Survival of the Ruthless

Arthur C Clarke’s early collection including the disturbing ‘Breaking Strain’.  This edition published by Pan Books 1966.

Arthur C Clarke’s early collection including the disturbing ‘Breaking Strain’. This edition published by Pan Books 1966.

Space travel will involve careful planning of all the necessities for a safe and successful journey – fuel, food, oxygen, water, power and so on.  A serious disruption to the availability of any of these supplies could be disastrous for everyone on board.  Yet, once space flight gets under way, there are bound to be problems which will require some essential, quite possibly life-or-death, decisions.

The idea of an essential supply failing, jeopardising the success of the mission and even the lives of astronauts, has featured in several science fiction stories.  Possibly the best-known classic in the field is Tom Godwin’s 1954 short story The Cold Equations, where the discovery of a stowaway on board a spacecraft means that there is insufficient fuel for it to complete its life-saving journey due to the added weight.  Should her life be sacrificed to ensure the survival of many others?  As Spock said, in a different context, in the 1982 Star Trek film The Wrath of Khan, “logic clearly dictates that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few”.  And Kirk added: “or the one.”  Probably true.

Godwin’s tale inspired the setting of Orbit, a 1981 episode of the BBC television series Blake’s 7 where the ever-resourceful Avon is faced with the need to eject his distinctly cowardly colleague Vila from a spaceship in order to reduce weight and achieve escape velocity.  Anyone familiar with Avon’s character, so excellently played by Paul Darrow, will expect that he might have few qualms.

But if neither an altruistic wish to save others nor simple selfish force are the accepted solution, there could be difficulties in deciding who should survive and who should not.  Arthur C Clarke’s 1949 short story Breaking Strain, which appeared in his anthology Expedition to Earth, describes a situation where an interplanetary vessel suffers a meteor strike which causes the loss of the reserve oxygen supply, and there is insufficient air for both crew members to complete the journey.  But one can.  The decision on who should survive, and who is condemned to death, is far from easy.

The story acted as the basis for the 1995 television movie Trapped in Space.  A crew of five on an interplanetary freighter realise that only three can complete the trip after the depletion of their air supply, and their initially pleasant relationships turn increasingly hostile, eventually deteriorating into effectively a fight for survival.  Further accidents dictate that even as many as three surviving the journey becomes impossible.   The underlying conundrum is: who lives, and who doesn’t.

And what lies in store for the survivor – are they guilty of murder, to be punished accordingly?  According to the definition in English law, and broadly accepted in many other jurisdictions, murder comprises killing another person with the intent to unlawfully cause death or serious harm.  On that basis, it seems clear on first sight that our surviving astronauts are guilty as charged.

However, there are defences to murder.  Insanity can be a complete defence, and a justification of self-defence might be available in some circumstances.  But here we’re talking about a defence of necessity – it was necessary for the survivor to kill others.  English law doesn’t accept that.  A leading case from 1884 was R v Dudley and Stephens.  Four sailors were shipwrecked in a small boat.  Their food and water ran out, so the defendants killed the weakest and ate him.  Four days later they were rescued.  The court wouldn’t allow a defence of necessity – it was murder, and they were convicted.

Sometimes prosecuting authorities decide not to pursue a case anyway when they believe that the defendant acted reasonably.  But would such considerations bother our hapless astronauts in their distress?  Probably not – if they even think about it, they will more likely adopt the old adage when reflecting on the benefits of our jury system: “better to be judged by twelve than carried by six.”

Richard Hayes, Assistant Editor (Odyssey)

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