problem story n.

a story concerned primarily with the resolution of a (technical) problem

In 1941 and 1942 quotes, the problems were left unsolved, and readers were invited to solve them for a prize.

SF Criticism

  • 1941 W. E. Buchholz Letter in Fantastic Adventures Oct. 141 page image

    [Regarding the story ‘Problem on Mars’, which invites readers to verbally explain the concept of right and left to a Martian] Sirs: I have the perfect solution for the problem story: Have the Martian flip a coin with heads on both sides—if it lands tails, he’ll push the left button—if it lands heads he’ll push the right button. Simple, isn’t it?

  • 1942 Amazing Stories Mar. 73 (advt.) page image

    COMING NEXT MONTH—A New Prize Contest. $50.00 in prizes for the best solution to the problem story ‘The Perfect Trap’ by Miles Shelton. Here’s a story where the hero is in a real pickle! Can you get him out? A cash prize if you can!

  • 1943 B. Branham Story Behind Story: Lotos Eaters in Thrilling Wonder Stories Aug. 128 page image Bolling Branham bibliography

    The matter of entertainment, of course, is quite vague, and ties in with so many things such as originality, unusualness, etc., and the varying tastes of the reader, that it is useless to discuss it with a limit less than fifty thousand words. But, in general, I believe that it consists partially of keeping the human element in the story. The problem story is good, but it is good mainly because there is a mind to work it out. I for one, object to taking the romance out of stf. I do not mean women, in particular, but more the spirit of adventure that is in man.

  • 1947 R. Bradbury P.S.’s Feature Flash in Planet Stories Spring 101/1 page image Ray Bradbury bibliography

    As I have pointed out innumerable times to friends and readers I am not responsible for my stories in any way, shape, or form [...] It is only fair that at this time I mention Ross Rocklynne. He does my ‘problem’ stories for me. We are now collaborating on a story in which the hero must work out a mathematical formula for kicking his way out of a gigantic paper bag. It is a story of immense possibilities and that dry rattling sound you hear is Mr. Rocklynne over in the far corner thrashing about in a large paper jerkin into which I have just sealed him.

  • 1953 J. Gunn Plot-Forms of Science Fiction in Dynamic Science Fiction Oct. 47/1 page image James E. Gunn bibliography

    Under plots of circumstances, there are the adventure story and the problem story, which depict characters battling against circumstances for which they are not responsible but from which they can extract themselves, sometimes—or over which they can exercise some control.

  • 1958 P. S. Miller Pilgrimage to Earth in Astounding Science Fiction May 146/2 (review) page image P. Schuyler Miller bibliography

    ‘Early Model,’ on the other hand, might belong right here in Astounding: it presents an explorer hopelessly overprotected by his safety devices—a how is he gonna get out yarn. [...] A more routine problem story, ‘Human Man’s Burden,’ shows us an asteroid farmer, mothered by his solicitous robots, who gets the wrong mail-order bride.

  • 1960 Man With Nine Lives / Touch of Infinity in New Frontiers Aug. 46 page image bibliography

    ‘Life Hutch’, If, Apr 56, is an out-and-out problem story with all clues fairly well presented and a proper solution.

  • 1974 I. Asimov in Before Golden Age 985 page image Isaac Asimov bibliography

    I loved the story [sc. Ross Rocklynne’s ‘The Men and the Mirror’]. It is a problem story, using authentic science (though the solution is inadequate, as a reader pointed out in the magazine’s letter column at considerable length a few months later). The time was to come when I was to try to write problem stories, but doing one as pure as ‘The Men and the Mirror’ isn’t easy. The closest approach in my case was perhaps ‘Paté de Foie Gras.’

  • 1979 ‘L. del Rey’ World of Science Fiction: 1926–1976 x. 97 page image Lester del Rey bibliography

    ‘Locked Out’ is a problem story, dealing with the lone operator of a spaceship who gets locked out while making repairs and has nothing but his simple tool kit to use in finding a way inside.

  • 1984 G. Benford Hard Science Fiction in Real World in Science Fiction Review Spring 32/3 page image Gregory Benford bibliography

    There is also a basic rule about SF: It is always easier to see problems than propose solutions. This makes the unforeseen-side-effects story the easiest to write, and the ingenious problem-solving ones much harder. We should expect to see more of the former as arts graduates enter the field, particularly if we ignore that citadel of hard SF, Analog. Hard SF’s central mode is the problem story.

  • 1988 ‘H. Clement’ in Thrust (#29) Winter 10/3 (interview) page image Hal Clement bibliography

    THRUST: Is this the ‘purest’ form of science fiction, the problem story? CLEMENT: Well, this is my personal view of the purest form of science fiction. It’s closely analogous to the detective story. In both cases the plot is essentially a problem, and in both cases the reader is supposed to have a fair chance of solving the problem before being presented with the solution.

  • 1994 J. Kessel Books: Canons Left and Right in Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction Apr. 24/1 page image John Kessel bibliography

    James Blish’s ‘How Beautiful with Banners’ [...] merges speculative exobiology with speculative technology to produce what at first appears to be a problem story in the classic Golden Age pattern: explorer on alien world confronted with deadly challenge based on scientific speculation. [...] Here is a story poised between the problem solving mode of the Campbell era and the characterization/metaphor mode of postmodern sf.

  • 2013 B. Sanderson Writing Excuses 8.9: Brainstorming with Howard in Shadows Beneath (2014) 225/1 page image Brandon Sanderson bibliography

    We’re talking about two different stories here [...] The second story is, Death shows up. There is a short sequence between them. Guy says, ‘Okay, I'll think about it.’ And then immediately goes into ‘We’ve got to find a way around this,’ and the story is actually a problem story. ‘We are going to figure out how to defeat these things.’ And you write a story about that. One is about the conversation. One is about the problem.

  • 2022 C. Doctorow Science Fiction is a Luddite Literature in Locus 3 Jan. page image Cory Doctorow

    The history of science fiction is rife with stories of people who seize the means of production. The classical ‘problem story’—in which an engineer has to figure out how to repurpose some machine or system to make it work in ways its creator never intended—is, at root, a story about technological self-determination. It’s a story that says that the person who uses the machine matters more than the person who designed it or bought it.

Research requirements

antedating 1941

Research History
Suggested, and most cites submitted, by Bee Ostrowsky.

Last modified 2022-10-18 15:27:38
In the compilation of some entries, HDSF has drawn extensively on corresponding entries in OED.