Learning from the masters – Isaac Asimov’s “Caves of Steel” #amwriting

1954 Hard back cover Doubleday

1954 Hard back cover Doubleday

This is the first of a series of posts I’m writing about what we (as writers) can learn from the works of published authors.

I’m in the process of re-reading Isaac Asimov’s first robot novel – The Caves of Steel. In a nutshell, this book is a murder mystery, a police procedural set in the distant future. Humanity has expanded to fifty worlds, but Earthites are not welcome in the erstwhile colonies, which are now independent entities, with small populations and many, many robots to do the hard work. On Earth life has become increasingly regimented. Most people live in enormous, domed cities (caves of steel) where efficiency is the order of the day. No more private kitchens, few if any private facilities like bathrooms. Living space is earned. The higher a person’s classification, the more room they can have, the more small privileges they can attain. A hand basin, for instance, is a much sought after luxury. Transport is via automated walkways and people are crowded together. In this pressure cooker world, robots are resented, seen as putting people out of work and consequently lowering their status.

There is on Earth one small colony of expatriates, called ‘Spacers’. By their own insistence, the inhabitants are sealed off from the rest of the city, isolated in what you might call quarantine in an area known as SpaceTown The Spacers are trying to encourage Earth to use robots but (as mentioned) it’s not a popular idea. Then a murder is committed in SpaceTown – a Spacer killed by a Human. The Spacers send a robot to partner a Human policeman to solve the crime. But he’s no ordinary robot. Daneel Olivaw is indistinguishable from a human Spacer. Thus starts an unlikely partnership between Elijah Baley, a human detective who resents robots as much as the next man, and the Spacers even more, and Daneel.

Enough said. If you’re a sci-fi fan, you’ve read the book; it’s a classic. But as I’m reading, I’m analysing and admiring.

Bear in mind the book was first released in 1953 as a serial.

That’s sixty years ago, so yes, it is dated. For a start, the population of Earth thousands of years in the future in the novel is set at eight billion, with the planet apparently creaking at the seams. Now, in 2013, Earth’s population is rapidly approaching eight billion and although all is not well, we’re nowhere near the dire straits described in Asimov’s novel. People still smoke, technology is not what we might expect. But such small niceties aside, the society Asimov has portrayed is detailed and utterly believable. His city (which in the novel is an extension of New York) reminds me of an extrapolation of the suburbs of Hong Kong, with its towering apartment blocks. It’s easy enough to see cars eliminated and replaced by walkways. And regimentation and segregation is (I believe) part of the human psyche. So is prejudice against anything different, like Spacers and (particularly) robots, which put people out of work.

Dr Asimov had a Ph.D. In chemistry but throughout his life he read history, and I think his portrayal of another society in this book is based on his knowledge of history, as well as a logical extension of what existed at the time of writing. Cities were going up, the amount of living space for an individual was going down. That’s still the case today. Communal kitchens, bathrooms and latrines were the norm in earlier times and it’s easy to see the efficiency in that approach. One can also imagine the importance of ‘privacy’ in a world where there is none, and Asimov’s story is peppered with small details which underline that fundamental truth. Even the story of the biblical Jezebel has its place.

The establishment of a quarantined enclave for the Spacers is particularly clever. I have no doubt Asimov noted from history that where Europeans interacted with native peoples, diseases were transferred both ways. Native populations had no answer for infections like measles, influenza and cholera. In the same way, Asimov’s Spacer colonies have no answer to the teeming infections on Mother Earth. So the easy planet-hopping of space operas might be a tad unrealistic – although Asimov himself had plenty of planet hopping in his later books.

Why does this book work so well, particularly given its age? Because the society portrayed is detailed and the characters act in accordance with their backgrounds. Yes, there are times when the author dwells on backstory and description but it’s usually done in the right places. Although the thread running through the story is solving the murder of Doctor Sarton, in a way the solution is less important than the chase itself. Asimov uses a Spacer robot to reveal all the little foibles in human society and also to illustrate his famous Three Laws of Robotics. Really, although the murder is the glue that ties the plot together, this novel isn’t a simple murder mystery.

As a writer, I’ve taken two things from this book.

  • Make your society detailed and believable and embed your characters in their setting
  • Use conflict to illustrate behavior. Teaming Lije with a Spacer robot – incorporating two things he hates – gives plenty of room for making points

It seems Hollywood is making a movie from the book. I hope they do a much better job than they did in Fantastic Voyage and I, Robot.

I welcome comments from others who have read the book. If you haven’t, if you want a print copy, try the local second hand bookshop. Or try the Amazon link.