Monday, October 19, 2009

Book 113: The Caves of Steel

The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov

This was the first of Asimov's robot murder mysteries with Elijah Baley and R. Daneel Olivaw. For some reason I kept picturing Baley as Will Smith despite the fact that he was described as a 42 year old white guy (damn you, I, Robot - I didn't even like that movie!).

Since I've read all but Forward the Foundation of the actual Foundation novels, I've become somewhat aware of some of the background in these novels as ancient history. It was kind of nice to see what Asimov was actually referring to when he talked about some of these worlds in the later Foundation novels, and how he believed history had been distorted over time.

As the novel begins, fifty planets in addition to Earth have been colonized, and the cultures on these new planets are vastly different than life on Earth. In fact, the colonies have surpassed Earth's technology and come back to Earth as conquerors of sort, setting up a small colony for diplomatic purposes. The colonials are referred to as spacers, and have much longer life spans than regular Earth folk. A spacer scientist has been killed so Earth sends a representative to investigate the murder - Elijah Baley. Naturally, the spacers don't want him working the case alone so they provide him with a partner to represent their side - Daneel Olivaw, a robot that looks completely human. Unlike the spacer worlds, robots have not become quite as much a part of society on Earth, and in fact, there is a certain amount of fear of them (people fear the robots are taking their jobs as they are edged out - the difference being that there are about 100 million people on the spacer planets vs. 8 billion on Earth alone).

It's interesting reading older science fiction and seeing what people thought would be a problem fifty years ago vs. what has actually happened. Asimov apparentl expected it to take a few hundred/thousand more years for Earth to reach 8 billion in population but it doesn't seem like it will take that long, especially considering that we are now at around 6.7 billion and I still remember when we reached 6 billion.

One complaint I've made about Asimov before is his treatment of gender. I realize that he was writing in the '50s so some sexism is to be expected. However, for me it's a lot easier to accept sexism in a 19th century novel (even if it irritates me sometimes) than it is in his novels. I think the reason is that they are science fiction - it can be easy to forget that they were written in the '50s since they take place in the future while most 19th century novels take place in the 19th century. For example, I think Jessie, Baley's wife, was portrayed in a rather dizzy and hysterical manner. She joined a political movement to be rebelious but Asimov made it sound more like a social club and trivialized her and her actions.

I think overall this novel was weaker than the Foundation series, and the mystery wasn't really that exciting. The thing that made this novel work was the science fiction aspect of it, and discovering what the future held in Asimov's eyes. Additionally, the philosophical debate about the future of the Earth and colonization (of course, after reading the Foundation sequels, it's easy to see who won that debate) was interesting and is built upon in novels in the rest of the series.

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