Book Talk: 'The Caves of Steel' by Isaac Asimov - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Book Talk: 'The Caves of Steel' by Isaac Asimov

Alexander Wallace visits Spacetown.
Few thinkers have defined robots as we conceive them as Isaac Asimov. He is the man who bequeathed upon science fiction those three sacred rules that many still use, consciously or unconsciously, when writing robots:
  • First Law: A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  • Second Law: A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  • Third Law: A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
These are rigid laws that Asimov spent much of his career discussing and deconstructing; having read I, Robot, I would say that his interrogations of those laws to be almost lawyerly in their precision. But we shall not be discussing that book today. Instead, we shall look at when the laws of robotics intersect with laws governing human conduct.

Such is The Caves of Steel, published in 1953. It was Asimov’s attempt to show that science fiction stories could have any sort of plot, including mystery plots. As we can see from its legions of imitators since, Asimov can be fairly said to have proved his point.
The Caves of Steel is set in New York, some centuries from now (or when Asimov wrote it, at least), where the city is encased in a massive dome. Earth has been left a backwater as the worlds that humanity has colonized have become economic powerhouses with the assistance of large-scale use of robots. One of the major locations within the book is Spacetown, a neighborhood run by spacers (as they are called) in an arrangement that reminds me strongly of the foreign concessions in Shanghai and Tianjin in the 19th century. Angry at their success, Earthlings now hold immense hatred for robots, and are known to murder them on sight.

Things become heated when a roboticist is killed in Spacetown by an unknown assailant. Assigned to this case tinged with sectarianism are Elijah Baley, NYPD detective and anti-robot activist, and R. Daneel Olivaw, a robot selected to be Baley’s partner by the Spacetown authorities. The two provide such a fantastic glimpse into this future, this New York, as they grind against one another in motivations and methods. It really was an inspired choice on Asimov’s part; it allows for the detail-oriented nature of the detective story to interact with the worldbuilding-heavy nature of this sort of science fiction, and it absolutely works.

I know it’s practically a cliche to say this, but in this book New York is a character itself. It is a sprawling sea of tenements in a future that the cover would lead you to believe is serene, and massive underground passageways. This is at its absolute best when Baley opts to return to one of his adolescent pastimes in running down passenger conveyor belts; it’s a sequence that demands to be put on screen.

The Caves of Steel single-handedly showed the world what science fiction can do. It is a book that succeeds in being both deeply human and showing how inhuman our creations can be. It showed the sheer variety of plot that science fiction can handle, and breathed new life into robots in literature. It is an impressive book, and one that all who like science fiction should read as soon as possible.

Alexander Wallace is an alternate historian, reader, and writer who moderates the Alternate History Online group on Facebook and the Alternate Timelines Forum on Proboards. He writes regularly for the Sea Lion Press blog and for NeverWas magazine, and also appears regularly on the Alternate History Show with Ben Kearns. He is a member of several alternate history fora under the name 'SpanishSpy.'

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