Tuesday, 21 January 2014

The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov

I thought I'd read this before. I really thought I had. But maybe I just saw it on my Mom's headboard when I was little, with other Asimovs, and thought I'd read it. Because it rang not a bell at all.

Except that I knew within the first 30 pages who the murderer was. So either I had read it and blocked out everything but that, or Asimov didn't construct his mystery particularly well in this case. I think it's the latter. It's a matter of a few extraneous details at a moment that felt far too obviously one chosen to weave in things that would be important later.

It's too bad, because I enjoy Asimov's actual mystery series quite a lot. But, as I've said in the past, the real key is, is there enough here, even when the mystery is gone? It's a big yes for me.

Lije Baley, cop, is paired with R(obot). Daneel Olivaw to solve a crime - a Spacer has been murdered in their separate Spacetown, and it appears to have been a job by an Earthman. Baley hates the idea of robots, and being partnered with one, but does his job - although he is often blinded by his hatred to some fairly obvious matters. It makes one wince. But his screw-ups are interesting and understandable.

But what made this book really work for me is the society Asimov has created, and his explorations of its strengths and weaknesses. This is not future capitalist society. Nor is it communism, but a curious mixture of both and something else - what he calls Cityism. In a highly interdependent society, everyone has access to the same base level of living (a very poor one), but can earn privileges based on the position one holds and its importance to the overall scheme.

It's centralization on a huge scale, and the places where it binds are obvious - indeed, the book revolves around a "Medievalist" revolt against the huge Citystate. (For "Medieval," read "20th Century".) They want to go back to the land, and hate and despise Spacers for starting to introduce crude robots to the culture.

But there are too many humans for that, really. Where could they go? Spacer worlds are underpopulated, but are stagnant (and regarded by the Medievalists as decadent.)

Where this gets particularly interesting is in the discussion over humans losing their jobs to robots, who can do basic tasks (Daneel, a Spacer robot, is far advanced beyond those available in general society.) It caught me short, when I noticed Asimov was using specific words to describe those robots that were taking people's jobs for less money (maintenance, basically), and the violent reaction against them.

It was "inscrutable" that did it. I started to pay attention, and most of the words used to describe these job-stealing robots were specifically ones that were commonly used to describe Chinese workers on the Pacific coast of the U.s. and Canada, when racism and violence frequently broke out, and the Chinese workers were targeted by angry white workers. It's very subtle, but it's not a mistake.

That parallel drawn, this opened up into an examination of how "foreigners" are regarded by the working-class, and the violence he was discussing was drawing on a long tradition of racism and nativism. Medievalism had worthwhile ideas, but there was this distinct tinge that was there to point out that these are not even necessarily new arguments, but they are sometimes ugly.

Where do you go from there? Asimov suggests into a hybrid culture, working with, not against, the "other." To create something entirely new, provide a genuinely new frontier to a world that had forgotten not only what a frontier was, but even what daybreak looked like.

On one level, Caves of Steel is not a great murder mystery. It's an interesting but not spectacular science fiction book. But once he started to get me thinking about race and class, I was hooked.

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