The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Overpopulation forces the masses of humanity to huddle together in vast enclosed cities while the outer worlds maintain a token presence on Earth in the enclave of Space Town. The city dwellers view the spacers with suspicion, and some go further, harbouring medievalist sympathies that yearn for a simpler life, free from dependence on technology.
The final straw is the presence of the robots. The Earth robots are simple, menial creatures but still capable of taking over human jobs. Spacer robots are a different story - they are superior in almost every way and virtually indistinguishable from humans. If the presence of such a robot in the city became public knowledge it could provoke riots that would quickly disrupt the delicate network of systems that keep the city alive.
Such a crisis is threatened when a spacer robotics expert is found murdered, with a city dweller being the only possible suspect. Police officer Lije Baley is put on the case and assigned a spacer partner - a robot called R. Daneel Olivaw. Baley must overcome his personal antipathy and find a way for them to work together to find the murderer and crack the case before it escalates into a diplomatic incident with interplanetary ramifications.
I first read 'The Caves of Steel' thirty years ago, and it still feels as fresh and relevant now as it did then, and indeed as when it was first published in 1954. The issues of how technology affects our lives, with traditional jobs being subsumed and replaced, are even more pressing nowadays. The anti-robot sentiment also has uncomfortable echoes of racism and the current prejudice against economic migrants who are willing to work harder for less pay.
This book raises many questions about how different societies may function - the hallmark of classic science fiction - as well as being a tightly constructed murder mystery that maintains the tension right down to the wire.
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