Isaac Asimov, “Caves of Steel” – Айзек Азимов, “Стальные пещеры”

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caves of steel

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The Caves of Steel is a novel by Isaac Asimov. It is essentially a detective story, and illustrates an idea Asimov advocated, that science fiction is a flavor that can be applied to any literary genre, rather than a limited genre itself. Specifically, in the book Asimov’s Mysteries, he states that he wrote the novel in response to the assertion by editor John W. Campbell that mystery and science fiction were incompatible genres. Campbell had said that the science fiction writer could invent “facts” in his imaginary future that the reader would not know. Asimov countered that there were rules implicit in the art of writing mysteries, and that the clues could be in the plot, even if they were not obvious, or were deliberately obfuscated. He went on to write several science-fiction mysteries in both novel and short-story form, as well as mainstream mysteries such as The Death Dealers and Murder at the ABA, which had elements of science but were not science fiction.

The book was first published as a serial in Galaxy Magazine, October to December 1953. A Doubleday hardcover followed in 1954.

In this novel, Isaac Asimov introduces Elijah Baley and R. Daneel Olivaw, who would later become his favorite protagonists. They live roughly three millennia in Earth’s future, a time when hyperspace travel has been discovered, and a few worlds relatively close to Earth have been colonized—fifty planets known as the “Spacer worlds“. The Spacer worlds are rich, have low population density (average population of one hundred million each), and use robot labor very heavily. Meanwhile, Earth is overpopulated (with a total population of eight billion), and strict rules against robots have been passed. The eponymous “caves of steel” are vast city complexes covered by huge metal domes, capable of supporting tens of millions each. The New York City of that era, for example, encompasses present-day New York City, as well as large tracts of New Jersey.

Asimov imagines the present day’s underground transit connected to malls and apartment blocks, extended to a point where no one ever exits to the outside world. Indeed, most of the population cannot leave, as they suffer from extreme agoraphobia. Even though the Robot and Foundation series were not considered to be part of the same fictional universe until much later, those “caves of steel” resemble the planet Trantor.

In The Caves of Steel and its sequels (the first of which is The Naked Sun), Asimov paints a grim situation of an Earth dealing with an extremely large population, and of luxury-seeking Spacers who limit birth so that each may have great wealth and privacy. Asimov, who was agoraphobic, did not himself find the lack of daylight grim. He mentioned that a reader asked him how he could have imagined such an existence with no sunlight. He related that it had not struck him until then that living perpetually indoors might be construed as unpleasant.

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