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Sunday, July 31, 2016

Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov

Isaac Asimov dabbled in mystery and SF, occasionally combining them. Apparently, the first of these, Caves of Steel, is being written as a movie. The BBC made it into a TV movie by in 1964--of which only excerpts exist.

Akiva Goldsman, Oscar winner and screenwriter of I, Robot and Fringe, is slated as the third screenwriter to give it a go for Fox. How many before Fox? It may be difficult to put on the big screen. Another attempt of turning the novel into a "movie"--or, rather, a VCR game:

[Side note: The I-Robot credit will turn off many, but it actually does utilize a number of Asimovian plot turns and verbiage. I, Robot was also a short story, so to fashion a movie out of it is impressive. No, it isn't what Asimov would have written but it keeps and comments on Asimov's ideas--not to mention maintaining Asimov's works in the public eye.  I have only read Ellison's script opening to I, Robot and, though I enjoy the work of both writers, the opening didn't grab me. SF Encyclopedia [John Clute] writes:
"the screenplay itself makes clear how difficult it would have been to translate Asimov's archaic concepts... onto the contemporary screen."
I will try again, later. 
While Goldsman's Batman films and a few others were regrettable, he did a fine job on A Beautiful Mind on other adaptations like I, Legend. Fringe was a romp. Yes, he differs from the original books, but that's okay. They weren't mockeries, but rather interesting deviations. One can always examine the original. One could complain of a Hollywood treatment, but isn't that the point? To sell movie tickets? How many more books were sold because of the movie?]

Earth Detective Elijah Baley is told he must work with a humanoid robot, R. Daneel Olivaw (the "R." stands for Robot) to solve a murder of a Spacer. On Earth, by law, robots don't look like people, but Olivaw does not appear robot-like. This gives Olivaw an advantage (Olivaw threatens violence to Earth citizens) until a rumor circulates that Olivaw is a robot. Baley's own wife hears the rumor which worries her about Baley's safety.

The Medievalists is a society of Earthlings who hearken back to a less technological day of wearing glasses or using windows. They seem benign enough: Baley's boss and his wife are members. But when they make signs to one another at a dining hall where Baley and Olivaw eat and pursue after Baley and Olivaw in a chase scene across slidewalks, they seem a lot less benign.

Though Baley tries to prove his partner, Olivaw, is the true murderer, Baley gets no closer to finding out who did it. In fact, evidence seems to point to Baley himself. The Spacers and Olivaw get what they came for--proof that Earth would have citizens willing to go into space--so that Baley appears to be left to pay for a crime he didn't commit.

However, Baley thinks up a loophole that gives him an hour and a half to solve the crime.

Themes and importance:
Asimov extrapolates a few key speculative ideas:

  1. Overpopulation leads to city overgrowth, to the extent that people fear going outside. Agoraphobia. The works well with the mystery, limiting what characters would and would not do.
  2. Technophobia on Earth leads to Earth's phobia of robots, especially robots that look like humans. 
  3. Technophiles are the few who escape Earth and building colonies. These, the Spacers, are the elite. They do not have disease and comparatively long-lived.
  4. Space colonization is so lovely that Spacers are willing to overlook murder if it can achieve a greater aim.
  5. Being long-lived leads to complacency, which ironically a spacer cannot be. Therefore, the Spacers have to recruit from Earth.

The Caves of Steel has its admirers. James Gunn used it to teach SF--one of the major novels shaping SF. It is one of the first major SF novels to treat robots, overpopulation, and mystery in SF. The theme of the importance of space colonization was common if not ubiquitous.

This last, for me, was the Achilles heel--not because I'm against colonization but because it was above questioning. Spacers (only here, not later) are too benevolent and wonderful. They provide an instant contrast that glorifies colonization and berates those rubes who remain on Earth.

Asimov corrects this in The Naked Sun, creating Spacers with their own foibles, which is the better novel for this and for a mystery that plays a little more fairly. The contrast between societal flaws is fascinating. I'd love this one to become a movie, but it does hinge somewhat The Caves of Steel. So maybe it has to be written first.

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