It’s reading challenge time again! This book is #94, The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov, first published in 1953. I actually really enjoyed the introduction to this one, since it gave a whole history of Asimov’s robot novels and shone some light on the state of publishing at that time. Now on to my review!
I had read this book a very long time ago, which was enough to ruin the “whodunnit” of the mystery but left my memory of the details vague, and I enjoyed revisiting them. The story centers around Elijah, a detective who has the unenviable task of investigating a murder fraught with diplomatic hazards between Earth and the “spacers” who colonized other planets but still have an embassy of sorts back on Earth. To complicate matters, the detective is forced to partner with a robot, R. Daneel. This is problematic in a world where robots are widely disliked or distrusted due to them replacing humans in many jobs, with only a minimum social safety net for those squeezed out of work. It is also challenging because all robots on Earth are instantly recognizable as such, while R. Daneel is effectively indistinguishable from a human without close examination.
As the story progresses the relationship between the human and robot detectives slowly thaws, with many missteps along the way. I won’t completely spoil the story here since it is technically a detective novel and for me knowing the who and the why of the murder in advance did detract from the fun of the experience a little. The murder case isn’t always compelling, but the social context makes this novel interesting. There’s a lot of interesting ideas in here about how you can pack the highest density of people into a city, which by the time of this story are sprawling monstrosities the size of some states or small countries, where people never see the open sky. The density and efficiency of these massive population centers are also what make them extremely vulnerable, and yet the people who live there almost never seem to realize that. The conflicts between the people of Earth and the Spacers are partially due to things like religion but are mostly related to how they view distribution of resources. The goal of the Spacers is to find some way to convince Earth to start colonizing new planets again, for the good of humanity as a whole. This is an interesting concept and in stark contrast to many sci-fi works that pit Earth against its colonies as they fight for resources. It was fun to see things like interplanetary relations and the Malthusian growth problem tackled from a very different perspective than the Mars books I just finished reading.
TL;DR: There’s a reason this one is a classic. It is a fairly simple story but told well, and with some thought provoking commentary on automation, planetary carrying capacity, and effecting cultural change.
The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov
Rating: 4/5 stars
Verdict: Go read it. It’s short, sweet, and worth your time.
Next up: A Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge