Caves of Steel, The by Asimov, Isaac, 1954

Caves of Steel, The by Asimov, Isaac - Book cover from

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Throughout most of my childhood I was a pretty big SF fan, and back then Isaac Asimov was one of my favorite writers. When I started reading SF back in the late 1970's in Washington D.C. it was not easy to find many of his books, but one day my dad took me to a used book shop and I convinced him to buy me a pile of beat-up old paperback Asimov novels. I am pretty sure that The Caves of Steel was among those books, so it would probably have been around 1979 or 1980 that I first read it. I remember being a little shocked at the time. As a boy I was incapable of expressing my feelings about the book the way that I am now. I remember being a little frightened by the imagery of this story, but I also remember loving it. To this day The Caves of Steel is the only book I have ever reread immediately, right after the first time I finished it. I know that I tend to be hard on Asimov; just take a look at the other reviews that I have published here about his books. I am forever knocking him for his sense of gallantry, his overblown syntax, and his tendency towards mind-numbing detail, especially when it comes to logical deduction and argumentation. This book certainly has those things in it. I honestly do not think it would be an Asimov book without them, but everything else about this book is incredible, even if as I sit here in 2009 some of the concepts are so dulled by time that I typically read over them without even noticing when they appear in modern stories.

This is Asimov's dystopia novel, and in my opinion it is easily Asimovís best book. This was the one where Asimov took on society and social problems, and wondered what things will be like if development of technology was allowed to take place without addressing the problems that arise with the implementation of that knowledge. It is dark, but not moody, and the characters (the Earth-bound human ones at least) are locked into feelings of paranoia and hopelessness. It was a middle entry into Asimov's Robot series, though before he died he tied several of his series of books to the Foundation series, Robot included. The Caves of Steel is also an incredibly well realized depiction of future society. Shall I dare to say that the city was a character itself? I prefer not devolve to the level of trite aphorism, though I am tempted here because it was amazingly described; the details of the city and the culture that it housed were almost palpable. About that Damon Knight in In Search of Wonder had this to say:

Asimov has turned a clear, ironic and compassionate eye on every cranny of the City: the games children play on the moving streets; the legends that have grown up about deserted quarters; the customs and tabus (sic) in Section kitchens and menís rooms; the very feel, smell and texture of those steel caves in which men live and die.

Suffice it to say that had the city not existed as it did, the story would have been dramatically different, so when I say that it is described palpably, know that means that the city and its institutions and the force of its existence drove the action and the reaction. The people in it had completely redefined their existence to accept living in one single mansion with many rooms. And I loved that like its spiritual god-child, Los Angeles in the film adaptation of Blade Runner, it never faded into the background.

In terms of plot, The Caves of Steel is a SF mystery novel. In it Earth's population is out of control. People live inside of enclosed mega-cities, every one of which had populations in the multi-millions. Humans have all but forgotten what it was like to live outside of the cities, out in fresh air with the sun on their faces, and in fact have pretty much all developed a phobia of open air. Humans have a closed and insular view of their habitats, but it was not always like that. At one point thousands of years before the action of this novel Earth was the seat of power in an empire of fifty-one worlds. Humanity had successfully spread to the stars and terraformed worlds for their use. At first the Spacer worlds all looked to Mother Earth for guidance, but eventually they developed their own culture, then their own priorities. Even though they made use of high technology their culture was premised on more agrarian values; the Spacers valued elbow room and solitude, where Earthlings had become accustomed to their teeming hive-like existence. The Spacers also made use of robots of all kinds, including human shaped ones. Once the Spacers had consolidated enough power and resources they turned the tables on Earth and sent ships to dominate it. They feared a renewal of Earth's imperialistic outlook, so they struck Earth during a period of relative calm and imposed their rule on the Mother.

At the time of the story Earth was controlled by Spacers who ruled from "Spacer City," which was attached to the New York mega-plex. The Spacers had forced Earthlings to accept robots. That fact, and the mere fact that the Spacers were on Earth, created a lot of friction between the Earth and Spacer cultures. The widespread use of robots put millions of humans out of work, and forced Earth to adopt a materialistic form of social collectivism, so that those millions of unemployed could survive. The Earth had many other problems though. Humanity could hardly feed itself any more, so the primary sources of both protein and fiber were synthetic foodstuffs. Water had become an extremely scarce resource, so people were forced to live in communal apartment blocks and share bathing facilities. Most of the accommodations were dormitory style, though those who were lucky enough to warrant preferential treatment could get a separate set of rooms. Unemployment was rampant, and the robots continued to take over more and more administrative tasks each day. Civil liberties were a thing of the past. People were watched closely and those who committed crimes were dealt with summarily, privacy was considered a sin, and the Spacers determined the course of the ship of state. Children are allowed only after application and lottery. People did not take kindly to these intrusions, so terrorist groups sprung up and frequently caused trouble.

In the midst of all of this a prominent Spacer researcher named Dr. Sarton was assassinated inside of Spacer City. How this managed to happen inside that very secure complex without the killer being caught on camera was a mystery beyond comprehension, but the Spacers agreed to allow a human detective, Elija Baley, or "Lije," to investigate the murder. The only catch for Lije was that he had to accept R. Daneel Olivaw as a partner. The "R" in Daneel's name stood for "robot;" Daneel was the first of the humaniform robots. He was virtually indistinguishable from an ordinary human, and he had been fabricated to be identical to his creator, the murdered Dr. Sarton. The plot of the book involved Lije's and Daneel's investigation and solving of the murder, while Lije dealt with his own feelings of robotic prejudice, hatred and fear. The strange thing was that the only way that a terrestrial human could have committed the murder and escaped required the use of hatches that led to open wild lands outside of the city. No human that Lije could think of would be capable of something that horrific. There was also a family strife element to the book that centered on a young, rebellious son and threats from those who suspected that Olivaw was a robot.

Asimov capably dealt also with all of the other nasty aspects of colonialism, such as terrorism and rebellion; Lije uncovered an Earthling terrorist cell that was doing what it could to cripple the Spacers and drive them off of Earth in the bloodiest way possible, and learned of a Spacer program to develop a new culture of robots and humans, called "C/Fe," for carbon and iron. The Spacerís plan was to develop a wise version of robots that were capable of living with men, while indoctrinating Earthlings to the benefits of having them around. They wanted to build to a synthesis; to make something greater than the sum of its parts. Everyone on Earth knew that the city cultures that they had built up were unsustainable and that humanity had to get off of Earth, or at least depopulate it, but nobody was emotionally or psychically capable of confronting that. The Spacerís plan was to make it happen through robots; the psychology of it all was a little bit backwards, but the ideals of it all were fantastic; monumental even. In the end the C/Fe idea failed, though it did manage to open a door that otherwise would probably not have been found, and in that sense I found the ending a bit too clean.

Asimov also engaged some religious themes in this book, but I have not quite gotten my head around all of them yet. He had quite a bit to say about the Christian bible in this book, especially about passages that depict the wickedness of mankind. Society had kind of gone to pot here, and I believe that Asimov was trying to depict a society that had essentially come as far as it was going to go on its own; that they were trying to emulate God by living in a mansion with many rooms, but were given to extremes of fear and hopelessness that kept them from really achieving something beautiful. Dr. Sarton was a sacrifice of some kind, and the robots stepped into the role of innocent saviors. The whole thing reeks to me of Calvary. The analogies are rough and like I said, I haven't quite figured it all out yet, but it is a fertile ground for speculation, I think.

Other than the social issues, the mystery element and the family focus, the other big SF theme in this book had to do with robots. There should be no mistaking that Asimov intended to depict robots as the tools of humanity, but he also gave them positronic brains, which were as capable as an organic brain of maturation and accumulation of wisdom. For those of you who have already read Asimov's final Foundation book, Foundation and Earth, you know what he thought of the potential of a being with a positronic brain; he though them capable of great potential, and that they one day would be able to morph from child to parent. This story though was a later entry in the robot sequence. Asimov depicted robots here, through Daneel, as capable decision making beings which not only could mix with mankind for work, but could earn sympathy and friendship too. Not so much an indication of the maturation of Asimovís style, as he certainly was already there in the top-most brackets, but it did show his abilities to move an idea along over a broad span of time. This is an excellent novel that but for some Itís A Wonderful Life style dialogue (ďAw gosh! You could tell a fellow!Ē) has stood the test of time well.

Copyright © 2009, Gregory Tidwell

Reviewed by admin · Rating Rating of 4.5 star(s)


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