Note: This review is part of a weekly book review column that I write for City Journal, an English newspaper based in Thrissur, Kerala.
Published on 27/10/2012
Publisher – Random House; Year of Publication – 1954; Pages – 270; Cost at the time of purchase – Rs 244
Today we look at another detective novel, but not a run of the mill one. It is set in the future, a thousand years from now. A noted roboticist is killed and detective Elijah Baley is summoned to solve the crime. The dead roboticist is also a noted diplomat and his unnatural death is ripe for chaos in the interplanetary relation between Earth and its colonies in space.
As a pure detective fiction, “The Caves of Steel” has its good moments, but it is not enough to enthral the reader. What makes the novel exciting is the portrayal of the future Asimov has done. The noted science fiction writer constructs an agoraphobic society who has isolated themselves into massive super cities protecting themselves from the elements by massive caves of steel. Ironically it has a shadow of the present world, where connected by the internet, people very rarely have to leave their homes to get their work done or even do shopping (The only difference would be that companies like Amazon, flipkart and Dominos would be driven by robots).
The Caves of Steel is the first novel of the Robot series, a set of detective space fiction novels Asimov wrote in the 50s and the 80s. It is here he introduces R Daneel Olivaw, a humanoid robot, who would play a central role in many of Asimov’s later works. One of the thought provoking aspect of Asimov’s writings is its connection with the everyday world. The author is well versed in history and copies liberally from historic situations in many of his novels putting new meaning to the phrase “history repeats itself”.
Adding to the agoraphobia, xenophobia is also driven into the novel. The people on Earth do not get along with the people in space. While the former are many in number, they have to live in a meagre manner because of limited resources. The latter, on the other hand, can afford to be lavish with the resources at their disposal. But driven by their agoraphobia, developed after living for generations in a secluded environment, they are incapable of moving to a different environment. This has also an interesting take in today’s society. While migration has been common among humanity from the invention of the wheel, there is a noted resistance for migration in subsequent generations. So today you are more likely to see migrants coming from people who for generations have not migrated, than from second generation of migrants. The underlying theme of the book is to make a way to reengineer the pioneering spirit among humanity to forge ahead in evolution.