Book Review: Caves of Steel
A murder has occurred in Spacetown, and enclosed mega-city (NYC under a dome) detective Elijah Bailey is partnered with human-looking robot R. Daneel Olivaw to investigate the crime in the restricted enclave of “Spacers” (outer world citizens). Because of raging anti-robot sentiment in the city, Elijah must keep his partner’s origins a secret, though his wife quickly figures it out. As Elijah uncovers various opportunities and motivations, he considers a variety of suspects, including his own partner. Discovering that his wife is a member of a Medievalist (get out of the cities and return to the Earth) organization, he traces the flow of information and clues back to their origin and deduces the perpetrator of the crime.
A straightforward murder mystery, Asimov provides a few red herrings before unveiling the true perpetrator of the crime. But Asimov’s story is as much about bias, class definitions, and segregation as it is a thriller.
Central to the narrative is Asimov’s own three laws of robotics and how they govern the actions of robots, though Asimov does not explore them as deeply as in I, Robot. As a subplot, there is also a thinly veiled criticism of commercialism and the unregulated overuse of the Earth’s natural resources. Overall, the story paints a disturbing picture of what the future may hold.
Asimov is a skilled albeit concise writer who focuses on the story with little attention on developing the details that make the setting feel realistic or relatable. This adds to the dystopian feel to the piece. Similarly, though, there is little time spent understanding the character’s emotions and motivations. Though stakes are named, there isn’t pressure to achieve them. The tone is clinical and educational rather than gripping or thrilling, and little tension is created as the murderer is pursued.
As a read, this story is interesting but not engulfing. But recognizing that Asimov’s three laws of robotics continue to influence generations of science fiction writers and modern philosophers illustrates the impact his ideas have had on human thought. And this is one of the first books that establish and explore those laws. From that standpoint alone, this book is part of science fiction canon.
Originally published in 1954, The Caves of Steel is a foundational book of the sci-fi genre. Score: 60/100.