Beeline to the Future: Classic Science Fiction Novel Reread, The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov

Robert Bee
Robert Bee's picture

When I was a teenager, I went through an Asimov phase. The Foundation Trilogy was a great teenage reading experience, much like Lord of the Rings, a thrilling youthful moment. I remember my mother giving me The Foundation Trilogy as a Christmas present, and I couldn’t wait to read it. I figured out where she had hidden the book, and when my Mother was out of the house at night, I took the book out and read it. I had read much of volume 1 by the time she wrapped it. The robot books never grabbed me as much, and going into this reread I was wondering if Caves of Steel would strike me as dated, or if it would largely just have nostalgic value.

I ended up greatly enjoying the novel, which combines SF with detective fiction, as Lije Bailey and his robot partner R. Daneel Olivaw solve a murder which is similar to a traditional locked room mystery.

In the future Earthlings live in caves of steel, vast, overpopulated cities with everyone crammed into limited space. The city’s inhabitants avoid nature, and pathologically fear open spaces. The food is strictly rationed, and the privileges people enjoy depend on their career ratings. Losing your job or profession will result in living in the commons and eating yeast-mush. The core food is zymoveal, and getting a little chicken is a great privilege.

Asimov does a superb job extrapolating his future. The agoraphobic citizens are incapable of leaving the cities, or tolerating open space. Everyone shares communal bathrooms, and have adopted customs in which men don’t talk or even look at one another in the bathroom. People go to great lengths to avoid offending others, or standing out, because of how closely everyone is packed together. Job promotions are handled in a grossly bureaucratic style, with each bump in status resulting in hard-won privileges like slightly better food, a personal sink in their apartment, a private bathroom stall, or a larger place to live. Earthmen have to deal with a shortage of space, privacy, and free will. They have enough to eat, although the options are limited.

Many Earthmen are medievalists, who long for a romanticized past, and distrust technology. Robots, which are a threat to people’s jobs and hard earned statuses, are despised. The medievalists desperately want to stop robot / human integration on Earth.

Spacers are humans who live on one of the colony worlds, and they are technologically and culturally superior to Earthmen. The Spacers maintain a harmonious relationship with robots. Spacers live long lives, control breeding, maintain human/robot ratios and practice eugenics on inferior babies. The Spacers, as the novel reveals, have their weaknesses as well. They have a pathological fear of disease, which has been destroyed in their societies, and their cultures have grinded to a dead end, much like Earth’s.

Caves of Steel only provides a limited amount of information about the Spacers, but the sequel, The Naked Sun, portrays one of the Space worlds, filling in more of this future. On Solaris everyone lives a decadent, wealthy, extremely long life on plantations tended by robots. People only contact one another by television and never enter the physical presence of another person, unless that person is their spouse, and they have to engage in the horrid process of reproducing. Just being in the same room with a person is considered repulsive and disturbs them as much as an Earthman fears encountering an open plain.

The novel’s murder victim is an idealistic Spacer, Roj Nemennuh Sarton, who wants to create a synthesis between the City culture and the robot / human harmony of the Outer Worlds. On Earth, the Spacers live in Spacetown, a separate, enclosed area within the City that is sealed to protect them from disease and Earthmen riots. Sarton created Daneel Olivaw in his image, the first fully humanoid robot on Earth. Someone entered Spacetown and killed Sarton, an impossibility. No one could have brought a weapon past Spacetown security. No Earthman could face the terror of crossing the open plain and entering Spacetown secretly. How could the murder have been committed?

I won’t give away the solution, but the mystery elements were at best average. The novel was Asimov’s first mystery, and he does not give us enough suspects – only four -- or throw out enough red herrings to keep us in suspense. Another weak element of the novel was the characterization of the Spacer robot. Although Bailey develops and learns to respect his robot partner, Daneel never stands out as a strong character of his own, the way Data, for example, does in Star Trek.

Baley has strong reasons for wanting to find the killer. If he doesn’t the Spacers might retaliate against the Earth, and they have the power and technology to do so. Also, Baley fears that the job of detectives might be taken over by robots if he fails. In addition, failure might mean demotion and loss of his wonderful, hard-won privileges, such as chicken once a week, and a private sink in the family apartment.

Overall, Caves of Steel stands out as an excellent, classic novel that you can read or reread with enjoyment. Asimov does a superb job extrapolating future societies with their attendant phobias. It develops a sociological thesis about the future of urban humanity. The novel focuses on many of the themes Asimov developed throughout his work, such as the positronic-brained robots and the laws of robotics, as well as the Asimovian theme of a group of elites changing and manipulating society for the greater good (see the Psychohistorians in the Foundation trilogy).