the Little Red Reviewer

The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov

Posted on: January 15, 2019

The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov

published in 1952

where I got it: purchased used

 

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I was nineteen or twenty years old the first time I met R. Daneel Olivaw. I didn’t know what to make of him.  Was he a good guy? Did he care about humans? What kind of person was he? I was maybe 24 or 25 when I made it to the end of Daneel’s life.  I like that Daneel has been a part of my life all these years. I think my early 20s was the perfect age for me to get to know him.

 

Prior to writing The Caves of Steel in 1952, Asimov had already written a handful of robot short stories that had been published as I Robot in 1950 (Asimov reportedly protested the title of the collection, as another author had already used that title, but his publisher didn’t care. But that’s a whole ‘nother story).    When unsure of how to stretch a robot story out to novel length, Asimov’s editor suggested he write a mystery novel, and make one the detectives a robot. That one conversation started everything.

 

The Caves of Steel takes place roughly three thousand years in the future, and humanity is a star faring race.  We’ve colonized planets, tried to terraform planets, lost some colonies and built others. While the humans of space are living in the future,  humans on Earth seem to be stuck in the past. People on earth mostly live in gigantic domed cities (sort of arcology-esque?), and rarely if ever leave the domes to stand under natural sunshine.  Many Terrans resent the Spacers, for a variety of reasons that Asimov touches on. “Clinging to the past” seems to be a character trait for many characters in this book.

 

Detective Lije Bailey has just been assigned the strangest case:  He’s to investigate the murder of a visiting Spacer. Stranger yet,  the Spacers demand that Bailey partner up with one of their own. His new partner is R. Daneel Olivaw.  The “R” stands for Robot. If Bailey is going to solve this case, the first thing he’s going to have to do is get over the revulsion he feels for Daneel.  And the first thing Daneel is going to have to do is get really good at passing for a human.

The plot of The Caves of Steel might be pretty (ok very) basic, but the ideas brought forth – robots, the three laws of robotics, disconnect between the forward looking spacers and the nostalgic Terrans, that you can’t stop the march of progress – this is where all the interesting bits are.   As far as mysteries go, this is one of the simplest books you’ll ever come across. Bailey comes off as a country bumpkin, Daneel is overly smart when needed, there is no blood or violence, there is never a sense that any characters are ever in any kind of actual danger.  All The Caves of Steel needs is a knitting pattern for a positronic brain, and it would be a cozy mystery.   This is seriously the most PG rated scifi book ever.

 

But the ideas  brought forth! Asimov not only touches on the birth of a genre of science fiction novels where for once the robots are not the bad guys, but he also touches on the disconnect between the forward looking Spacers and the more nostalgic culture of Earth (everytime a character mentioned nostalgia, all I could think of was the memberberries from South Park. Is that terrible?), and that you can’t stop the march of progress.

I take Star Trek’s Data for granted, I take artificial intelligence for granted, i take the movie Robot and Frank (only watch this if you want to cry A LOT) for granted. Everything robots and AI, I take it for granted.  But all of this had to come from somewhere. Asimov is the father of the positronic brain, of the three laws of robotics.  Thanks to Asimov, readers who grew up to be engineers and scientists could view robots as a help to humanity, not our undoing.

 

But back to The Caves of Steel for a few minutes.  Everyone’s favorite thing to hate on in this novel is Lije’s relationship with his wife Jessie.  I half remembered some cringy dialog, and that Jessie becomes less and less a character as the mystery portion ramps up, but how bad could it be, right?   The first time we see Jessie and Lije interact, they seem to have a fairly normal 1950s family conversation. Old fashioned, but not awful. But as the book progresses, WOW does the dialog go down hill, and Jessie’s character just become more and more one dimensional, to the point where it borders on inadvertent satire.  Super cringy. Yeah, so just something you should be aware of. Writing female characters, and characterization in general, was not one of Asimov’s strong points. What was really funny to me after a while, is how robotic Lije and Jessie start to act. This certainly isn’t one of those stories where the robot character is learning how and why to be more human, a la Star Trek’s Data, but Daneel does from time to time have to pretend to be human to the best of his abilities.

 

Ok, so why should you give The Caves of Steel a chance?   Lots of reasons. Starting with R. Daneel Olivaw.  Daneel starts out as a boring stiff character, and eventually becomes the most human and compassionate character in the entire series.  In these early robot novels, Asimov implicitly and explicitly asks important questions, questions and answers that would shape science fiction for the next 60 years.  Really, read this just for Daneel.

If you’re looking for a satisfying mystery, The Caves of Steel probably will not satisfy you. If you’re looking to find out where helper robots started, where the uncanny valley started, why robot stories suddenly went from cautionary  to hopeful, start with the short story collection I Robot and/or The Caves of Steel.

 

This was the first time I viewed Lije Bailey as a narrow minded bumpkin. Hmm.. i guess i used to read this book from the viewpoint of someone who lives on Earth, now I read it from the viewpoint of someone who has read hundreds of scifi novels that take place away from Earth. Guess I’m more of  a spacer now?

 

If Asimov had never written any robot short stories, if he had never written Caves of Steel, if he had never put the three laws of robotics down on paper, how would that have changed our views and imagery of androids in science fiction? What would Data and Lor be like?  Would Philip K Dick have never written about replicants? What about the movie Ex Machina? What about Actroid?

 

What would humanity’s journey towards robots and humanoid robots look like right now and in our futuristic fiction, if not for Asimov?  Of course, he was not the only author writing robot stories, but he easily became one of the most influential.

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4 Responses to "The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov"

I read ‘The Caves of Steel’ and all its sequels (‘The Naked Sun’, etc) many years ago, still own the Panther editions, and remain hugely impressed and influenced by them for all the reasons you mention. I am not sure that the lack of ‘danger’ or ‘plot’ by modern standards is a weakness relative to some of the themes, which to me still echo today. In direct social terms, Asimov’s writing was inevitably going to be of its time; and yet in a wider intellectual sense, Asimov’s fiction writing so often presented as characters swapping logic points while sitting around a table (in effect) and yet carried a sense of dramatic pace and yet underlying gentleness about it which captured many of the fundamentals of the human condition, and from which society could do well to learn. I think he knew very well what humans are about in the broadest sense; the fact that he eventually portrayed the immediate inter-personal social aggression of Auroran people as tamed and shaped by the robots they had built (because the robots physically prevented violence) was idealistic but – well, also optimistic in terms of the potential of technology. It is an endless lament that, so far, technology seems to have done the opposite on so many levels. Although, I suppose, not too surprising; all that we make and do is a reflection of humanity as a species. Asimov’s Laws of Robotics, if nothing else, offered a better way. Sigh…

Liked by 1 person

Very well said, Matthew, and I agree with your perspective on this.

I read this book in pieces, as it was published in Astounding and then when the first paperback came out, having already read the other Robot stories. I’m afraid at that time I didn’t have the cultural perspective you bring to it, as that was in 1952 or 1953, so I was in the same place as Asimov in that regard, and I don’t find that (considering some current attitudes) as a bad thing.

I think science fiction readers who want to get a feel for early hard SF should read Asimov, and this isn’t a bad place to start.

Liked by 1 person

Hi Matthew, thank you for your excellent comments! I hope to find time to reread The Naked Sun and the Robots of Dawn in the upcoming months, we’ll see. From years ago, I remember liking those two books more than The Caves of Steel, I’ll be interested to see how they hold up. I was most struck by your closing comment of “all that we make and do is a reflection of humanity as a species. “. Perhaps optimistic authors write of robots who help us be better people, and pessimistic authors write of the dangers.

Hi Richard! I hope you’re doing well? I’m jealous that you got to read this when it came out. you must be laughing your head off at some of my comments on the book. I’m reading it so far away from it’s time, my context is completely different.

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some of the books reviewed here were free ARCs supplied by publishers/authors/other groups. Some of the books here I got from the library. the rest I *gasp!* actually paid for. I'll do my best to let you know what's what.
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