Riding the Number Two slot on Netflix this week is a star-studded science fiction film about a trip to Mars that goes horribly wrong. The premise of STOWAWAY may be unlikely (we’ll get to that later), but the moral dilemma it presents to the human crew of the spaceship on its way to the Red Planet is a fascinating one. It’s a question, in fact, that has been explored many times in SF since writers have been contemplating taking on the challenges of space.
In this version of the story, written and directed by Joe Penna (ARCTIC) and starring Anna Kendrick, Toni Collette, Daniel Dae Kim and Shamier Anderson (RACE, Wynonna Earp), a three-person crew is on its way to Mars on a vital research/colony restocking mission when they discover a launch engineer (Anderson) was injured and stowed away aboard the ship by mistake. (Actually, how this happens is not clear. They find him unconscious aboard the large main ship in orbit when they dock from their smaller capsule. How did he get there? How long was he unconscious in orbit before they found him? Yeah, big plot holes here.)
ANYWAY, now we have the dilemma. By the time the regular crew finds the guy, they are too far out from Earth to return. Resources on the long trip to Mars would be limited in any case, but adding an unplanned-for fourth person puts all their lives at risk, not to mention those of the colonists on Mars, who are depending on the supplies and experiments the ship carries. Add to that the damage done to the crucial carbon dioxide scrubber when the stowaway falls out of the ceiling. For some reason I will never understand, there is only one of these absolutely vital units on board, and it can’t be repaired, even with the 3-D printer on the ship and all the ingenuity of the world’s engineers at Ground Control. (The same problem plagued the crew on the Hilary Swank Netflix vehicle about Mars Away.) So, the expanded crew is going to run out of oxygen long before they run out of food or water.
Of course, all these more or less “artificial” elements have been put in place to create a moral quandary for the members of our crew. The faceless, voiceless powers-that-be back on Earth are insisting that the extra weight be jettisoned out the airlock, and the man who represents the voice of hard science on the ship, biologist David Kim (Daniel Dae Kim), reluctantly comes to the same conclusion, though he would give the engineer a kindler, gentler death by injection. The ship’s female commander, Marina Barnett (Toni Collette), is conflicted but ready to do what it takes to save her crew. Only the ship’s medical officer, young Dr. Zoe Levenson, is prepared to break the rules to save the man who is a guardian for his little sister back home and longs to be an astronaut himself.
I won’t spoil the film by telling you how the crew resolves this dilemma. You’ll have to see it yourself if you want to figure that out. I will say that the film does have some nifty tech ideas, though the first part of the film is better than the last third.
What’s more interesting is that this premise goes way back to the early days of SF, to a short story first published in 1954 by Tom Godwin called “The Cold Equations.”* I was reminded of this by an excellent article in Slate by Laura Miller which puts this film in the context of a long line of similar “no-win” moral dilemmas set in space.
Godwin’s version of the tale, written as it was in the male-centric, hard-science days of the Golden Age of Science Fiction, sets up the male pilot of an Emergency Dispatch Ship, with only enough fuel to make his run delivering medicine to save colonists on a distant planet, with a female teenage stowaway, ignorant of the rule that states: Any stowaway discovered in an EDS shall be jettisoned immediately following discovery. Though the “hero” is conflicted, especially because the stowaway is a “girl” who knows little of the harsh realities of the frontier of space, the “cold equations” of mass, velocity, and fuel consumption cannot be denied. In the end, the girl walks into the airlock of her own volition. I guess that’s supposed to make up for her ignorance in the story earlier. (I mean, if you ask me, she really should have known the basic rules of physics if she was in space at all. But it was the Fifties and the assumptions about women were appalling. Miller has some terrific things to say about those assumptions in her article.)
Part of our generation’s collective resistance to the notion of the “cold equations” (that is, that nothing can be done, science is science) is due to what came after the Golden Age of SF. In the New Age, female authors and others more interested in human relationships took a different approach: less enamored with the formulas of hard science, more inspired by how humans manipulated science to their own needs. The optimism of the Sixties culminated in Star Trek and Enterprise captain James T. Kirk, who didn’t believe in the no-win scenario, who famously reprogrammed Starfleet Academy’s no-win Kobayashi Maru test so he could win it, and who constantly demanded his ship’s engineer bend the laws of physics.
Finally, that belief that there was always a solution to the “cold equations” spilled over into reality in April, 1970, when the astronauts and engineers of NASA’s Apollo 13 recovered from what could have been disaster with little more than duct tape and determination. So, forgive me if I’m skeptical when I watch a fictional spaceship crew fumble with a malfunctioning piece of equipment, especially when they have a 3-D printer at hand and seemingly plenty of storage for spare parts. No one really needs to go out an airlock when they just need to refuse to believe in the no-win scenario.
*Information for this post provided by:
"Netflix’s Latest Hit Continues an Argument Sci-Fi Fans Have Been Having for Decades," by Laura Miller, Slate, April 28, 2021. https://www.msn.com/en-us/health/wellness/netflixs-latest-hit-continues-an-argument-sci-fi-fans-have-been-having-for-decades/ar-BB1g76mZ?ocid=BHEA000&li=BBnbfcL
**The story can be found in anthologies such as The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume I, Robert Silverberg, ed., Avon, 1970. I've had my copy since high school, so it might even be in public domain by now.