Looking for a short story about a prisoner on a prison planet where prisoners are imprisoned for life with the possibility for release if they can accomplish an assigned "impossible" task.

The task of the protagonist of this story is to invent a universal solvent (there is a conversation when he is given the task between him and the review/parole board about how a universal solvent can't be contained because it would dissolve its own container that I believe ends with the panel indicating that is simply part of the problem to solve).

The story ends with the prisoner requesting (and receiving) a hearing with the review/parole board so he can present the results of his research. (Results of meeting in spoiler below).

After being surprised at his request (because no prisoner ever completes their tasks) the review board agrees to see him and when he arrives they ask him where his universal solvent is and how he managed to solve the "dissolves its own container" problem. He responds by indicating that he manufactured a container which dissolves at a specific rate and he has ingested the container and that the solvent should be breaching the container as they speak. At which point he begins to dissolve and the solvent spreads and dissolves the entire planet.

I would likely have read this somewhere between 1990-2005 though I cannot be certain. It may have been in a short story collection or in an issue of Analog or Asimov's magazines.

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    I'm pretty sure I've read this. Were the prisoners kept in a dungeon-type environment?
    – Otis
    Commented Jul 6, 2017 at 17:21
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    @Otis I vaguely believe that the prisoners were given fully stocked laboratories, etc. with which to attempt their tasks. Where those labs were, specifically, what the conditions of the rest of the planet was, etc. I don't recall. Commented Jul 6, 2017 at 17:34
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    Were the captors humans or aliens? Likewise, was the protagonist human or alien?
    – Otis
    Commented Jul 14, 2017 at 18:15
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    @Otis Good question. I'm not entirely sure but I suspect they were all human (or unspecified). I don't believe there was any inter-species "complexity" involved in any case. Commented Jul 16, 2017 at 1:51

2 Answers 2


This story is "Varieties of Technological Experience" by Barry N. Malzberg.

Here are excerpts from the final paragraphs when the solvent that the protagonist has consumed starts to dissolve him in front of the review board:

Gently he extracted from his pockets schematics and diagrams to place before them in verification, gently he lay them in front of the gibbering old men and then as the solvent finally reached its critical point he consequently and with the most lingering of sighs, began to break down.


Moved out to dissolve the floor, the walls, the Board itself to say nothing of the planet, consuming all of it utterly...so that all that was left...was a planet-sized glob of universal solvent, hanging there in space...

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    That's it! Thank you! The worst part of this is that I own the 1980 Microcosmic Tales and had even pulled it off the shelf recently looking for a few other stories that came up in the same conversation. I just didn't read the whole thing again and when I skimmed the titles for this the name didn't jump out at me. Commented Oct 18, 2017 at 1:27
  • I was a bit surprised I remembered this one because Malzberg really isn't one of my favorite authors. Commented Oct 18, 2017 at 1:52

The best I can find is a reference to an unpublished short story of L. Ron Hubbard, The Alkahest. C.f. L. Ron Hubbard® and his works of fiction or Was L. Ron Hubbard foremost a ‘science fiction’ writer?. As an unpublished work, not sure how you'd have read it, however.

A historian in the far distant future recounts the story of the long-vanished Earth (an area on astronomical charts now marked only as “Avoid—Dangerous”) and of the Earthman who invented the “alkahest,” the universal solvent that dissolved the Earth forever.

It is referenced twice in his letters, with no plot information, while living at the Hotel Knickerbocker in New York City: on March 25, 1940 and on March 28, 1940. In the second letter is a reference to Kilkenny Cats, which was published in Astounding Science Fiction, Sept., 1940 under the name Kurt von Rachen. So, I suppose it might have been published somewhere under a different name, and the cited list above somehow missed it.

  • There's also Lysander Kemp's "The Universal Solvent", published in Amazing Stories, January 1955, available at archive.org/stream/Amazing_Stories_v29n01_1955-01_cape1736/… No prisoner though.
    – Moriarty
    Commented Jul 6, 2017 at 5:05
  • That's certainly in a similar vein but isn't the story I recall (and as you point out I'd have had a hard time having read it). Commented Jul 6, 2017 at 13:05
  • @Moriarty Also close but not the story I remember either. Commented Jul 6, 2017 at 13:05

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