Friday, November 17, 2017

Caves of Steel, Asimov, and the City

So...one of my favorite books of all time is Isaac Asimov's The Caves of Steel. For those not familiar with this classic - it's a fairly typical police procedural. A detective is assigned to a tricky case with an out-of-town partner that he initially doesn't get along with - pretty much a mystery trope.

Of course, this being a science fiction book, the out-of-town partner is a robot. R. Daneel Olivaw (who became a large part of the inspiration for a robot/android we are all familiar with - Data). It is set in a future New York City that has become a giant underground arcology overtaking most of New Jersey, in which people live a hive-like existence.

I won't say more because there may be people reading this who haven't read it. If so, get thee to a bookstore or a library. And send your mystery fans there too - The Caves of Steel is a great gateway drug to get mystery lovers into science fiction. It also has two equally fascinating sequels, The Naked Sun and The Robots of Dawn.

This summer I finally made it to New York City, a trip I'd been wanting to make for years but somehow never got around to. Isaac Asimov was a New Yorker, and I decided to reread The Caves of Steel and its sequels with the current, present day city in mind.

Those who know anything about Asimov's background know that he suffered from a crippling fear of flying and never traveled far from the city of his birth. His hero, Elijah Baley...suffers from a crippling fear of leaving the underground cities, which he has to overcome in the sequels in order to solve the crimes. He has an ambiguous relationship with the City, which is sometimes called a womb to reflect the fact that it is a comfortable, safe space...which one must eventually leave. Earth and it's Cities are shown as a dead end.

That ambiguity of love and the desire to escape struck me far more in this re-read, but what hit me the most was that this could well have represented Asimov's own relationship with New York. His love for his city tempered by the fact that his fears would never allow him to be free of it. And this weaves into a larger fear that extreme urbanization could become a dead end from which humanity cannot escape.

Whether you agree with Asimov or not (and be aware, some of the population figures in the book seem laughable to us now, as do the 50s-esque gender relations), my extended reaction to this book reminded me of something:

There is something of the author in every character we create. There has to be.

But there is a lot more of Isaac Asimov in Elijah Baley than I thought.