There are many terms in classic and modern SF that remain unexplored, and the historical dictionary of science fiction will be continuously updated, especially as additional resources come online. Boing Boing regularly syndicates new HDSF entries. (Read the series introduction.)

In the 1960s, when soft science fiction was taking off – SF that wasn’t primarily about science and gadgetry – there was concern about what to call “real ” stuff. Indeed, “real science fiction” was a suggestion, as well as “pure science fiction”, “Campbellian science fiction”, “stories of engineers” and others. Eventually, hard science fiction became generally accepted as the name of this strain.

A common feature of these stories was the need to solve a difficult engineering problem with ingenious thinking. An almost impossibly cliched version of this appears in the 1995 film Apollo 13, when astronauts have to insert a square peg into a round hole; the great power of the scene is that it is not fictional. But the idea that space travel involved brilliant technical feats is a fundamental tenet of hard SF. Ross Rocklynne specialized in these stories, starting in 1938 with “The Men in the Mirror“, in which two antagonists are trapped on the surface of a frictionless mirror and must find a way to escape.

These puzzles appealed to readers, who were happy to find their own answers or to point out that the solutions provided did not work. (In 2008, writer Geoffrey A. Landis published “The Man in the Mirror”, an updated version of Rocklynne’s story, with improved physics. When Larry Niven published his popular Ringworld in 1970, about an artificial world in the form of a flat ring revolving around a star, he was quickly inundated with complaints that the world was unstable and had to write a sequel to explain the engineering problems. )

The earliest examples of the term problem story, dating to the early 1940s, refer specifically to actual puzzles that readers could solve to win a prize, but our meaning, “a story concerned primarily with solving a (technical) problem”, turns up very quickly. Despite stylistic changes within science fiction, these stories remain popular: Cory Doctorow argues that they are fundamentally about “technological self-determination”, and therefore are not about technology as such, but demonstrate “remaking social relations for technology”. Reinterpreting classic hard-SF authors like Robert Heinlein as promoting “seiz[ing] the means of production”? Sounds like excellent problem solving.