Book Review: The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov
I’ve been busy the last few weeks– which is good! But I also haven’t had as much time as I’d like to read, which is bad. But hey, I rarely get as much time as I’d like to read, so that’s the usual. But I’m like mid-way through a couple of books right now, so stay tuned, and I may have a barrage of various reviews before long. Woo!
And for now, Asimov!
So yeah. The Caves of Steel is the second of Asimov’s robot series (the first being, I, Robot, of course). But … the thing is, while the book features robots, it’s not really about robots. Instead, The Caves of Steel is a straight-up detective story … only one of the detectives is a robot.
The first thing that struck me about The Caves of Steel is how it’s basically a buddy cop story. Which, given this book came out in 1954, makes me wonder how old the whole buddy cop trope is. (Wikipedia tells me one of the precursors was Kurosawa’s film Stray Dog, but I wouldn’t be surprised it goes older than that).
Anyway, The Caves of Steel follows Elijah “Lije” Baley, a plainclothes future-cop, who gets paired up with R. Daneel Olivaw– the R is for robot, natch. Together, they fight crime! … kind of. Lije and Olivaw get paired up to investigate the murder of Olivaw’s creator … and, uh. It’s not as interesting as it sounds, unfortunately.
Asimov was ridiculously prolific– so just by law of averages, it makes sense that not every book is gonna be a winner. And, uh, Caves of Steel has some problems. For one, it doesn’t quite work as a detective story, as Lije and Olivaw don’t do much … detecting. Or, well, technically they do, but instead of doing the standard stuff like interviewing suspects and poking around crime scenes. Instead, the two of them spend a lot of their time spinning their proverbial wheels, debating and deducting through logic. Which, admittedly, is kind of Asimov’s ‘thing.’ But works like I, Robot or even the Foundation novels are chopped up into neat little chunks. As one continuous story, The Caves of Steel kind of drags.
It doesn’t help that The Caves of Steel has kind of a ramshackle setting. See, the title refers to the Cities that all of Earth’s humanity lives in. In a desire for ‘efficiency,’ the Earth’s population has been relocated to enormous sealed-in megalopolises. They’re frankly horribly dystopian, to the point where having a washbasin in your apartment is something of a luxury, and so much as looking out a window is enough to get you labeled as a “medievalist.” There’s a lot of potential in such a claustrophobic setting, but Asimov never really runs with it. People within the book just take things “as is.” While there’s a little bit of unrest about the situation, it never goes anywhere. I guess it could be seen as anti-communist, maybe? Of course, the biggest thing that struck me was that humanity had retreated into homogenized Cities because they’d reached the unsustainable number of … eight billion. Considering there’s something around 7.5 billion people alive today, I guess we should start getting used to eating vat grown yeast-cake.
Though there’s a throwaway mention of video-piping systems as a replacement for individual libraries, which I guess could be seen as a prediction of the dozens of streaming TV services we have today?
It is expected, of course, for old-timey Science Fiction novels to have gaps in their predictions. That’s just the nature of the genre. What’s a little more annoying, however, is Lije himself. He’s pretty much your standard Asimov protagonist: a chain-smoking curmudgeon. The thing is, while he’s logical, Lije simply isn’t as brilliant as other Asimov protagonists. For example, Lije spends a good chapter and a half of accusing Olivaw not to be an actual robot, to the point he calls in a robotics expert from Washington … only for Olivaw to open up his access panels to reveal his inner robo-bits to prove he’s not a human pretending to be robotic for whatever reason. Oh, and to boot, Lije’s got a broad streak of 50’s style sexism, to the point where he mansplains the meaning of his wife’s name to his wife. Which she gets really mad at him about, to be fair, but still. Guy’s kind of a dick.
Also, sidenote: the Second Law of Robotics states that a robot must obey orders given to it by a human (except where that would conflict with the First Law). Which … seems like a pretty crappy feature on a robot detective. This isn’t even addressed in the book! I mean, it’d be terribly inconvenient (or convenient, depending on which side of the law you’re on). Maybe it comes up later in the series?
So yeah. All and all, The Caves of Steel isn’t twisty enough to be an exciting detective story, and it’s not visionary enough to really stand out as a classic of Sci-fi literature. All and all, it could have done with more punching and/or more robots … but that’s something I can say about a lot of books, to be honest.