Caves of Steel, The by Isaac Asimov

(2012-03-20)

The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov

First published 1954, after fixup from Galaxy Magazine, 1953

Review by Mark Yon

The Caves of Steel is an SF tale in the form of a detective mystery.

Elijah (Lije) Baley is a detective who lives in a future city of New York who is given a controversial murder to resolve. The death of a Spacer is seen as a major incident and something that must be solved in order to avoid potential fighting between the Spacers and the people of Earth who current hold an uneasy, if rather segregated, peace.  

Most controversially, Lije is given a partner from the spacers to investigate with: a robot, Daneel Olivaw. Robots on Earth are generally seen as an under-race, taking people’s jobs and generally regarded with suspicion or with distaste. Spacers have them integrated into daily life. Daneel is a notch above the robots usually seen on Earth: humanoid and to all intents human-like.

So this is a considerable difficulty for Lije, and one which takes some adjusting to, by Lije, his wife Jezebel and his son Bentley, all of whom have to adjust to living with a robot.

As the investigation continues, Lije goes from mistrust to respectful admiration of Daneel, and a greater understanding of the universe from a Spacer’s perspective.

A book that tackles issues of race, bigotry and hatred, written before the US race riots of the 1960’s? This still has a narrative drive and the power to shock. Whilst it is a mystery story, what makes it work is the matter of fact placing into a future regulated society where atomic war has led people to live in vast regimented ‘caves of steel’, where food is regulated (and mainly yeast-based), travel is not by car but by walkway, living space is a premium and jobs are increasingly scarce and under threat of being given to a robot at any time.

There are parts that have dated, though the core of the tale still works. There’s the odd info dump and clunky ‘discussion’ – Asimov spends a page or two explaining where the names Elijah and Jezebel come from, and can’t resist giving a history lecture, for example – but on the whole its prose is tight and there is little space given for reflective bloat. The tale is done in less than 200 pages. 

What was amusing in my teens - Lije's use of 'Jehoshaphat!' as a swear-word - is a little annoying now and the need to end some chapters on a grand reveal ("Your honour, it was the butler that did it!") belies its pulp origins. The singular view of the Bible as the most important religious book in the world may also jar in today’s more secular global network, though perhaps understandable from a 1950’s viewpoint. So too the use and acceptance of tobacco in social circumstances.

But in the end, nearly sixty years on, it's still a grand read. Asimov's description of a world under population stress is still interesting and reminded me of Orwell's 1984 in its depiction of dreary existence.

Most importantly, the ‘whodunit’ in a whodunit mystery is still quite a surprise, though as we would hope, quite logical once explained.

In the wider scheme of things, of course, as well as being the start of Asimov’s own Grand Scheme to link the Robot series with the Foundation series, this is Asimov’s version of a Heinleinesque Future History: see The Roads Must Roll, for example. Though not as skilful as Heinlein’s version, nor as opinionated, it is a great read. Still.

Mark Yon, March 2012.

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