Sunday, July 20, 2014

Texts in conversation: Dawn, The Martian, and Cold Equations

I first encountered Cold Equations (the short story) in college, and it rocked my world.  I remember sitting in the laundry room shattered as I hoped that somehow the stowaway could survive.  Of course, she did not, and the inexorable reality of the physical laws of the universe settled around me.

It's been a while since I read the Cold Equations (and my goodness, stay far away from the short story collection of the same name.  Pick it up in something like The Science Fiction Hall of Fame: Volume 1), but I came across a tweet recently that pointed out at least one hole in the short story: put a bit more fuel on the supply ship and all of a sudden the cold equations become a bit warmer.  Death in the Cold Equations is not due to the inevitability of physical laws, but rather the decision by the people who outfitted the supply ship not to build in a margin of error.

Not long after coming across this tweet, I read The Martian (not a big fan) and heard a discussion on the Three Hoarsemen podcast characterizing The Martian as a spiritual response to the Cold Equations. Stranded on the surface of mars, the reality of physical laws and chosen supplies will lead inevitably to the death of astronaut Mark Watney long before any rescue could reach him.  And yet (spoilers!) Watney manages to repurpose some of his equipment in order to extend his stay.  (My brief criticism - the vast majority of problems Watney attempts to solve are mostly of the "two trains start out 300 miles apart, one traveling 20 miles an hour, the other 30 miles an hour, when will they meet?" form)  Where Cold Equations ignores the decisions made in packing the shuttle in order to focus strictly on the inflexibility of physical laws, The Martian looks at the abilities of human ingenuity to overcome the limitations of these laws.

Most recently, I finished Octavia Butler's Dawn, which I highly recommend.  In Dawn, Lilith finds herself imprisoned on an alien space station after a world war has destroyed humanity.  The aliens are physically repulsive, implacable traders, and determined to exact a price for saving humanity.  Where Cold Equations focuses on physical laws, Lilith finds herself oppressed and manipulated instead by the powerful aliens who control every aspect of the environment she lives in.  The laws of Lilith's world, however, are no less implacable than the physical realities of Cold Equations.  Humanity will only be brought back to earth on the aliens' terms.

Dawn is significantly more horrific than Cold Equations.  Lilith is subjected to aggressive actions from the aliens over and over again (from juveniles essentially wanting to play with their new pet all the way to sexual assault), and finds herself nearly helpless in an environment not designed with allowances for humans in any ways.

In a lot of ways, my encounters with Cold Equations and Dawn have a lot to do with my evolving understanding of privilege.  I grew up with pretty much all of the available privileges (straight, white, cis male, also with social and class privilege), so I was (somewhat consciously) aware that many rules and laws outside of physical realities were unlikely to have real consequences for me.  The great horror of Cold Equations was that laws and consequences would apply fully.  While I didn't have the language of privilege to express this at the time, it's clear in retrospect that my reaction to Cold Equations was the growing realization that these serious consequences (death) would indeed apply to the stowaway, a result that was far out of my experience.

Dawn is, in many ways, a novel about living with fewer privileges.  Lilith is surrounded by a hostile and aggressive environment.  Assault (physical, emotional, and sexual) is always present.  Even when other humans are introduced, she is marked out as separate.  If Cold Equations is about someone with privilege learning that that privilege does not apply everywhere (with drastic consequences), Dawn is about living without privilege in a hostile world.  I hadn't expected to be linking these two stories (and briefly The Martian, blissfully unaware of privilege and consequences), but the more I reflect on Dawn, the more appropriate the connection seems.

I'd recommend Dawn with only a few reservations - it does include scenes with sexual assault and I suspect that when I was a younger and less experienced reader I would have missed a lot.  I haven't re-read Cold Equations in quite a while, but I think that even with the weaknesses I'm now more conscious of it's still worth a read.  I finished The Martian mostly to get it done and counting towards my Goodreads challenge, but my sense from a number of reviews I've seen is that this puts me in the minority.

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