After reading ‘Ready Player One’, a science fiction novel written not long ago, playing in the near future I thought I’d pick up something entirely different and have a look at a classic science fiction crime story, Isaac Asimov’s ‘The Caves of Steel’. Written in the 1950s and playing in the distant future, the contrast to today’s science fiction is remarkable, striking, interesting and fun while the the issues underlying the plot could just be out of today’s world as well!
Most science fiction novels that describe a not too distant future written today obviously use today’s terms and descriptions for future technology and portray a future in vivid color and detail, and often interleave several side stories to the point where it sometimes gets difficult to keep track of the plot if not read in a short period of time. Asimov’s ‘The Caves of Steel’ is entirely different. The book has around 200 pages and is thus much shorter than the type of contemporary stories described above. Also the list of characters is significantly shorter, each has a razor sharp reason to be in the plot that becomes apparent after a while and there are few side stories that distract from the main story. Interesting from a historical point of view are the terms that are used for technology of the future. Here are a few examples: Asimov uses the term ‘spacers’ for humans who have been born and live on other planets and a ‘blaster’ for what today’s science fiction would perhaps call a ‘phaser’ or ‘energy weapon’. ‘Spy-beam’ would be ‘bugs’ or ‘remote surveillance equipment’ today, we surely wouldn’t use ‘pantographs with graphed paper’ in science fictions stories today, one immediately grasps the concept of a ‘book-film’ but certainly wouldn’t use the term and a ‘shielded subether’ would be ‘encrypted and hidden communication’ today. So in a way, when reading this novel today, I got a bit of a feeling of being in a Flash Gordon or Buck Rogers movie. For me it was very interesting to experience how the use of words dates a science fiction story and gives it a certain patina. I hope this doesn’t sound negative because I approached the book not only out of interest for a good story but also from a historical angle. And both expectations got more than satisfied. It is interesting that the story line of a world in the far future written in the 1950s could still be used today because the plot is based on the preconceptions of people towards others, fear and rejection of the unknown and of doing things differently, and a society living in fear of technical advances that seemingly or actually threatens jobs and livelihoods. It was there in the 1950s and there have been waves and waves of technical innovations since then that have changed the way people live, each triggering the same fears (see for example ‘Now the chips are down‘, a BBC documentary broadcast 1977). Today, the same debate goes into its n’th incarnation and it’s interesting to see that it goes back at least 70 years. ‘The Caves of Steel‘, a great and fascinating novel from every angle I look at it!