This series deals with a new type of robots who do not have the Three Laws of Robotics. The Three Laws are integral to the functioning of a positronic brain, but these robots have gravitonic brains, into which it is possible to build any set of laws. For example, some gravitonic robots have already been built with the New Laws of Robotics which are designed to make them partners rather than slaves to humanity.
Caliban, the robot of the title, is an experimental gravitonic robot who was created with no laws at all. The intent was to keep him under carefully controlled laboratory conditions and see what laws he evolved for himself, but he escaped from the laboratory, and soon found himself pursued by the police (who believed that he had attempted to murder his creator) and attacked by a group of criminals who liked ordering robots to destroy themselves.
The novel begins with Sheriff Alvar Kresh supervising a crime scene involving what appears to be an attempted murder of a prominent Inferno roboticist, Dr. Fredda Leving. Kresh's robot sidekick, Donald, accompanies him wherever he goes, and is reluctant to follow the implications raised when Kresh sees two sets of robotic footprints leading out of the lab, for this implies that a robot committed the crime of assault on a human being.
Settlers were asked to come because Inferno's ecology is unstable and requires expert technical work to try and reterraform the planet to shift the planet away from potentially disastrous extremes. Tonya Welton, the leader of the Settler faction, inserts herself into the investigation's hierarchy and claims that Governor Chanto Grieg wanted her involved because Leving Labs was closely associated with the Settler effort to set up a centralized terraforming depot on the island of Purgatory.
It is later revealed during a lecture by Dr. Leving, that this is so the New Law robots she proposes can be safeguarded and kept from mingling with the human population as a whole, since they are designed to aid in terraforming work, and therefore represent a great investment of time and materials in order to construct.
Simcor Beddle's Ironhead movement stages a hit-and-run attack on a plantation near Settlertown, and they crop up once or twice more as the story progresses. The Ironheads nearly successfully start a riot when Beddle castigates Dr. Leving after one of her lectures on the nature of robots and how they affect human beings. It is her thesis that the superabundance of robotic labor has caused humans to become indolent and nearly incompetent at accomplishing even trivial tasks. She also claims that robots themselves do not qualify as a very good successor to humanity given that their sole purpose is to serve humans.
It is revealed that some members of Leving Labs have both personal and professional secrets to hide: Gubber Anshaw is romantically involved with Tonya Welton, while Jomaine Terach is aware of the creation of Caliban and the fact that he lacked the Three Laws of Robotics. Sheriff Kresh is aided in this respect when Caliban encounters a robot at a shipping depot and recounts his entire life history (about five days' worth). While the robot nearly seizes in brainlock and ends up precipitating a minor catastrophe by hyperwaving for help, the story the robot tells confirms what Kresh later uses to get the truth out of Terach.
Caliban escapes the City of Hades (the capital of Inferno), but is located by both Dr. Leving and Sheriff Kresh. Kresh uses the occasion to finger the true culprit in the assault on Leving, who turns out to have been Ariel, Tonya Welton's personal robot. She had switched serial numbers with another robot after a test had been run on her brain and comparing it to a normal Three-Law robotic brain. She, like Caliban, had been programmed without the Laws of Robotics, but had been purely a stationary unit. In switching the serial numbers, Ariel was able to have a set of robotic legs placed on her, allowing her to masquerade as a "normal" robot.
Kresh rightly believes that Ariel presents far too great of a danger to human beings, and shoots her. However, he is convinced that Caliban does not present the same danger based on clues about his behavior, and allows him to remain functional. Caliban then goes with Dr. Leving to the island of Purgatory.
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