I heard about Little Red Reviewer’s Vintage Science Fiction Month thanks to my friend Lydia Schoch, whose own post about Philip K. Dick’s novelette Second Variety you can read here. It so happened I had recently read The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov, and so this seemed a perfect chance to give my thoughts on it.
The Caves of Steel is an interesting blend of genres: it combines many of the tropes of hardboiled detective fiction with sci-fi elements. It’s set in the distant future, when humanity has colonized other planets and turned the Earth into a kind of sprawling city.
The humans who have colonized the outer worlds view the people of Earth with trepidation. These “Spacers,” who are regarded as nearly super-human, with exceptional physical conditioning, nevertheless fear Earth-borne diseases and so have isolated themselves in a place called, appropriately enough, Spacetown.
Earthlings, for their part, view the Spacers with distrust bordering on hatred, seeing them as arrogant elitists who look down their noses on the good citizens of Earth. And then there’s the Spacer’s routine use of robots, which are already despised on Earth because they threaten to take jobs away from human beings.
Indeed, the first character we meet is R. Sammy–the “R” is for robot, and he has taken the job of a man who worked at the police station, much to the annoyance of our protagonist, Elijah Baley. Baley is a classic detective character–a good, honest, somewhat curmudgeonly-but-basically-good-hearted man.
Baley is assigned to investigate the murder of a prominent Spacer, Dr. Sarton. With tensions already rising between the people of Earth and the Spacers, the murder could prove politically devastating if it is found to have been committed by an Earth-person. However, the Spacers have agreed to allow an Earth policeman to investigate the case–as long as he is partnered with one of their own personnel, by the name of R. Daneel Olivaw.
Yes, you guessed it–the “R” again stands for robot. Baley is required to work with an extremely human-like robot, and their early investigations are a classic buddy cop story, with the two first clashing, then gradually learning each other’s styles.
Baley and Olivaw uncover the activities of a group known as the Medievalists–a luddite-like outfit whose members despise robots and other aspects of modern life, seeking to cultivate and preserve habits of the distant past. Some more radical elements of the group seem capable of carrying out the crime that occurred at Spacetown. Then again, as Baley repeatedly argues, perhaps the Spacers are trying to frame the people of Earth to further their own agenda.
It all builds up to a conclusion that, I have to admit, I didn’t see coming. And that’s always the key element in a successful mystery.
There are a lot of elements to the story that seem highly-relevant today: political and terrorist movements motivated by nostalgia, automatons replacing human laborers, prejudice against foreigners, colonialism… the list goes on. Asimov was a keen observer of human nature, and that’s why his books still feel so fresh today.
That said, not everything about the book rang true. The idea of underground cities where millions live packed together, never venturing out into the sunshine and open countryside, feels like a hellish dystopia to me, even if Asimov himself loved the idea.
Also, there’s a subplot with Baley’s wife, whose name is Jezebel, a fact which is of more significance to her than I would think is normal. It’s not a bad sub-plot, it’s just… odd. The depiction of female characters here was not great–women are mostly portrayed as irrational gossips, to the extent they are portrayed at all.
Still, it was an enjoyable mystery with a lot of fascinating social commentaries woven into the world Asimov built. Baley’s dry, sometimes cynical musings are the most enjoyable thing, followed closely by his interactions with Olivaw.
I originally read this book because Ben Trube mentioned that its combination of the science-fiction and detective genres influenced his own novel Surreality, which I love. There is a certain comfort in being guided through an unfamiliar futuristic world by a recognizable stock character like the Grizzled Veteran Detective. It makes an excellent foundation for a story.