In an early episode of Armando Iannucci’s new HBO science fiction comedy Avenue 5, an earnest engineer suggests that there’s a simple fix for the problem that took the titular spaceship off course. The captain, played by British comedy veteran Hugh Laurie, waits breathlessly — and the engineer explains that they just need to eject about 500 people into deep space to bring the ship’s weight down.
The captain walks away in disgust. But longtime science fiction fans might experience a little giggle of recognition. The engineer has just tried to recapitulate the plot of one of the most famous hard science tales of all time: Tom Godwin’s 1954 short story “The Cold Equations.” The story is famous for encapsulating the hard science ethos, in which character choices and adventures are tightly constrained by the logic of true-to-life natural laws.
Avenue 5 is a breezy, snarky sitcom about a disaster on a vacation space cruise. It doesn’t seem like it would have much to do with the gritty, tough, no-frills worlds in hard-science narratives like television’s The Expanse. And it’s true that Veep and In the Loop creator Iannucci references “The Cold Equations” to mock it and hard science fiction in general. But he also uses hard-sci-fi tropes to make fun of more fanciful science fiction fare, like Star Trek or Doctor Who. Hard science becomes a large space body that the show can slingshot around to blast the whole genre with rocket engines of bracing derision.
”The Cold Equations” is well-known mostly for Godwin’s elegant plot. A frontier vessel is heading for a remote planet to deliver medicine. It has just enough fuel to get to its destination. A young woman stows away on the ship, hoping to see her brother on the planet. Her additional weight ensures that the ship will crash, killing the stowaway, the pilot, and all the sick men planetside. So the regulations clearly state she must be tossed overboard, which (after some tears and melodramatic prose) she is. “To him and her brother and parents she was a sweet-faced girl in her teens,” the pilot muses, but “to the laws of nature she was x, the unwanted factor in a cold equation.”
Godwin wrote the story as a kind of rebuke to earlier space adventure pulp like E.E. Smith’s Lensman series, or Flash Gordon serials, in which brave, virile heroes performed improbable feats to save everyone, especially the girl — usually with lasers, and in defiance of physics. Those pulp stories were important precursors for pop culture science fiction adventure narratives like Star Wars and Star Trek.
Avenue 5 follows “The Cold Equations” and hard science fiction in pointing out the silliness of its peers and predecessors. The cruise ship gets in trouble when its billionaire owner, Herman Judd (Josh Gad), sends an engineer outside the ship to fix the time delay on communication with Earth. In shows like Star Trek, everyone has access to communication rigs that somehow defy the speed of light. In the real world, though, you can’t actually “fix” a 20-second time delay on communications when you’re out around Saturn. The future isn’t magic land. The Force is not with you. The laws of physics still apply.
Judd is an ignorant space hobbyist who doesn’t know how anything works, and the result is that, while his employee is trying to fix the unfixable, the ship’s gravity is turned off, and the vessel is knocked off course. Suddenly, its weekslong holiday cruise is looking like a three-year voyage, at least.
Much of the text of “The Cold Equations” is spent lamenting humanity’s inability to contest the remorselessness of physical law. The early episodes of Avenue 5 do much the same thing, but they treat that inability as farce, rather than tragedy. The passengers on the space flight, as well as Capt. Ryan Clark (Hugh Laurie) and Earth’s command and control Rav Mulcair (Nikki Amuka-Bird) are constantly demanding that someone, somewhere, get the equations to come out differently. Billie (Lenora Crichlow), the engineer who actually knows how things work, desperately tries to tell the captain that you can’t just fire a heavy coffin off into space without consequences. But of course, no one listens to her, and consequences ensue. And then there are the space toilets ..
Part of the fun of Avenue 5 is also the fun of “The Cold Equations”: getting to watch hard-science truths dismantle the frankly silly genre pulp stories in which people maneuver spaceships like cars, and hop about the galaxy as if it’s their backyard. Suspending disbelief for those kinds of jaunts is entertaining. But it’s also entertaining to stop suspending disbelief just for a bit, and watch Rebecca Front as passenger Karen Kelly explode (not literally!) in magnificent indignation because space-time won’t do what she wants, the way it does for, say, William Shatner.
But while Avenue 5 enjoys thumping the starship Enterprise and its avatars about the bridge with solid hunks of hard science, its glee in doing so functions as a mockery of the hard science genre itself. “The Cold Equations” is a somber affair, and a lot of hard science fiction is ominous and heavy — consider the slow, silent close-ups and intense brow-tightenings in the relentlessly serious Ad Astra. Space is dark, space is uncompromising, space is coming for you. Hard science speaks hard truths. “The Cold Equations” presents itself as tragedy, but its appeal is mostly in its mean-spiritedness. You want to save the girl? Well, you can’t. That’s science!
The engineer who proposes tossing 500 people into space to get everyone back home a couple of years earlier thinks he’s come up with an awesome, science-y solution too. Capt. Clark’s disgust is understandable. The cold equations aren’t cool; they’re just the too-clever-by-half trick of a doofus who thinks his superiors should applaud when he makes his numbers line up by tossing people into the vacuum.
This kind of criticism of hard science isn’t new. Science fiction writer Cory Doctorow, for example, has argued that “The Cold Equations” is a cheat, in which the author carefully arranges the situation so the stowaway has to die, then blames the violence on the innocent laws of physics. Soft, pulpy science fiction twists the rules of the universe to convenience its characters. Hard science fiction twists those same rules to inconvenience them. Avenue 5 is fun in part because it recognizes that the cold equations are neither cold nor equations. They’re just the usual accumulation of internal foolishness and external indignities that make life on Earth or in space unbearable enough that we wish we were in a galaxy far, far away. Or at least on a cruise ship.
Avenue 5 premieres on HBO on Jan. 19 at 10 p.m. ET.