34

This is a short story I read maybe in the '80s.

  • Earth has been thrown away from the Sun, probably due to a very large object passing through the Solar System, and the atmosphere has frozen in layers.
  • There is a small family - father, mother, two children, who live in a room they have made airtight by hanging many layers of material to slow the loss of air.
  • They keep warm with a 'camp-fire'.
  • The father goes out every day in a suit of some sort to find food and mine frozen oxygen.
  • It ends when they are found by another, larger group of survivors.

Does anybody know the title and author?

52

This sounds like A Pail of Air by Fritz Leiber, originally published in the December 1951 issue of Galaxy Science Fiction magazine.

enter image description here

The Wikipedia synopsis reflects most of what you described:

The story is narrated by a ten-year-old boy living on Earth after it has become a rogue planet, having been torn away from the Sun by a passing "dark star". The loss of solar heating has caused the Earth's atmosphere to freeze into thick layers of "snow". The boy's father had worked with a group of other scientists to construct a large shelter, but the earthquakes accompanying the disaster had destroyed it and killed the others. He managed to construct a smaller, makeshift shelter called the "Nest" for his family, where they maintain a breathable atmosphere by periodically retrieving pails of frozen oxygen to thaw over a fire. They have survived in this way for a number of years.

At the end, they are found by a search party from a large group of survivors at Los Alamos, where they are using nuclear power to provide heat and have begun using rockets to search for other survivors (radio being ineffective at long range without an ionosphere). They reveal that other groups of humans have survived at Argonne, Brookhaven, and Harwell nuclear research facilities as well as in Tannu Tuva, and that plans are being made to establish uranium-mining colonies at Great Slave Lake or in the Congo region.

And the full story can be read here.

You can also listen to a radio play of it here.

12
  • 3
    Should depend on the fuel that you're using. Methane - 810kJ per 2 moles O2; latent heat of vaporisation 3.4kJ per mole - so would work to a first approximation.
    – Michael
    Feb 19 at 10:40
  • 10
    @Martin (1) They were burning coal (this was written ca.1950). (2) The heat of combustion of oxygen far exceeds the heat needed to boil frozen O2. (If you are looking for scientific errors, look at the grossly inadequate air tightness of the nest, the grossly inadequate insulation of the nest and the grossly inadequate insulation of the pressure suits. But it was a fine story for all of that!)
    – Mark Olson
    Feb 19 at 14:24
  • 3
    Very nice touch that long-range radio (pre-satellite) fails with no ionosphere! CO₂, O₂ and N₂ certainly condense and freeze at different temperatures but what kind of landscape you'd end up with is beyond me. Massive risk would be O₂-enriched "air" inside the house if you made it too fast.
    – CCTO
    Feb 19 at 19:40
  • 2
    This story was used in a 1956 episode of X Minus One, a sci-fi radio show. Feb 19 at 19:51
  • 3
    @hobbs: If there's no gaseous atmosphere, then what will the cosmic rays be ionizing?
    – ruakh
    Feb 19 at 23:57

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.