Feb 19, 2017

Cave Robot

from the Science Fiction Book Club
I've long resisted the temptation to read the Caves of Steel. The issues of Galaxy magazine that contain the original version (October, November and December 1953) are available at the Internet Archive. I could no longer avoid looking at how Isaac Asimov had first written the positronic robot Daneel into existence.

John Berkey cover art
3 Shocks
The first page of The Caves of Steel delivers three shocks. Firstly, the ghastly line drawings by Edmund Emshwiller. They set the tone: Asimov is dragging me into a dystopic future where the people of Earth all reside in their prison cells.

Secondly, poor Sammy the robot getting shouted at by police detective Baley. Baley is angry that a human lost his job to Sammy who is now employed to do the job of delivering messages. Here in 2017, readers have to wonder: why must a walking messenger -either human or robotic- deliver a message from the police commissioner to a detective? Poor Sammy.

cover art by David Mattingly
Thirdly, Baley's thoughts are occupied by his nicotine addiction. Will his supply of pipe tobacco last until his next ration arrives? It is only page one of the story and already everything about this future Earth feels wrong, twisted, icky.

It is tempting to switch off and start reading the story that David Mattingly was reading in 1987 when he made the book cover art that is shown to the right. Mattingly's atomic rock band is a future I might want to read about! But in the end, Asimov finds a way for Humanity to escape from these horrific caves of steel.

Asimov tells us that in his imagined future of The Caves of Steel, we are in a future age of atomic power, a time when people look back upon the Coal Century with dismay. Still, New York City is not under water... maybe use of atomic power saved Earth from global warming? We are told that Earth's vast oil deposits have been pumped dry and people still use coal as a carbon source for plastics manufacturing. Asimov's future Cities are giant caves, sealed up with no windows and bulging at the seems with unemployed people and unwanted robots.

The Spacer enclave of Earth
In Asimov's future, it is tempting to view detective Baley and all the Earthlings as losers. The winners of this imagined future are the Spacers, those adventurers who long ago left Earth behind and spread to other planets of the galaxy. Well, almost left. There is still a small Spacer enclave on Earth (Spacetown) located ..... where else? In the wild West, across the river from Manhattan.

Human population growth.
8 Billion people. Baley moans about how Earth does not have room for its 8 billion people. "Moaning like that was a built-in facet of human nature." Here in 2017 we are almost to the 8 billion human population of Earth that Asimov imagined.

Daneel's crowd control
Asimov tells us that the entire future of the galaxy hangs in the balance, but more importantly, if the murder case is solved then Baley will get a promotion. So when Baley is forced to work together with a Spacer partner, he is willing to do his best... even if that partner is a robot.

Daneel has been designed and built by his master so as to pass as an Earthling. Daneel was created by Dr. Sarton, a sociologist from the exoplanet Aurora who wanted to use Daneel as a tool to study Earth culture. But now Sarton has been murdered.

For some unexplained reason, rather than start work on the murder case, Baley immediately takes Daneel home for dinner and a visit with his wife and son. On the way, they run into a near riot over robots being employed as shoe salesmen. Daneel pulls out his blaster and threatens to kill anyone who does not disperse and get about their business.

I think Emshwiller missed the point when he drew Daneel's face in the same freaky way as the three shoe-selling robots of Earth (image to the left). On Earth, the robots were made to be easily identifiable as robots. In contrast, Daneel's appearance was human: modeled after that of his creator, Dr. Sarton.

Carbon-iron collaboration.
Interior art by Edmund Emshwiller
Daneel explains to Baley that the Spacers have achieved a viable C/Fe society, successfully mixing together humans (Carbon) and robots (iron, Fe). In contrast, Earthlings resent the introduction of more robots into their miserable over-populated and resource-poor society.

Baley feels that he must solve the murder mystery and not let Daneel figure out the case first. It would be a disaster to let it be demonstrated that a robot could do his job better than a human! Baley might end up back in the miserable barracks of the unemployed, where he started his life. At the end of Part 1, Baley accuses Daneel of being Sarton.

Daneel proves he is a robot
Part 2
Daneel is able to quickly disprove Baley's hypothesis by displaying his internal structure: steel "bones" with a covering of skin.

Another Spacer, Dr. Falstofe explains to Baley why Spacers are on Earth and what they hope to accomplish. Both the 50 Spacer worlds and Earth are dead ends; their people have no interest in colonizing new planets. Earthlings are afraid to leave their caves and the Spacers are too comfortable on their worlds to ever want to settle more new planets. Exploration of the galaxy has stopped. A few people from Aurora hope to stimulate Earthlings to start colonizing new worlds.

inside Spacetown
Along the way in Part 2 of The Caves of Steel we are told why it is that human workers always get replaced by human-like robots. For example, why a human shaped robot should drive a car. Here in our world of 2017, computerized cars don't have a human-shaped robot in the driver's seat.

In Part 2, the false trails required for a murder mystery are raised and dismissed. Baley suspects Daneel of being involved in Sarton's murder. Daneel suspects that Baley's wife is part of a cabal that murdered Sarton.

caves of steel
We are told that Daneel can carry out "cerebroanalysis" on people by measuring their brain waves. Daneel apparently clears the Commissioner, stating that he could not have personally murdered Sarton even though he was in Spacetown at the time of the murder.

The only theory left standing for the death of Sarton is that he was killed by someone who walked through the countryside and secretly entered Spacetown. However, other possibilities such as mistaken identity or the possibility of suicide would seem to remain.

Robophobia: "Keep that thing away from me!"
Part 3
The wife of Baley is not connected to Sarton's murder, but she does provide a clue that leads to the robophobic yeast farmer, Clousarr, A Medievalist who hates that Earthlings are trapped in the caves of the Cities and wants to return Earth to the ways of the past.

Many Earthlings have Medievalist sympathies, including the police Commissioner. Baley himself comes under suspicion.

Finally, After several days of investigating the Death of Sarton, Baley finally looks at film of the crime scene. Duh.

Viewing the scene of Sarton's death. Interior art by Edmund Emshwiller.

cover art by Stephen Youll
You have to read the story to find out all of the false leads and the ultimate solution to the mystery. Baley is able to see a clue at the crime scene that solves the murder case.

Beyond Sarton's death is the larger matter of Humanity's future and continued colonization of the galaxy. During the investigation Baley inadvertently shows Dr. Falstofe that that problem has already been solved. Medievalist sentiment on Earth will provide the needed new generation of exoplanet settlers, including Baley's own son.

In The Caves of Steel, it is interesting to see Daneel equipped with a built-in "cell phone" and able to "read minds" by technology-assisted electroencephalography. Too bad Asimov was not able to envision a future when people would carry around phone/computers and computers would be embedded in machines such as cars. Still, even after 55 years Asimov's story is not made completely irrelevant by technological changes.

Next: "Hostess" by Isaac Asimov, 1951
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