The Caves of Steel

Author: Isaac Asimov

Type: Fiction, novel

Published: 1954

I read it: August 2016

caves

What is Greg Graffin doing on the cover of this book? Apparently starring as the main robot in this science fiction detective story.

The caves of the title are simply Earth’s cities, fully enclosed and delicately sustained by an infinity of intricacies that make modern life possible in this future scenario. The population of the planet is massive, and some humans have already colonized other worlds. (They are dubbed “Spacers” and are generally looked down upon by regular Earth folk.) Of those who remain on the home planet, some are splintering into “Medievalists” who are generally afraid of the forward trajectory, much like the “Simple-Lifers” from Asimov’s story “Evidence.” Specifically, the Medievalists have a growing hatred for robots.

While all robots are vaguely humanoid, only the Spacers have refined a model to the point of being passable as human. They send in their prime specimen with a mouthful of a name, R. Daneel Olivaw, to partner up with an NYC detective, Elijah Baley. These two are tasked with solving the murder of a top Spacer researcher and inventor, which has stoked the distrust between the two communities and their respective philosophies. Baley has a working man’s skepticism of robots himself, and is uneasy with his new partner, who he can’t even believe is a robot at first:

He had expected a creature with a skin of a hard and glossy plastic, nearly dead white in color. He had expected an expression fixed at an unreal level of inane good humor. He had expected jerky, faintly uncertain motions.

R. Daneel was none of it.

I instantly pictured Jude Law’s robot from the movie A.I., though I haven’t seen it for ages. That straightforward, slightly detached humanness seemed to sum up everything about R. Daneel Olivaw. And since this is a detective story, Baley pokes and prods into every possible angle until he finally learns how to work alongside his new robot mate. He gets several things wrong, and in that way comes across as believably human. The fun is between the daily banter of the partners. For every standard “Damn this job, anyway.” there’s a “Not on your life. Not on whatever it is you call your life.” The emotional side of their line of work is contrasted against the limits of the robot’s understanding of human motivations and abstract concepts of justice.

The detective story is decent and the futuristic world nicely drawn, and feels coherent to a modern reader. But as is always the case with Asimov, the book is mainly an exchange of ideas. It’s about culture clash, the possibilities of technology, and the massive influence of economies. For example, in this book we get a direct explanation for the humanoid form of robots. It’s probably something Asimov was already working out during I, Robot, but he gives it a home here. First, he explains the basic expense of creating one positronic brain which is fitted into each robot, and how you wouldn’t be able to afford to put one of these into each and every machine you need around a farm. Then Baley asks, “Why should a robot have a head and four limbs? Why should he look more or less like a man?”

“Because the human form is the most successful generalized form in all nature. We are not a specialized animal, except for our nervous systems and a few odd items. If you want a design capable of doing a great many widely various things, all fairly well, you could do no better than to imitate the human form. Besides that, our entire technology is based on the human form. An automobile, for instance, has its controls so made as to be grasped and manipulated most easily by human hands and feet of a certain size and shape, attached to the body by limbs of a certain length and joints of a certain type. Even such simple objects as chairs and tables and knives and forks are designed to meet the requirements of human measurements and manner of working. It is easier to have robots imitate the human shape than to redesign radically the very philosophy of our tools.”

There you have it: the single explanation needed for all stories that have ever used a humanoid robot. They don’t call him the master for nothing (yes, I’ve stressed the point before, but it’s just a requirement of an Asimov review it seems). In The Caves of Steel, explanations like these intersect with other fully plausible aspects of the author’s world(s)-building, such as English becoming “the final potpourri that was current over all the continents, and, with some modification, on the Outer Worlds as well” and tensions mounting because “when the population reaches eight billion, semistarvation becomes too much like the real thing.” For the modern reader, the mystery lies not in the whodunit, but in the question of whether or not we are reading about our own future fates.

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One thought on “The Caves of Steel

  1. Excellent review! Yes, Asimov really defined the humanoid robot for all future generations, didn’t he? Whenever they pop up, you can see the links back to R Daneel Olivaw. It’s a pity his books don’t seem to be read as much as they used to be – or perhaps they are, and it’s just that they’re not read by book bloggers so much.

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