Sci-Fi Month: The Caves of Steel

The Caves of Steel
The Caves of Steel (Photo credit: Wikipedia). This is an image of the first edition. I read the 1986 Del Rey paperback edition.

Today, I’ll be reviewing the classic science fiction novel The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov. Published in 1953, Asimov wrote the book as an attempt to create a true SF/mystery hybrid novel, after his long-time editor John W. Campbell Jr. said it was impossible:

“Campbell had often said that a science fiction mystery story was a contradiction in terms; that advances in technology could be used to get detectives out of their difficulties unfairly, and that the readers would therefore be cheated. I sat down to write a story that would be a classic mystery and would not cheat the reader – and yet would be a true science fiction story. The result was The Caves of Steel.”

– (“The Story Behind the Robot Novels”, Asimov, 1983)

I first read Caves of Steel shortly after I began to get interested in science fiction. After reading The Naked Sun (the sequel), I decided to read the first book in the series. This was around 2004, so an almost ten year gap separates my two readings of this book. It was this familiarity with the book that led me to decide to review it for Sci-Fi Month, as it was a science fiction novel I read early in my science fiction reading history from one of my favorite authors at the time.

In this review, I won’t be touching on The Naked Sun, The Robots of Dawn, or any of the Foundation books that Asimov wrote later that tied in with this timeline; a) because I haven’t read the entire series, and b) because I want to concentrate solely on one book. I also won’t touch on every aspect of the novel, as this is a general review and I’ll be elaborating details when I compare the book to Madeline Ashby’s vN.

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So what’s The Caves of Steel all about?

The year is approximately 3500 CE. Earth’s population sits at a staggering (by 1950s estimates) eight billion people. In the interests of efficiency, humanity has burrowed itself into vast, underground, interconnected Cities which supply the livelihoods of the Earth’s inhabitants. There is a small sprinkling of smoothly-functioning robots working in agriculture and manual labour, but generally robots are looked upon with suspicion, with a fervor bordering at times on completely irrational. An underground faction of Earth people known as “Medievalists” are eager to be rid of robots and Cities altogether and return to what they believe to be a simpler time before the Cities. Uneasy at even the sight of the sun and wide open spaces, Earth has retreated in on itself.

This isn’t to say that humanity hasn’t ventured to the stars. They did, hundreds of years before, and colonized about fifty Outer Worlds. The colonists rebelled against Earth, and won their independence due to superior military capabilities developed off-Earth. The descendants of the colonists – the “Spacers” – have settled into a static, highly controlled, genetically-engineered advanced lifestyle, living on sparsely populated worlds attended by their vast numbers of robots more highly sophisticated than any on Earth.

The Spacers have a small presence on Earth, mostly limited to a controlled dome outside of New York City. There, a number of Spacers live, work, and interact with the governments of Earth. They never venture into the Cities, for the pragmatic reason that centuries of genetic engineering and increased lifespan have dwindled the Spacers’ immune systems down to the point where a simple cold could kill them.

And so, Earth and the Spacers maintain an uneasy relationship. The Spacers keep their distance from the teeming masses of Earth, and the Earth people of the Cities keep away from the Spacers due to both unease in travelling outside, the standoffish attitude of the Spacers, and the fear that superior Spacer robotic technology will eventually supplant humans in their lives. This tense relationship is thrown out of balance early one morning when a prominent Spacer roboticist, Dr. Roj Sarton, is found murdered with a blaster wound to the chest.

This is the state of affairs at the start of The Caves of Steel, which begins by introducing us to the protagonist, Detective Elijah Baley. Baley is annoyed, like most humans, at the intrusion of robots into positions beyond their limited Earth use as agricultural laborers. He’s especially annoyed at his Commissioner’s robotic office assistant, who has just replaced a young human officer in the position.

Baley’s robotic animosity is broken by a request to visit his bureaucratic Commissioner Julius Enderby, who informs him of the murder. The Spacers are obviously quite disturbed that one of their own has been murdered, possibly at the hands of a Medievalist City dweller. The Spacers have tasked the Earth police with finding the culprit. Enderby lays it out to Baley: Baley must solve the case with the help of a Spacer partner provided by Spacetown, a task that Baley is less than eager to accomplish when he discovers his partner is a robot named R. Daneel Olivaw.

Daneel is a humanoid robot – so humanoid and life-like, in fact, that he initially fools Baley. Created in the image of his maker (the murdered Dr. Sarton) and bound by Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics, Daneel has been tasked with helping Baley solve the case as well as acting as a secret ambassador and recorder of City life for the Spacers. And so, the pair must work together, all the while preventing Daneel’s robotic nature from becoming knowledge among a City population eager to be rid of robots…

That’s all I’ll reveal of the plot for now. There will be more to come, when I compare the book to Madeline Ashby’s vN.

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Now, onto the review.

When I selected this book to re-read for Sci-Fi Month, I only vaguely remembered the general plotline and the tone of the book, aside from Asimov’s spare, characterization-light prose. I assumed that I would enjoy it once again.

Well, almost ten years and all of the books I’ve read in the meantime certainly have changed my outlook on this novel. Since I first read this book, I’ve expanded my science fiction reading in both online and print forms. It broadens one’s horizons considerably to read science fiction in which a Soviet presence in the 21st century is impossible and 2001 wasn’t a magical future year but firmly in the past. And one thing that I’ve gained from this reading is a greater appreciation for character development.

Sadly, The Caves of Steel doesn’t provide this. The book is long on speculations on the future of humanity given the situation of the novel, with many pages given to the possibility that the City dwellers would eventually leave Earth and colonize the stars anew. There are many pages given to the inner workings of the mystery; interviews with suspects and experts and Baley’s attempts at finding the culprit. But very little time was given to character development.

The characters in the book are dull, flat, and stereotypical, and I had a hard time engaging with them. Midway through, I got the disturbing impression that I was watching an old episode of Paddington Bear – flat, cardboard characters moving around for the purposes of the plot.

Baley, the protagonist, is in the book to solve the mystery. He’s not a particularly engaging character, and the only hint of any depth to him comes from a brief glimpse of his childhood – told, not shown – in which his father lost his job and Baley’s family grew up in poverty. Avoiding failing at the case and ending up in the same situation seems to be Bailey’s only motivation for solving the mystery, but this isn’t enough to carry his character.

Jessie, Baley’s wife, is a stereotype of a 1950s housewife who cooks, cleans, and looks after their son. She’s a one-note character who spends most of her time in the book either frightened or in tears about her husband being in a dangerous line of work, or of associating with a robot partner. Baley coldly dismisses her fears as frivolous, which does nothing to endure him to the reader.

Baley’s son in this book is a non-entity; we learn almost nothing of his character save that he is sixteen years old and that his dialog bears an eerie resemblance to the “Gee-whiz, Mister” annoying kid from The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951). In the end, Baley’s son only appears to be in the book as a symbol of potential future humanity, only good for colonizing other worlds.

You might be tempted to conclude that this inadequate character development was a way to showcase how robots could act more human-like than humans themselves – similar to how, given the flat performances of the human cast, the most emotional character in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey is HAL 9000. This, unfortunately, does not appear to be the case with Daneel.

Daneel is bound by the Three Laws, which while preventing him from harming people and ensuring he obeys humans, also seems to prevent him from having any hint of character. He’s a machine, Baley himself notes in a speech explaining the superiority of humans over robots later in the book:

“A robot’s brain must be finite or it can’t be built. It must be calculated to the final decimal place so that it has an end… a robot can look like Daneel, he can look like a god, and be no more human than a lump of wood is.”

In short, Daneel is as robotic as they come. Despite over 250 pages of novel, I didn’t come to believe that Daneel was ever any more than the sum of his parts. He doesn’t pass the Turing Test; come to think of it, I’m not sure any of the human characters do either.

The remaining supporting characters – Enderby, a visiting roboticist, a Spacer doctor, and a Medievalist – don’t appear to have any substance to them beyond playing their roles in the mystery. A mystery, which by the end of the book, I really didn’t care if it was solved or not.

And that’s what I took away from this book. You can have the most intricately-plotted mystery brimming with science fiction ideas, but if there’s nothing to the characters involved, the reader won’t really care how it’s resolved.

What I like now in my science fiction reading is a far cry from what I used to be satisfied with almost ten years ago. I’m pretty sure it’s all for the best.

Sorry, Isaac.

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4 thoughts on “Sci-Fi Month: The Caves of Steel

  1. Look, I understand your critiques — but, don’t you put these things in perspective considering when it was written? Yes, she is a stereotype of the 50s wife BUT, so much of fiction adhered to such stereotypes in that day in age. Perhaps enjoyment can be derived from it as a historical artifact… And important work in the history of SF — and especially related to robots.

  2. I find the idea of underground cities really scary, eep!

    It’s funny how, despite being set way into the future, typical male/female roles are no different than they were when the book was written. Crazy how people can think up all these things about space travel and robots, but not something simple like more opportunities, regardless of sex. I guess those were just the times though, as Joachim says above.

    Great review, but it’s a shame that this book didn’t live up to expectations on a re-read!

    1. Some authors do transcend the standard portrayals, of course, and they should be applauded (D.G. Compton’s deployment of female main characters in the 60s and 70s for example of Jack London’s female narrator in The Iron Heel in 1908)… But, that certainly does not mean we should discount all the others.

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