Tuesday, February 5, 2008

The Caves of Steel - Isaac Asimov

Asimov wrote almost all his science fiction with stories geared to the future. In some of them, his ideas fail spectacularly after a period of time (his concept of one giant computer and MultiVac), but it is his stories of the evolution of a society of a future that is much more realistic, and it would be very much possible to look a thousand years down and find a resemblance to the society that he has created. Asimov wrote some of his greatest works when detailing the interaction of humans in the future, and about the society that got developed. The Caves of Steel is a combination of 2 distinct ideas - one is about the development of human society, and the other is about the development of robotics as an ever present strain. It is incredible to read his future novels and see how he almost single-handedly develops the concept of robots as an integral part of society (whether liked or hated), as well as develops the ethical and moral dilemmas concerning robots.

Caves of Steel - Isaac Asimov (1953)
It is in the depiction of the positronic brain being the base for the development of the truly thinking robot that was a great spark and made these novels special. A positronic humanoid robot is the evolution of robotics - strong like all robots, but capable of independent thought and action, and yet bound by another of Asimov's great contribution to the field of making robotics a much more human friendly science (The three Laws of Robotics that form the basis for all robotic thought and action).
The Caves of Steel also develops 2 characters who play a role in many of Asimov's future novels - the plainclothes detective Elijah Baley, and the humanoid robot R. Daneel Olivaw (who went to star in many of the other robots and foundation novels). This is the first novel in which they start working together, with Eijah being hesitant because of the taboos against robots in the society on earth at that point of time. It is not the best in the series, far from it, but it is worth reading because it is legitimately the first one in an incredible series (this does not mean that the novel is badly written, but that The Naked Sun is a better written work).
These 2 books (The Caves of Steel and The Naked Sun) are also different from the others because these are stories set in the future with a very strong focus on detective work and investigation, the society forms more of a backdrop. The Caves of Steel actually refers to the vast cities on which a seething humanity, 8 billion strong lives. These are vast underground cities in which people hardly ever get a chance to see the sun, and in fact almost all of them would get disoriented and shaken on seeing the sun. As a contrast, human settlers on other worlds (50 of them) are a well settled financially dominant society, enjoying a much longer life and having a robot dominated life, with these robots making their life comfortable. Earth is dominated by these settlers (called Spacers) in terms of their power (although most Spacers would be uncomfortable being near the humans on earth).
With such a skewed power play, one of the prominent Spacers on earth is killed, and earth could face a major problem from the spacers unless the culprit is found. Finding the culprit is a thankless task, since failure could spell severe trouble for the detective incharge, and to Elijah falls the task of doing the investigation. In addition, he gets a Spacer to be his partner in the investigation, but this is not a normal spacer. This is an expensive state of the art humanoid robot, and Elijah has to overcome his own biases against robots, and at the same time, prevent Daneel from getting harmed by other humans during the investigation. Can he pull this off ?

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