Sunday, March 12, 2017

REVIEW: The Caves of Steel (book) by Isaac Asimov

The Caves of Steel is a sci-fi mystery. I got it via interlibrary loan.


A while back, Audible did this thing that I think they called “blind date with an audiobook” or something like that. I got matched up with Isaac Asimov’s The Caves of Steel. I opted not to buy the audiobook, but the idea of a sci-fi mystery starring a human cop and a robot partner intrigued me, so I requested it via ILL.

The Caves of Steel is set in a future where the Earth’s population has reached the point where people must either live efficiently or die. Everyone lives in great steel-enclosed Cities, eats together in communal kitchens, and uses communal bathrooms, and only robots go out into the open air. Elijah “Lije” Baley, a New York City police detective, is well aware of the kind of life he could have had if his father hadn’t been declassified. He’s also well aware that his job will continue to exist only for as long as he is able to prove that robots can’t do it better, so it’s with significant wariness and distaste that he agrees to work with a Spacer robot on a murder case.

The victim is a Spacer named Roj Nemennuh Sarton. Tensions between Earth humans and Spacers, humans who long since left Earth for other planets but still maintain a small Earth presence, are already high, and this murder threatens to push things to a breaking point. The Spacers believe that one of the City humans killed Dr. Sarton. Although they could insist on their own investigation, they agree to let the New York City police handle it, on the condition that the robot Daneel Olivaw, Dr. Sarton’s creation, be included.

The edition I read included an introduction by Isaac Asimov, in which he mentioned that a past editor of his had said that “a science-fiction mystery was a contradiction in terms; that advances in technology could be used to get detectives out of their difficulties unfairly, and that the readers would therefore be cheated” (xiii). As someone who enjoys SFF mysteries, I’d argue that this is only true if the author doesn’t sufficiently define the limitations of their story’s setting.

Asimov certainly took great care with his world-building. Although there was a constant threat of robots taking jobs formerly assigned to humans, robots weren’t all-powerful. Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics were firmly in effect, and robots’ physical components certainly weren’t indestructible. Daneel had amazing brain scanning abilities, but even those abilities had limitations.

The mystery setup was interesting. Dr. Sarton was killed in Spacetown, an area not easily entered by non-Spacers. However, all the Spacers in Spacetown were scanned shortly after the murder and deemed innocent, and none of the blasters in Spacetown were used in the murder. Commissioner Enderby, the only Earth human in Spacetown at the time of the murder, was scanned and deemed incapable of murder. It was possible that an Earth human could have left the City, traveled briefly outside, and entered Spacetown that way, except that most Earth humans lived in horror of being outside in the open air. A robot could have made the trip, but the First Law of Robotics would have prevented it from killing Dr. Sarton or allowing him to come to harm.

The sci-fi aspects of this book were fascinating, if dated. The Asimov of 1954 would probably have been horrified that it only took 63 years for the world’s total human population to jump from 2.7 billion to 7.5 billion. In the book’s present, the Earth’s population was about 8 billion, with the huge and densely populated Cities having become a necessity hundreds of years earlier.

I enjoyed the descriptions of daily life in Baley’s City, although some aspects, like the strips (a horrifically dangerous-sounding cross between highways, subways, and moving walkways), were hard for me to envision. The communal kitchens and bathrooms made sense, although I was sad that, in Asimov’s vision of the future, men’s emotional lives seemed to be even more restricted than they are now. Although women and girls happily chatted with each other in their communal bathrooms, men and boys could not even acknowledge each other’s existences.

While the world-building was wonderfully detailed, the mystery aspects were disappointing. You’d think looking at the crime scene would be one of the first things Baley would want to do, but you’d be wrong. It took so long for Baley to finally check out the crime scene, or even just a recording of the crime scene, that for a while there I thought it would never happen.

Instead of investigating the murder in anything approaching a normal fashion, Baley spent most of his time trying to figure out how to pin the murder on Spacers. It really bugged me that he clearly didn’t trust Daneel and the Spacers, and yet he never once questioned that their analysis of the crime scene was anything other than correct and complete and that the crime scene contained no useful evidence.

The first time Baley accused Daneel of the murder, I was annoyed. It was the most easily disproven accusation ever, and it put Baley’s biases on full display. I already disliked both him and his wife, Jessie, and the accusation scene really didn’t help. Baley and Daneel’s partnership improved after that, and I really enjoyed the slight shifts in Baley’s thinking. He even complimented Daneel at one point! Which was why I basically blew up when Baley accused Daneel of the murder a second time. The accusation was prompted by unconscious desperation, but at the time it looked like more anti-robot backsliding on Baley’s part.

The true explanation for the murder was pretty good and fit the rules of the world, but it also made me shake my head because Baley could have figured everything out so much faster if he hadn’t been such a biased butthead. I mean, I’d managed to correctly guess several pieces of the final explanation only a third of the way through the book, and I’m terrible at figuring out mysteries.

Despite my problems with The Caves of Steel, I’m looking forward to reading the sequel, The Naked Sun. It’s a sci-fi mystery in which Elijah Baley and Daneel Olivaw are once again partnered up. Here’s hoping Baley is less annoying in that one.

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