What is a "problem story" in Science Fiction?

Originally published at: What is a "problem story" in Science Fiction? | Boing Boing


“The Cold Equations” is a classic of the sub-genre, albeit one with a depressing solution to the problem [Wiki article contains spoiler].


Was Robert Heinlein really a hard SF writer? It seems to me that a lot of his stories deal with sociological issues rather than engineering.


Like smoking :smoking: cigarettes on a space ship :rocket: ? Never got a clear answer on that…


I think RAH just being who he was liked to get the maths right. Not much math shows up on the pages of something like The Rolling Stones, but he thought through travel times and orbits and whatnot.


Here’s a true fact: smoking marijuana in zero-g will be very inefficient because absorbtion of THC in smoke actually requires the particles to settle inside your alveoli – and in zero g, it won’t settle in the same way – and you can’t really hold your breath that long. Edibles would be the way to go.

(Source: my brother is a small-particle pharmaceutical engineer – he does all kinds of vapor and aerosol engineering – who also likes to smoke some reefer and we discussed this at length one time).


This little factoid always amused me:

The story was shaped by Astounding editor John W. Campbell, who sent “Cold Equations” back to Godwin three times before he got the version he wanted, because “Godwin kept coming up with ingenious ways to save the girl!

Imagine if Andy Weir couldn’t get The Martian published until he agreed to kill Mark Watney.


Aimee Ogden wrote a response story, which is far superior to the damaged ending Campbell forced on the original author, Godwin.


My encounter with that story is like an unfolding history of trying to come up with solutions to the problem:

  1. Read the story. Me: "Huh, maybe there’s a way to solve this. What if we… "
  2. Read some commentary somewhere about how a lot of people who read the story keep finding ways to solve the problem.
  3. Read a history indicating that the author himself wanted the story to have a solution.
  4. For work read a bunch of stuff on Failure Mode Effects Analysis and safety policies, and realize what a terrible idea the entire thing is. Example of a system set up to at some point fail.

Becomes less a story about the cruel realities of the universe, and more about the callous assumptions of organizational group-think.

If it’d actually happened, Well There’s Your Problem would have done an episode on it post-haste (or at least a The Goddamn News segment).


I’ll admit that sometimes, writing realistic (or plausibly realistic) SF can lead to some interesting rabbit holes. One I went down was trying to determine if a Danube class runabout from the Star Trek series could land on the uppermost deck of a parking structure without the thing collapsing the minute the craft put it’s full weight on the landing skids. (the tl;dr answer is ‘maybe’, depending on how the structure was built.)


Excellent post, Jesse!

This is exactly the kind of deliciously esoteric geeky brain-nugget that I want out of BoingBoing. [high-five]



Wouldn’t you be able to inhale, then kick lightly off a nearby surface to create enough acceleration to make the particles “settle” (actually you would be moving your body and the vapor in your lungs would not move at the same rate and to an outside observer it would look like settling). Then you could launch yourself across the room at four millimeters an hour with the exhale!

ETA: now that I am thinking about it more…why do we always see video of astronauts doing zero g somersaults? Seems like a good way to make sure all the alveoli get a taste…

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Now I’m suddenly imagining Campbell whispering “Kill the Girl!” in a singsong Jamaican accent every time Godwin came back with a new draft.



People complain about it a lot, but if it was just another “steely eyed hero saves the girl,” story we wouldn’t still be talking about it.


See, you and I have written a problem SF story right here. Bunch of squares are trying to get high in the back room of the space station when the old grizzled beamjack shows 'em how it’s done!


This story is the first that came to mind as I read the article.


We’re only talking about it now because it was a “men are idiots who don’t prepare for anything and John Campbell wanted the woman to suffer because she’s a woman and Eve ate an apple or something” story.


I feel compelled to share this story every time the Little Mermaid is mentioned


You never have to apologize for sharing anything from Ursula! (She and Kevin are good people.)


And then there’s “Saved by a Pill” (1943) by Art Widner, a one-page-long problem story (pdf link) in which our heroes must collectively shed two pounds to get on the right side of the shitty equations.