The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov- Book Review

Isaac Asimov is probably the daddy of sci-fi writing right?  He was extremely prolific, writing or editing about 500 books.  He was known for ‘hard’ science fiction, a sub-genre of sci-fi known for its scientific accuracy.  He wrote some of his most famous works in the 1940’s and 50’s though, so now it’s less about detecting scientific accuracy and checking whether his view of the future has actually come true.

I read Foundation a while ago, part of his famous Foundation series, which I enjoyed.  It begins with the Galactic Empire falling and a subsequent 1000 year dark age.  The book moves through subsequent generations trying to rebuild the galactic empire.   There are actually 7 books in the Foundation series, including some prequels added later on, but I stopped at the second book which was a little too confusing my little brain.

As well as the Foundation series Asimov wrote 5 novels and 38 short stories as part of his Robot series.  The Caves of Steel is one of the novels (although it is short at only 206 pages).  Ostensibly, it’s the story of a murder investigation, and Elijah Baley the police officer who investigates. But this story is set 3000 years in the future, Asimov showing her that science fiction can be applied to other literary genres.

The victim, Dr Sarton, was a ‘Spacer’, a group of advanced humans who have come back to Earth from the rich, healthy, low-population outer worlds Earth colonised ages ago and where robot labour is used heavily.  The Spacers live in Spacetown, an autonomous area outside of the city.   Earth meanwhile, is over-populated and distrust, fear, and hatred of robots is prevalent.  The Caves of Steel are the giant cities covered in metal domes, leaving the city to walk across open terrain is completely unthinkable.

The radical change had been the gradual formation of the Cities over a thousand years of Earth’s history.   Efficiency implied bigness.  Even in medieval times that had been realized, perhaps unconsciously.  Home industries gave way to factories and factories to continental industries.

Written in 1953, the book is part social commentary of Asimov’s own time and part prediction of the far future.  But Asimov could imagine the population of the Earth tripling (to 8 billion, three times what it was in the 1950’s), robots with advanced positronic brains, colonising outer planets, and a world where people rarely see the sun, or rain, or eat real apples.

In the old days, all rooms had things like this.   They were called ‘windows.’ Did you know that?

But he doesn’t seem to be to escape the social conventions of 1953.  Men live in bachelor apartments until married, and then move into family units.  Baley’s wife gave up her job after she had a baby, and never went back (although what she does all day is not very clear).  Of course people marrying, and women changing their names on married and giving up work after having kids still happens often today.  But he still feels a little stuck in the past.  He also does that annoying thing to saying he, him, man, mankind, Earthman etc to refer to all people, including women.  It’s the style of the 1950’s, its just seems so weird to me now and I don’t know how women of decades past dealt with it.

Baley is sent to the border of Spacetown to meet his partner in the investigation, R. Daneel Olivaw.  The R stands for robot.  Baley is used the clunky machine like robots of Earth, not the sophisticated Spacer robots who resemble human beings to such a degree it’s almost impossible to tell the difference on sight.  Daneel was Dr Sarton’s creation, made in his own image, to encourage relations between Earthmen, Spacers, and robots.  Daneel has been activated early, given a justice patch, and sent to work with the same rank as Baley.  It raises some questions about the capacity of a robot and their status.  They are NOT autonomous beings, they do NOT have the a conscience, and they are bound by Asimov’s three laws.

  1. A robot may not injure a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the first law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second law.

It is mention a few times in the book that Daneel’s testimony in court would mean nothing as he is a robot, which makes sense I suppose because if you told them to lie, they would.  The primitive Earth robots look like machines, a ‘dead’ robot is damaged property not murder.  But Daneel is a sign of things to come, an example of advanced robotics or the start of a new race of strong, smart, mechanical men who will go to develop consciousness?

It’s an enjoyable book, more for the glimpse of a strange and possible future than anything else.  But it’s a plot based detective story too which makes it a compelling read.