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Gurglings of a Putrid Stream

Thoughts on books and other assorted topics.

See also:  http://goppf.wikidot.com/swstart

My name:  Brian Martin

The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov

The Caves of Steel  - Isaac Asimov

The Caves of Steel made me feel like a kid again. Which is funny because when I was a kid, I had no interest in reading it. I didn't say I was a smart kid. It's a book that transports us to another world -- Earth, in the far future -- and even as it tells us how rotten that future is, fills us with hope for tomorrow. Detectives Lije Baley and R. Daneel Olivaw may be the protagonists, but science and technology are the stars.

The fact is, "robots" didn't particularly interest me back in the day -- and especially not robots that were incapable of harming a human being. The Three Laws of Robotics, the first of which states this limitation plainly, are among Isaac Asimov's most-loved legacies, but I never thought he did anyone any favors by creating them. Should I praise him for creating a "race" of lobotomized slaves? Not likely. But that was just my own limitations talking. Daneel (the "R." stands for "Robot," of course) is something less than a man, but also something more. If he doesn't actually deserve our sympathy, nevertheless because we are human, he gets it. When a much less sophisticated robot is maliciously and irreparably deactivated late in the book, it's easy to identify with the humans who refer to it as murder.

This identification is crucial to the story. Earth is an overpopulated mess, with its eight billion people crammed into huge cities, subsisting on yeast products and scarce jobs. Once, long ago, they ventured into space and colonized several worlds, but now those colonists have, in their eyes, become elitist "Spacers" to whom Earth is an embarrassment perhaps best done away with. What simpler way to accomplish this than to introduce robots into the cities and have them take jobs away from men? Certainly there is no easier way to make human beings hate and fear robots. But as Detective Lije Baley, who is forced to take on a robot partner in the investigation of the murder of a prominent Spacer discovers, things are more complicated than that.

Asimov does a wonderful job constructing his future Earth, working in bits of science, technology, socialization, and psychology to fashion a strange new world full of promise and possibility, even if, at the moment, it is mired in hatred and stagnation. Baley and Olivaw neatly tie everything together, Baley with his distaste for the present but fear of the future and Olivaw with his all-too-human rationality: if you can choose a better world, why wouldn't you?

Does Asimov get the future right? No, not really. His Cities are unlikely in the extreme and the agoraphobia of their millions of inhabitants has, I suspect, more to do with his own claustrophilia than anything resembling the mass of humanity, but that's incidental. Prognostication, as a quality of science fiction, is highly overrated, anyway, and I think that looking for it began as nothing more than a bid for respectability for a genre that was habitually ignored by the mainstream. Asimov instead does something far greater here: he uses science and technology to restore our sense of optimism.