Asimov Re-Read: The Caves of Steel

The Caves of Steel
by Isaac Asimov
ISBN-13: 978-0553293401
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Classic Michael Whelan cover art.

The first book in Isaac Asimov’s Robot series, The Caves of Steel, is one of my all-time favorites and a definite influence on The Only City Left. It’s a murder mystery, plus it deals with the themes of man vs. robot and Earth humans vs. Spacers (humans who have colonized other planets). But the element that had the greatest impact on me was life in a big-C City.

The book takes place on Earth roughly 3,000 years from now, at a time when all major cities have been covered over and no one lives outside of these Cities except for the simple-minded robots that farm the food the humans need. The story is set in and around New York, which is the sort of Ur-City that seems to be popular with SF writers (case in point: I’ll have a post later about Harry Harrison’s Make Room! Make Room!, which also showcases a “future” New York).

Our main character is Lije Baley, a 40-ish detective, married with one kid, who enjoys the small luxuries his C-5 rating allows him (the sink inside his apartment has been unlocked for private use, for one thing), but who lives haunted by the shadow of seeing his father lose all rank and privileges when Lije was a child.

He is called upon by Commissioner Julius Enderby (a friend who has risen through the ranks faster than Lije) to investigate a murder, but there a couple of hitches that make this case extremely sensitive. First, the victim is a Spacer, and he was killed in the heavily-guarded Spacetown outside of New York City, which should be an impossible feat. Second, Baley will have to take a Spacer partner and house him during the investigation.

This would be bad enough, but it turns out that his partner, Daneel Olivaw, is actually R. Daneel Olivaw, a robot. City dwellers have barely-concealed contempt for the robots that the Spacers are forcing them to use, because the robots are pushing regular folk out of their jobs. Without jobs and the status that goes with them, City life is miserable, so robots are not well liked.

Daneel is not just any robot, though. He looks completely human, albeit the Spacer ideal of human. He has some traits that give him away, like how he doesn’t breathe unless he’s talking, but for the most part he can pass for human unless someone is specifically trying to tell if he’s a robot or not.

Okay, so those are the basics. If you want to avoid possible spoilers, read no further (but do read the book, it’s a classic).

So what do I like about this book? To start with, City life. Asimov drills down into some of the minutiae of living in a City, not just at the technical level, but the social one. Like, the second you step into a public restroom, you don’t look at anyone else and you don’t talk to anyone else. Or how the mere thought of stepping outside the steel cave of the city is unthinkable to Lije. City life, despite its drawbacks, had become the new norm, and even those pesky Medievalists who want to return to nature acknowledge that they won’t be able to do it, but maybe the next generation or the next can.

Lije ends up at war with himself as to whether or not the Cities are a good thing. Early on, he is all for them: “Think of the inefficiency of a hundred thousand homes for a hundred thousand families as compared with a hundred-thousand unit Section … the endless duplication of kitchens and bathrooms as compared with the thoroughly efficient diners and shower rooms made possible by City culture.”

He even imagines the Cities growing and growing, combining with each other, overcoming the problems that will arise from population growth: “Baley had the picture of an Earth of unlimited energy. Population could continue to increase. The yeast farms could expand, hydroponic culture intensify. Energy was the only thing indispensable. The raw materials could be brought in from the uninhabited rocks of the System. If ever water became a bottleneck, more could be brought in from the moons of Jupiter. Hell, the oceans could be frozen and dragged out into Space where they could circle Earth as moonlets of ice. There they would be, always available for use, while the ocean bottoms would represent more land for exploitation, more room to live. Even carbon and oxygen could be maintained and increased on Earth through utilization of the methane atmosphere of Titan and the frozen oxygen of Umbriel. Earth’s population could reach a trillion or two. Why not?”

Ah, that’s quite an image, and if you’ve read The Only City Left, you can see where I got my inspiration (well, that and Trantor), even if only at a subconscious level. It had actually been years since I read this book when I started writing TOCL, but the seed had been planted. (Not only that, one of my characters is named Jessie, the same as Lije’s wife, and I didn’t make that connection until this re-read.)

In the end, Lije comes to see that City life is a dead end, and that humans must colonize the stars again. They can’t visit the Spacer worlds, because the Spacers, while long-lived, cannot abide the germs Earth humans would bring with them. New worlds will need to be colonized, and to do that, humans will need the help of robots. So that’s why the Spacers have been trying to foist robots on humanity! They, too, know that humans need to spread out amongst the stars to ensure humanity’s survival.

The Earth of The Only City Left, run-down and mostly abandoned, is my own take on this idea, but I never would have created it if not for Asimov’s The Caves of Steel.