Best of Science Fiction #37: Isaac Asimov, “The Caves of Steel”

Year of Publication: 1954
Subgenres: robots, buddy cop, misogynist

The premise: In a world where robots took our jerbs!, a police officer has to partner with a robot to solve a high profile murder.

My experience:
I love science fiction for its ability to shake my mental snowglobe, to show me a new perspective on life and humanity and humanity’s relationship to its technology. I had one of those moments with Caves of Steel, though it was not at all a moment the author intended me to have. I realized that I’ve been fundamentally misunderstanding robot ontology.

You see I, having never experienced a world without computers, imagined Asimov’s robots to be basically a specialized type of computer with the 3 laws encoded in the firmware. But yesterday I had the startling epiphany that no actually, that’s not correct, and I should view them more as a special kind of appliance, not governed by software but by circuitry.* See, there was a conversation in the book where they seemed to treat the laws of robotics like laws of nature: that it simply _wasn’t physically possible_ to build a positronic brain without the 3 laws, that it wouldn’t gel right or something. I’m still not sure I read this correctly, because those would be some awfully convenient natural laws, you know? But I like this robot ontology better, so I’m going with it.

To be fair, there was also a good bit of intentional philosophizing about man’s relationship to technology and change, including the too-rarely-discussed idea of what my friend Dave calls “terroir”: in short, this generation is going to approach its problems differently, and the solutions are going to look potentially VERY different, because it is starting from a different place than the last group who attempted to solve these problems.

I enjoyed the police-procedural plot more than I expected to; it was a fun puzzle with a satisfying solution. At its heart, that’s all this story was meant to be.

But.

The portrayal and treatment of the cop’s wife made me want to throw the book out the window. It fulfilled all the worst 1950s stereotypes. Every time we see her she’s either hysterical or being treated like a child, all her feelings dismissed as silly and actions as inconsequential. An important plot point is, seriously, our protagonist mansplaining to her a passage from the Hebrew Bible.** (At least it was an important plot point this time, and not just the author wanting to impress his audience with his clearly superior theology.)

You would like this book if: You really enjoyed the TNG episodes where Data played Sherlock Holmes

 

* Maybe this is a stronger distinction in my mind now that I write software for a living?

** His exegesis is, as you might guess, rather heterodox. I might even call it anti-Semitic. But later on the same dudes quotes, from memory, the pericope adulterae (a passage that even conservative scholars recognize as a later insertion) in an attempt to teach the robot about mercy?? Can we stop with putting weird Bible things into stories about robots please, it is stressing me out.

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