“Plus or Minus”, by James Patrick Kelly


Over 15 years ago Asimov’s published what has arguably become Jim Kelly’s most famous story, “Think Like a Dinosaur”, which went on to win the Hugo in 1996.  That story was widely recognized as a response or a commentary or a riff on “The Cold Equations”, one-hit wonder Tom Godwin’s even more famous story from the 1950’s in which a girl somehow stows away on board a spacecraft and has to be jettisoned in order to save the rest of the crew because the ratio of the mass of the ship to the amount of fuel is so exact that it can’t be adjusted for an extra passenger without killing everyone.  “Think Like a Dinosaur” doesn’t really involve equations at all, but posits nanotechnology that can instantaneously transfer someone light years away into a brand new corporeal form, but their original form has to be destroyed for reasons that are more spiritual than scientific.  The force of that story comes from its first person narrator, the tech operating the transfer machinery who must close the loop when the transfer malfunctions.  Both stories paint their protagonists into a moral corner from which they can only escape by violating their own ethics and beliefs for a higher moral imperative.

In this new story, Kelly seems to be skirting close to this idea again, but maybe with more philosophical intent than before.  Mariska is a young space monkey who has signed onto a boring multi-year stint on an asteroid mining ship to escape the yoke of her domineering mother, of whom she is a clone.  The rest of the crew is of a similar age except for Beep, a grizzled old timer who is not really in charge, since the ship basically runs itself, but has some level of seniority.  Still a hundred days from home, things go awry very suddenly when one of the crew members loses some large blocks of ice during a routine maneuver, such that there won’t be enough oxygen for everyone to survive the remainder of the trip.  Seemingly within minutes, someone makes the decision to sacrifice himself in order to decrease the amount of oxygen being consumed and save everyone else.  But it’s still not enough, Mariska takes matters into her own hands by going into hibernation, which carries its own risks, plus there’s no way to know just how much oxygen she can save as the level of hibernation is variable.  Hence the plus or minus of the title, the equation this time isn’t quite as cold because one key property is an unknown quantity and can only be defined up front as a range.

At the end, again somewhat abruptly, Mariska is rescued by a ship thanks to her estranged mother.  In some respects this story comes off as too short, there could be a little more time spent on the various life or death decisions that happen after the crisis, and Mariska’s shipmates could use a little more depth to allow the reader to care about them a little more.  There’s some interesting moral ambiguity here too that could use some additional exploration.  After all Mariska, in trying to save everyone, ended up saving only herself, sort of “The Cold Equations” in reverse, and even if she does reconcile with her mother, living with herself is going to be a difficult task.  The narrator of “Think Like a Dinosaur” can at least take comfort in the fact that he had to kill someone who should have been dead already, who in the eyes of the dinos was no longer really alive even though she was still breathing and talking.  But here as in Godwin’s original, the idea of redemption is left as an exercise for the reader, and it would seem that this time around Kelly’s protagonist can’t rely on the equations but must accept an element of chance, or fate.  Either way, in the end she must still face the consequences.

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