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Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov

By Deistbrawler | Books | December 21, 2009 |

By Deistbrawler | Books | December 21, 2009 |

Finally I managed to get through a book in a day. Thank you Jeebus Isaac Asimov. I can’t really say that I am a “fan” of Asimov, at least in the same sense that I can say I am a fan of Stephen King; until this book, I had only read two of his works, I, Robot and Solar System. I have another one of his to read later, Nightfall, and while I guess technically I should have read that one first, I couldn’t turn down a good robot story. I love old school science fiction (The Caves of Steel was written in 1954) for one reason, and that is its predictions for the future that constantly turn into reality. I also love reading older stories like this to find comparisons in later works of fiction, both in film and literature. At 209 pages The Caves of Steel is not a wordy book, and its fast pace only heightens this perception. It is a detective novel, first and foremost (and infinitely better than my last read, Watchers of Time), with a wonderful story involving “Spacers” and robots as a background. Let me also say that I am watching Blade Runner as I write this because of the detective story, combined with the use of realistic robots (although not called androids in the book), reminded me of this book (by the way, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick wasn’t published until 1968).

A quick summary of The Caves of Steel goes like this. A murder happens in the “Spacers” compound (Spacers are humans who had colonized planets long before and are considered superior intellects). Modern Earth has become a serious of vast, enclosed cities (this one takes place in New York). There is no money but rather a caste system. Robots are being incorporated but are being met with hostility. They ask a human detective, Lije Baley, to work alongside a practically human robot, Daneel Olivaw, to solve the murder. The story has many plot twists, racial undertones, and environmental ones as well. However, like I said, the fast pace keeps it moving along swiftly and he doesn’t bog you down with unnecessary information. I highlighted several portions in the book and I would like to share them with you in regards to how his science fiction became realities and/or were used in later works.

“He wore spectacles because his eyes were sensitive and couldn’t take the usual contact lenses.” The regular plastic contact lenses that most of us know came out in 1948. Soft contact lenses didn’t come around until 1971 and then contacts that we are able to wear overnight didn’t come about until 1971. Let me repeat that The Caves of Steel came out in 1954. There was even a moment in the book where Lije tells his son that he would have no problem wearing his contacts overnight. Me personally, I don’t remember contact lenses becoming really popular until the late ’80s and early ’90s. So here is Asimov, in 1954, talking about a society that predominately wears contact lenses. In fact the example of the commissioner wearing spectacles plays out later in the story as being “odd.” (The picture is from “Story Parade” the episode “The Caves of Steel” circa 1964.) “I don’t think I’ve showed it to you before. Come over here and take a look. In the old days, all rooms had things like this. They were called ‘windows’…He turned to the window and so did Baley. With mild shock, Baley realized it was raining. For a minute, he was lost in the spectacle of water dropping from the sky…” Now, the first thing that came to mind when I read that passage was the scene in Equilibrium. I don’t know if you remember the scene but it is when Christian Bale’s character wakes up (after getting off the medication) and tears the screen off of his window to watch the rain fall during a sunrise. The look on his face says that what he is looking at is something that can only be compared to sheer beauty. In the book it even says that Lije, at 42 years old, had only seen rain (or nature for that matter, including the sun) a few times in his life. “Their I.Q. rating, Genetic Values status, and his position in the Department entitled him to two children, of which the first might be conceived within the first year.” Now you can look at this instantly and think of China’s “One-Child Policy;” maybe Asimov got the idea from them? The “One-Child Policy” wasn’t instituted in China until 1979. I think this idea has also been prevalent in other works of fiction, perhaps Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, I can’t remember exactly if it deals with a policy of children but the dystopian view of society prevalent in The Caves of Steel does. This idea can also be seen in many other works, the four that most drove home in my mind while reading were Equilibrium, The Fifth Element, Minority Report (also written by Philip K. Dick in 1956), and Gattaca. Asimov also uses a system of traveling on moving walkways (created in Switzerland in the 1970s). These moving walkways (some traveling up to 60mph) were how people moved around the city. There is actually a section of the book where a person jumps from walkway to walkway to avoid being detected (think the scene where Tom Cruise jumps from car to car to get away…only more intense). There are many, many more but I find that would only be tedious to your eyesight. Needless to say, however, the influence of science fiction writers is obvious.

If you’ve seen Bicentennial Man or I, Robot you would know a bastardized and atrocious version of Asimov’s work. In fact, if you’ve seen either you may remember the Three Laws of Robotics (by the way, Asimov has been given the distinction of coining the term “robotics”). The one that is prevalent through both films is the very first law, “A robot may not injure a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.” Remember that rule. It plays heavily in most of Asimov’s work. Before I end let me go back to the notion of a human cop with a robot partner, a robot partner who is, for all due respect, emotionless. Think Robocop; while he may not fit the “ideal” notion, it works (except for that no harm humans clause) and, after doing some research, I found that there was a 1977 TV series called “Future Cop” that dealt with a human cop and his android partner. Of course the whole off the wall partner thing is just a random thought, after all, look at “Alien Nation.” As well, if you’re further interested Asimov did a whole series of Lije Baley, four books to be exact, with The Caves of Steel being the first one in the series.

This review is part of the Cannonball Read series. For more of Deistbrawler’s reviews, check his blog, Mindless Rants of a Mindless Person.

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Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.