Scientific Problem Story

Fifth, we have the scientific problem story.. This form is actually best suited to the short story, unless the problem the characters must solve is so complex, with so many ramifications, that the novel length is justified. In this form, the author confronts his hero with a seemingly insoluble scientific problem and forces him to use his wits to overcome staggering odds.

A typical sort of problem story might be this: The hero has landed his spaceship on an uninhabited, lifeless world, without benefit of his rockets which are out of order. As he fixes the engines, he discovers the planet's atmosphere is combustible, of a gasoline-like vapor. If he had landed with the rockets blazing, the entire kaboodle would have exploded; he was lucky. But, now that he's down, how in the devil can he take off again? Even if the engines are repaired, can they lift off without igniting the atmosphere around them and completely destroying themselves in the resultant explosion? One answer is this: Since the atmosphere is composed of gasoline-like vapor, and is not pure oxygen, it cannot explode; there is simply nowhere for the expanding vapor to explode to. All it can do is burn, and that cannot harm them at all as long as they remain inside their escaping, steel ship.

Unfortunately, the problem story leaves room for little more than adequate characterization, and the plot is severely constricted by the necessity to solve the main, center-stage problem which usually concerns, not people, but a scientific phenomenon. Many well-known science fiction writers began with problem stories, but Hal Clement (Mission of Gravity, Star Light) is the only writer to have made a solid career from them.

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