I have just finished reading Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov. I decided to read this book after a friendly commenter suggested the addition of R. Daneel Olivaw to my list of favorite robots. As with most of Asimov’s works this is a well written fiction that takes place in earth’s future. It is a murder mystery as well as science fiction. The main character, Elijah Baley, is a plain-clothed detective in New York city assigned to solve the politically charged murder of a top robotics expert in “Space City”, where the only inhabitants are humans from other worlds, and robots. After earth colonized other planets, the inhabitants of those colonies decided to become separate and independent of earth and over time evolved into a very different society where populations are low, the use of robots is embraced and a lack of natural immunity to disease makes them fear earth people and their germs. While robots are used on earth for mining and farming, their use in the city around people is slow to be accepted with many people distrustful and angry about people losing their jobs to robots. With the earth’s population topping 8 billion, cities have become massive enclosed population centers with strict rationing and social ranking. Most people have never been outdoors and seen the natural sky, sunlight or non-airconditioned air and are naturally somewhat agoraphobic, a lifestyle eluded to in the title. The countryside between cities is occupied only by robots who work the farms and mines. Not an attractive future in my opinion. Like Asimov’s I Robot stories which came before, this book deals a lot with human robot interaction issues and Asimov’s three laws of robotoics.
I think I may have the tendency to mix up Asimov’s writing with that of Robert Heinlein in my head sometimes due to the similar time periods they wrote, and the similar reality based, future earth, science fiction style they used. Having read of a lot of Heinlein recently some of the differences stood out while reading this book. Even though Asimov is also known for writing science non-fiction works, I find his fiction contains less of the science lesson factoids so common with Heinlein. I also notice that Asimov’s characters are often more fallible and human, as opposed to Heinlein’s tendency to depict highly effective, rational and clever characters. Elijah Baley is frequently very emotional and makes some irrational decisions based on those emotions, but in the end puts the pieces together cleverly to solve the mystery. I would guess his emotional behavior serves to accentuate the contrast of his emotionless and logical partner, Robot Daneel Olivaw. One similarity to Heinlein is his believable descriptions of future advancements in engineering and technology. I particularly liked his transport system which involved rows of moving conveyor belts, each row moving slightly faster than the next. In the center is a continuously moving transport vehicle. People can easily step onto the outer slowest belt, then work their way inward accelerating more at each level until they are moving at 60mph, the same as the transport vehicles, and can step into the vehicle easily. For shorter distances they can just choose a middle speed belt and ride it to their destination. Reminds me of the moving belts used at Disneyland to allow people to step onto ride cars without the ride having to stop.
Overall I enjoyed this book quite a bit, and by the time I have gotten around to writing this, I am already half way through The Naked Sun, the next book in the robot trilogy.