a suicide mission that will save the other three. This is noble and heroic. Stowaway differs from “The Cold Equations” in that Zoe is the story’s protagonist rather than its problem, and once she’s made her sacrifice, the movie, somewhat abruptly, ends. But her death is also partly a consequence of a mistake she makes—dropping an oxygen canister. More crucially, despite Zoe’s competence and stamina as a crew member, her fate is the result of her soft-heartedness.

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When the crew first learns that only three of them can survive, she insists on postponing Michael’s death in order to search for a solution that the more expert technicians back at headquarters have already determined doesn’t exist. Like Marilyn, she fruitlessly beats her fists against the “hard and relentless” facts and ends up destroyed by them. She may be a hero rather than a pitiful victim like Marilyn, but her irrational emotions still bring about her downfall. True, Zoe’s feelings provide her with some comfort at the movie’s end, as she gazes toward Mars, the planet she’ll never see, and remembers how she’d hoped the mission would “give my life meaning beyond anything I could imagine.” That meaning is found in her sacrifice for the sake of others, rather than her scientific work, a peculiarly feminine virtue, and she is just as resigned to it as Marilyn is to her own demise at the end of Godwin’s story. The equations remain as cold as they were in 1954, and in both stories they add up to a young woman perishing in the void.

Correction, April 27, 2021: This post originally misspelled Toni Collette’s last name.

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