A Meditation for the New Year

The universe is antagonist enough.

After a six-year debate of Tom Godwin's story "The Cold Equations" in our magazine, The New York Review of Science Fiction, I use great caution when mentioning the story. Nonetheless, one "Dejah Thoris" writing for the Agonist invokes the story to comment on the hard-sf aspect of the tsunami disaster . I resisted the temptation to write about the wave forms as seen from satellites; my own tendency is to astheticize disaster, and I have been keeping it tightly in check. But I think she does a good job, in her short essay, of invoking that without sensationalizing.

Reading her piece reminds me of a comment by the late Hal Clement, one of the icons of hard science fiction, on why his stories had no villains. He said, "The universe is antagonist enough." In the long run, we are all dead. It is only a matter of time. That was the context of the remark, as I recall. John Clute and others have accused hard sf of a certain coldness and lack of affect. Having grown up in physics culture, I have tended to read the affect differently than Clute as a kind of compressed encoded emotional expression.

What I discovered from the years of debate over "The Cold Equations" is that the themes raised by the story produce very complex reactions and passionate argument, argument highly reminiscent of arguments raised by disasters themselves. "Thoris" does an interesting job of balancing these aspects in her examination of the relevance to the current catastrophe.

Among the various post-tsunami outbursts, there have been a certain number of right-wingers wondering how environmentalists could possibly like nature in the face of a disaster such as this. I think, here, also, hard sf has something to contribute. I think of Arthur C. Clarke's story "Transit of Earth" in which a stranded astronaut who is running out of air decides to go explore to see the wonders of the place he has sacrificed his life to reach; or Larry Niven's "Inconstant Moon" in which the sun going nova is observed by the protagonists as intense light reflected by the moon; it will shortly be dawn and so presumably the protagonists will soon die. An appreciation of nature should involve an appreciation and acceptance of the laws of nature. While is some respects, hard sf is a very can-do literature, it also accepts that there are limits to what we can do.