Mark's Reviews > The Caves of Steel

The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov
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Mar 13, 12

Read in March, 2012

It's been a while since I read this one: despite its age, definitely worth a reread.

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 conflict 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 (Jesse) 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.

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 (unless you are emergency services) 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. The relationship between Lije and Daneel is still charming. 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.

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.

In the wider scheme of things, of course, 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.
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