Different Century, Same Questions

One of the two papers that occupied the end of April – during which time I also purchased a house and prepared to move, so it isn’t my best work ever.

Different Century, Same Questions: Narrative Structures in  Science Fiction by Isaac Asimov and Brad Torgersen

Although published over sixty years apart, Isaac Asimov’s 1953 novel The Caves of Steel and Brad R. Torgersen’s 2014 novel The Chaplain’s War use similar motifs to address philosophical issues. The Asimov novel was nominated for a World Science Fiction Society Hugo retroactive award in 2004, and Torgersen’s novel was expanded from his 2014 Hugo-nominated novella, “The Chaplain’s Legacy,” so the novels can be considered good representatives of the genre. Both novels use narrative structure, closure, and recurring motifs of space, technology, nature, and religion to question cultural beliefs about who belongs and how we should live together.

A brief synopsis of the novels

The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov is a science fiction detective story. Lije Baley, a plainclothes detective for the New York City police, gets assigned to investigate the murder of a Spacer in Spacetown. Spacers are the descendants of Earth colonists on other planets, and Spacer technology is highly superior to that of Earth’s. Baley’s new Spacer partner for the investigation is the apex of Spacer tech: R. Daneel Olivaw, a human-like robot who Baley mistakes for a human. Baley makes a couple of wrong guesses about the identity of the murderer while he and Olivaw track clues through the great enclosed communal city space. He discovers that the Commissioner of Police killed the Spacer while thinking he was destroying R. Daneel Olivaw.

Brad Torgersen’s The Chaplain’s War opens with first person narrator Harrison Barlow, a chaplain’s assistant, tending to the small chapel he has built for the use of his fellow prisoners of war. One of humanity’s alien enemies, called mantes after the insects they resemble, approaches Barlow and asks for lessons on faith, God, and religion; this ultimately triggers a cease-fire. The mantes are technologically superior to humans, and they are completely joined with a mechanical hovering disc, called a carriage, from birth. When the mantis queen, Barlow, human Captain Adanaho, and the mantis Professor who initially approached him crash following an ambush, the mantis queen must be separated from her damaged disc. The four try to reunite the queen with her forces in the hopes that she can negotiate a second cease fire. Although Barlow spends much of the novel denying his own agency, claiming only to do what he has been asked, by the end Barlow has not only brokered a cease-fire twice, but also saved the mantis queen’s life several times as he helps her come to the realization that humans should not be exterminated.


As is common with science fiction of the period, The Caves of Steel is a relatively linear narrative with occasional embedded narratives dealing with past events. Narrative time covers only a few days, with the exception of the embedded narratives. Asimov uses a third-person voice with an external narrator. Baley also serves as a focalizer when the narration dips into his thoughts. The novel, at 270 pages, is shorter than more recent books. The Chaplain’s War is much longer and more complex. Barlow serves as first-person narrator and focalizer, and he may be a little unreliable in downplaying his own agency. The novel makes frequent adjustments to narrative time, stretching in some instances over many years. Beginning with Chapter 12, the narrative splits into Barlow’s past, beginning with his enlistment, and Barlow’s present as he goes to help broker a second cease-fire. The two narratives mirror each other to some extent; they share common motifs and story elements. Things Barlow learned in his past come in handy for his present.

Recurring motifs


Both novels share the motif of restricted space, in which space is a physical dimension with boundaries. Asimov’s City is huge; New York City is over two thousand square miles of enclosed space, housing over twenty million people. The City is sectored by function and status, and most of Earth’s population lives in one City or another (Asimov 20-21). The Earthmen never go outside the City, however. When the Commissioner reveals a window panel in his office, Baley is uncomfortable: “There was something indecent about the exposure of the privacy of a room to the outside world” (Asimov 3). In response to Baley’s questioning, a robot expert can only admit that he “might” try to walk outside the City if his family members’ lives depended on it. The doctor suggests that perhaps a few out of millions might be hardy enough to try (Asimov 167). The ultimate solution for humankind, colonization of new planets, can perhaps be considered representative of a freedom of thought as well as freedom of the body. This is exemplified in Spacer Dr. Fastolfe’s comments to Baley: “Earthmen are so coddled, so enwombed in their imprisoning caves of steel, that they are caught forever. . .Crossing space to get to a new world must represent impossibility squared to you. Civism is ruining Earth, sir” (Asimov 121).

Torgersen’s Barlow spends much of the novel confined by space, such as: the small stone chapel in a valley (Ch. 1) bounded by a deadly energy field the prisoners call The Wall (Ch. 2), a virtual reality pod in his family home (Ch. 12), a shuttle (Ch. 13), and a barracks (Ch. 14). He has unrestrained space around him when he crashes with the alien queen, but that space is hostile, cold, and open to enemies at any time. Barlow also stands at a viewport and looks out upon the vastness of space while speaking with the alien queen (Ch. 47), and after the peace he goes to Earth for the signing of the peace treaty (Ch. 59). Ultimately, he returns to the planet Purgatory to rebuild a chapel (Ch. 60). The instances in which Barlow is less restrained are notable in that Barlow and/or someone else are expanding consciousness or world views. The scene looking out into space is particularly expansive as that is when the queen is trying to reconcile her new worldview and Barlow confesses his lack of belief (Ch. 47). As in Asimov, the less confining spaces can be associated with a less constrained and more open mind.

Fear of technology

In the Asimov novel, the Spacers’ technology represents two sources of fear for the City dwellers. First is the overwhelming force they can project with their indemnity ships (Asimov 13). Spacer weapons are also superior to Earth’s (Asimov 17). The biggest threats, however, are the robots. The Caves of Steel starts with robot fear; R. Sammy replaced a young man who now had a lower-classification job in the yeast farms (Asimov 2). Shortly after Baley picks up Olivaw, they encounter a group of hostile customers upset that a shoe store has all robot employees instead of people. Baley does seem to have sympathy for the people displaced by robot workers, but his job is to prevent the riot (28). Baley considers how Olivaw might be able to replace him, which would leave him and his family declassified as Baley’s father had been (31). Olivaw, mistaken for a human by everyone, disperses the rioters by threatening to shoot anyone who does not comply, despite the fact that his robot law programming will not permit him to harm a human (35). The actual-world anxieties reflected here are certainly understandable. The decade prior, technology had allowed humankind to unleash terrible destruction on other humans. Ultimately, the robot technology will help Earthmen colonize distant planets, much like the power of atomic energy would be harnessed to benefit humans.

The superior technology of the mantes dominates humans in The Chaplain’s War. The biggest problem with technology in the narrative, however, is the fatal damage to the alien queen’s carriage after the crash. Separation from the carriage is a cultural taboo for the mantes, and yet the queen cannot survive if she remains attached (Torgersen, Ch. 21). Rather than a fear of technology, the mantes fear the absence of technology. The alien queen’s adjustment to the lack of technology parallels Captain Adanaho’s freedom from the virtual reality pod in which she spent the majority of her childhood. Once Adanaho learned to experience life through her own senses, she had no wish to return (Torgersen Ch. 33).

David Porush suggests that some technological fears may be based in Descartes’ idea that the human body is a machine. He adds that “More threatening yet is the consideration that not only our bodies but also our minds are machines, a consideration that attacks us in that portion of ourselves we consider to be most free, most invulnerable to explanation and control” (3). For Porush, machines are a series of dichotomies: fascinating and threatening, and proof of progress and a sign of diminishment. Through art we confront the machine (7-8). Rose notes also that robots, being both machine and sentient, “incorporate[] the central science-fiction concern with determinism and free will” (157). It is worth noting that the two novels approach technology from different angles: for Asimov, technology is something to be concerned about but ultimately helpful to mankind. For Torgersen, technology is so widely depended upon that people forget how to live without it, and thus technology’s danger is not that it will replace humans, but subordinate them.


Nature is unfamiliar in the Cities of The Caves of Steel. In response to Baley’s suggestion that rain is wasted water, the Commissioner tells him that people in Medieval times lived outside in the rain: “They lived close to nature. It’s healthier, better. The troubles of modern life come from being divorced from nature” (Asimov 4). Later, Baley eats an apple in Spacetown; he wonders at Spacer cleanliness when the fruit would have come straight from soil rather than being properly processed before eating. He is so surprised by the apple seeds that he spits them out involuntarily (Asimov 94-95).

In The Chaplain’s War, nature is something to be struggled against. The plant and animal life on Purgatory, home of Barlow’s prison valley and chapel, are neither hardy nor palatable (Torgersen, ch. 50). Water was also a problem, as the small lakes in the prison valley were small and dry in the warm season (Torgersen, ch. 5). The planet upon which Barlow, the mantis queen, and two others crash is also rather barren, arid with inadequate air (Torgersen, ch. 21).

This conflict between human and nature is a common paradigm for science fiction. In Alien Encounters, Mark Rose notes that nature is often portrayed as inhospitable as a “response to the cultural shock created by humanity’s marginal position in the cosmos” (37). He categorizes science fiction into for types: spatial, temporal, machine, and monster, and writes that nonhumans are often identified with nature in the temporal and spatial categories, while humans are often identified with nature in the monster and machine categories, particularly in dystopias “where the artificial social world, identified as nonhuman and negatively presented, is generally opposed to nature” (37). Asimov’s Cities are rather dystopian, and the Commissioner and others in the subversive Medievalist movement seem to think that a more natural way of living would be better for future humankind. Baley himself sometimes views the City’s rigid structures with negativity, particularly when considering the fate of the declassified (Asimov 115). The Spacer society is not free from dystopian elements, either. Children with defects are not permitted to survive, and the long-lived Spacers are reluctant to take any risks, unlike their ancestors (Asimov 122). The hope for humankind includes a fusion of technology and nature on new colony planets.

The alien queen in The Chaplain’s War actually comes to represent nature in a positive manner. She returns to her nature when separated from technology. She recovers deep instinctual behaviors, such as solar heat absorbing behavior (Torgersen, ch. 29) and flying (Torgersen, ch. 33). Later, when reinstalled in a carriage, she complains that the world is “flat.” Something was missing in what she sensed through the carriage (Torgersen, ch. 43). She responds negatively when Barlow suggests that the carriage might be the problem: “I cannot believe that the carriage is a limiter. We cannot survive without them. They are the foundation of our civilization” (Torgersen, ch. 43). And yet, the alien queen spent many days without a carriage, so this need for one is habitual assumption. This ties in with Rose’s concept that machines are about determinism and free will, especially since the mantes are connected to carriages when very young. To find her own happiness, however, the queen does have to minimize the functions that she allows the carriage to perform and maximize her own functions. This reflects the anxiety that many have now about our increasingly connected society.


“You were made in your maker’s image?” Baley asks Olivaw when he sees the picture of the murdered Spacer (Asimov 94). The Spacers have not read the Bible, but many of Asimov’s readers would have. Asimov directly incorporates the Bible twice more in embedded narratives. First, Asimov plays on the names of his main character and his wife: Elijah (Lije) and Jezebel (Jessie) Baley. Jessie is enamored of the idea that her name lends her a bit of wickedness, and when Baley explains that Jezebel might not have been wicked at all, Jessie is so upset that she joins a Medievalist group (42-45, 205). In explaining why he is not arresting his wife or other Medievalists, Baley quotes a passage of the Bible for Olivaw: Jesus asks those of an adultress’ accusers who are without sin to cast the first stone. Baley explains to Olivaw that the story illustrates that forgiveness is higher than justice (207-208). Asimov is likely leveraging on Baley’s sympathy for Medievalists, their fear of displacement, and Baley’s own participation in riots when he was younger (16).

Religion is a much larger component of The Chaplain’s War. The first ceasefire occurs because Barlow refuses to help unless the Professor, a scholarly mantis, arranges for it. The Professor wishes to learn about God and religion, and reveals to Barlow that although the mantes had no religion themselves, they had destroyed two other civilizations before learning more. When the Professor eventually succeeds, he brings students to learn from Barlow, who remains in the valley even though he could go home (Torgersen, ch. 1). Even though Barlow built the chapel, he has no belief to share with anyone (Torgersen, ch. 8) and gets very uncomfortable when post-truce pilgrims visit the chapel expecting that he will help them find enlightenment. (Torgersen, ch. 17). The alien queen initially thinks that religion is of no value, and she comes to the truce meeting expecting to die as the war restarts. After crashing, however, she begins to accompany Captain Adanaho when the captain performs her evening prayers (Torgersen, ch. 17). Once safe aboard a mantis ship, the Queen asks Barlow how to carry the burden of her wrong actions in starting the war, but he confesses to her that he cannot help. In that moment, Barlow has the moment of self-revelation in which he can also accept faith (Torgersen, ch. 47). The narrative contains at least a dozen other references to faith and religion.

Asimov’s repetition of religion seems more to illustrate Baley’s character, but Torgersen’s repetition is an integral part of the narrative’s meaning. Rose argues that science fiction content often displaces religion, and stories are often concerned to disassociate themselves from religion by characterizing it as the ignorant or feeble opposite of science” (41). The genre engages with the contradiction between opposing views in modern culture: spiritualistic and materialistic (Rose 45).


Rose notes that the real world of the reader serves as the reference point for science fiction narratives, either explicitly or implicitly. Both the Asimov and Torgersen novels provide what Rose calls “distance markers” to convey the “distance” between the fictive world and the actual world. Torgersen sets a temporal reference in the following exchange when Barlow meets his new boss, Chaplain Thomas, who says that Barlow may call him either Chaplain Tom or Major Tom, then explains that “Major Tom” is a joke based on “an old pop song from a long time ago” (Torgersen, ch. 40). An ideological or philosophical marker emerges in a discussion between the mantis queen and Barlow. After the queen gets her replacement carriage, she and Barlow look out at the stars through a viewing port on a mantis ship. The queen muses on her growing awareness that mantis civilization has to change its world view and accept that other intelligent species exist. Barlow notes that humans have already wrestled unsuccessfully with that already:

“Indeed, we have been forced to face that question in terms of gender, in terms of ethnicity, sexuality, socioeconomics, whatever way in which one human can be different from another human, we’ve been forced to adapt to the fact that there are people different from ourselves, that they exist with the same rights and fundamental freedoms, and that no one human group or collection of groups has the authority to revoke those rights or freedoms. Despite the fact that values and perceptions of values continue to clash” (Torgersen, ch. 47).

Torgersen explicitly brings into the fictional narrative the contemporary social concerns of the actual world. Asimov does something similar when Baley accuses the Spacers of faking the murder, discovers his error, and contemplates his likely declassification afterwards. He considers all of the little privileges granted by his classification and wonders if his modern civilization is really so much more advanced than the money-based society his era’s political writers look back on with disapproval:

“The competitive struggle for existence, they said, was brutal. . .modern “civism’ was praised highly as efficient and enlightened. . .he wondered sickly if ever a man fought harder for that buck, whatever it was, or felt its loss more deeply, than a City dweller fought to keep from losing his Sunday night option on a drumstick—a real-flesh drumstick from a once-living bird” (Asimov 115-116).

As Caves of Steel was published in 1953, right in the middle of the second Red Scare in the United States and the beginning of the Cold War, questions of capitalism and communism were very relevant. Rose suggests that these distance markers “may thus be understood as moments in which the science-fiction story provides a textual representation of its own subject, the relationship between the ordinary and extraordinary worlds” (29). In other words, passages such as these become explicit signals of expectations and questions for which the reader may expect closure.

Both novels achieve closure on the main overt narrative. Baley identifies the Commissioner as the murderer and Barlow and the alien queen manage to achieve peace. As for the marked questions, Asimov chooses a closure that extends the hope that the best parts of the doomed City and Spacer cultures will save humankind. Baley comes to understand that the cooperation of the City dwellers and the extreme individualist and materialist Spacers might fuse into a new, vibrant culture to colonize yet more worlds (219-221). The closure in The Chaplain’s War blends hope and faith, and although Barlow does find the faith that he lacked through most of the novel, the closure comes more through the alien queen.

What is human?

James Gunn, in “Science Fiction and Philosophy,” suggests that science fiction is less about science and more about the exploration of philosophical questions (227). He notes that the spaceship is symbolic of “movement, exploration, [and] expansion” (229); aliens become symbols of the Other, different from the self by any number of variables such as gender, culture, race, and so forth (229-230). Science fiction describes the ethics for the human species (229) and explores the questions “What does it mean to be human? How did we get to be human? What is humanity’s role in the universe? And finally, how do we know who is human?” (Gunn 231).

In The Caves of Steel, Asimov presents Spacer and Earth societies as incomplete. They are each half of what is needed in order to survive as a species. Does that imply that neither are fully human? Is the robot’s logical programming significantly different from the cold logic that drives the Spacers to select only the healthiest children to survive? And what about City society, with a strict hierarchy and privilege system that reduces humankind to widgets with efficiency far greater than any materialistic machine? Regardless of which answers one arrives at, the narrative structures in The Caves of Steel do successfully interrogate the question: How do we live together?

The Chaplain’s War is interesting in that the character who does the most transforming is not the protagonist. Barlow is more of a catalyst, an agent of change, but the alien queen is the character who truly transforms. She transforms from pure science to pure nature and then back into a hybrid mix of the two; how appropriate that such a transforming character is an insect. Barlow recognizes the humanity of the mantes, who had “proven to be every bit as human as any woman or man. . .To include their capacity for regret, and a longing for redemption” (Torgersen, ch. 56). As the queen ultimately rejects her carriage once she’s “see[n] what we mantes have lost” (Torgersen, ch. 56), the novel asks the same question as The Caves of Steel: How indeed do we live together? Respect each other because you need each other appears to be the simple answer. The execution is the tricky part.

Works Cited

Asimov, Isaac. The Caves of Steel. New York: Bantam, 1991. Kindle file.

Gunn, James. “Science Fiction and Philosophy.” Reading Science Fiction. Edited by James Gunn, Marleen S. Barr, and Matthew Candelaria. New York: Palgrave MacMillan., 2009. Print. 227-234.

Porush, David. The Soft Machine Cybernetic Fiction. New York: Methuen, 1985. Print.

Rose, Mark. Alien Encounters: Anatomy of Science Fiction. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1981. Print.

Torgersen, Brad R. The Chaplain’s War. Riverdale, NY: Baen, 2014. Kindle file.

Smoke, bracelet, paws

The plume of smoke from the charcoal was blue. A breeze so faint I could not feel it pushed the smoke just enough to curl against the underside of the carport roof, then it angled straight for me, rather like a cat towards someone who dislikes cats.

A silvery chain mail bracelet, with red beads caught in each outside loop: lace, looped in metal.

The sound of cat paws scuffling out a rhythm on the floor, accompanied by crackling plastic: the cat always tries to bury the puppy-pad.

Soda, glass, walkway

Decomposing soda. Sweetness with a whiff of vomit, augmented by an aura of dumpster.

Multicolored twinkle at the glassblower’s shop. Everywhere, bunnies and ships and dragonflies and dragons, sun-catchers and chimes and pendants, all sparkling on shelves and counters or dangling on hooks. A rainbow, fragmented, on display.

A pedestrian walkway, wooden (or perhaps of simulated wood) and uneven. In theory, perhaps intended as a rippling wave. In practice, dizzying if one watches one’s feet.

Sundae, floor, strawberries

An ice cream sundae, Dairy Queen, with caramel and pecans in a waffle bowl. You know the one–it’s been on TV. The little DQ curl on top of smooth, pale soft-serve–no twists, just curvaceous roundness–are these supposed to be for guys, after all?? Caramel, golden and gooey-looking, with pecans scattered across. The television version tasted better in my imagination than the real one did on my tongue.

A floor, usually hidden by tables and chairs, now bare. The brown tiles looked battered, tired, weary. But clean. And ready for more wear.

A handful of strawberries, scattered across the bottom of a two-pound container sitting on the table. They were a little drawn in around dark seeds, but still plump and not yet gone off.

Kale, ice cream, spider

Kale, roasted into crispy ruffles of deep green. The leaves rustle like paper when the spoon digs in for a serving.

Ice cream, kept too long in the freezer, slumped and leathery.

A spider, small, splayed against the wall near the ceiling: the inspiration for a dozen creepy-crawly imagined sensations tonight.