Asimov Re-Read: The Caves of Steel

The Caves of Steel
by Isaac Asimov
ISBN-13: 978-0553293401
Amazon: Paperback | Kindle
Goodreads | LibraryThing

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.

Pro-Lithic Ramblings: 6/13/12

This is not my typical Webcomics Wednesday post, but more of a grab bag what I have read and enjoyed lately. I think this mix of different media will be the new norm for Lithicbee; less one-medium-per-day, more whatever-I-want. To that end, I need a new name for these types of general posts. Any ideas? (Today’s title, “Pro-Lithic Ramblings,” is courtesy of my wife, Danielle, and I may stick with it. Kind of catchy.)

So no more Webcomics Wednesday for me, but does that mean I am forsaking the wide world of webcomics? Hell no! Up first…

Polterguys (webcomic)

Polterguys, by Laurianne “Laur” Uy, is a black-and-white, manga-style  “story of a nerdy college girl befriending a bunch of ghost guys and solving their unfinished businesses.” The nerdy girl is named Bree, the college town is a take on Berkeley, and the guys are all hiding in an old rental house for reasons that become clear as the story progresses. First off, let me say that this is a super-professional-looking manga comic, one that I would not have been surprised to read in Shonen Jump (yes, I subscribed to SJ for 5 years, as an adult; there was much about it aimed at a younger audience, but it was a great deal and I would love to see more monthly digests like that in the U.S., perhaps targeted to those of us older than 13).

The art is excellent and the writing is smart and funny (check out the poster wannabe-doctor Bree puts up on her wall; classic). As a main character, Bree is the right mix of smart and spunky, cute and awkward (oh so awkward). Her high school life was hell, and she is hopeful that college will be better, but initial results are mixed, especially when every dorm-mate she is assigned drives her crazy. This is how she ends up renting a room in an otherwise empty house, or at least what she believes is an empty house. She quickly discovers the polterguys that are living there, and their fates become intertwined.

I don’t want to ruin anything by giving more away, so I will simply say that I cannot stress enough that this comic is fun fun fun and it was just what I needed this week. If you’re looking for a light-hearted supernatural romp, be sure to check out Polterguys.

Ignition Zero Kickstarter

As I was writing this post, I switched over to TweetDeck to procrastinate and noticed that Noel Arthur Heimpel has a Kickstarter up for Volume One of Ignition Zero. I have been waiting for a collected volume since I first discovered IZ, so I was happy to see this news, which comes one day after I posted the piece I commissioned from Noel: The Dream Bear (my name for it). There are good rewards at many levels, so I am pretty certain he is going to blow past his $600 goal in no time flat. I backed the project, how about you?

The Children of Hamelin (short story)

Lately I find that the short stories I am most likely to enjoy and recommend have a strong emotional component. “The Children of Hamelin,” by Dale Bailey, is no exception. This is basically a story of loss and dealing with it, and it makes no bones about it. All the children in the world have gone missing, vanished in a moment (hence the Pied Piper reference), and so this could have been a story about discovering how and why this happened. Instead, it is a story of one father simply dealing with the loss that this bizarre event has caused, and as such the story really spoke to me.

You can find the story in the May 2012 issue of Lightspeed Magazine.

The Confessions of Jonathan Pratt (serial)

The Confessions of Jonathan Pratt, by Robert Wilhelm, caught my interest at first simply due to the design of the web page.  It is set up to look like you are reading out of an old book, and the layout makes it very easy to navigate. It is the best example that I have seen of a web page design for a serial story fitting its content. And with so much free stuff to read out there, sometimes the first look can be the most important. Beyond its look, though, the story itself pulled me in. The writing is good, well-detailed but not rambling. Plus, you can’t go wrong with this subtitle: Being An Account of His Travels Through the State of New York in 1848 and of the Wickedness Which He Found There. This is the same time period as Gangs of New York, which I enjoyed (movie and book), so I am looking forward to what wickedness Jonathan gets up to in the same setting.

The beginning of the tale is compelling, with Jonathan Pratt in his cell the night before he is to be executed for murder. He is being urged to confess and he agrees to do so in order to have some peace and quiet; his written account of his crimes is the story that follows. But while he will admit to many instances of breaking both man’s law and God’s commandments, he claims he is innocent of murder. The story then jumps back to earlier in his life when he takes his first steps off his family farm and onto the path that ends up with him in a jail cell. The story is only two posts in, but it is promising enough that I will be following it and I recommend you get in on the ground floor and follow it as it progresses.

Also, Robert has a companion website, The National Night Stick, a faux newspaper covering “Crime, Eccentricity, and the Sporting Life in 19th Century America,” which is really cool to explore. It is a curated collection of stories from and about the 1800s, and it includes references to original sources, which gives me hope that Robert really knows his stuff and will be serving up a fairly accurate portrayal of 19th century America in his serial as well.

FYI: I found this story at Tuesday Serial, a great place to find new serials to read.

Up Next:

Friday: The Only City Left: The Story So Far. For those of you who might not have read my serial SF/F adventure yet, a synopsis to bring you up to speed so you can leap from your horse of not-reading to the moving train of The Only City Left without serious injury. (No, I could not write that without laughing.)

Sunday: The Only City Left Part 18. The flashback is (mostly) over and now you know how Allin’s parents died. (For my new readers, don’t worry, this is not a spoiler: you pretty much know this happened from Part One.) So what’s next? How about some info on the man who sent the assassins after Mom and Dad Arcady in the first place?