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Ossus Library Index Science Fiction Index

THE CAVES OF STEEL

A novel by by Isaac Asimov (1999, Doubleday [original copyright: 1954])
Book 1 of the Robot Novels

Lije Bailey investigates a Spacer murder on Earth, side by side with a mistrusted humaniform robot.

 

 

4 stars

Read August 1st to 3rd, 2001 for the second time  
    The writing is so tight, the descriptions so intense and vivid, and the mystery so well presented and solved, the only thing that had me grasping was the technology and society depicted.  Considering this book was written fifty years ago, that is entirely excusable.

This is my second time reading this book.  The first time was nearly twenty years ago, when I was quite young, and I remembered almost nothing about the story.  The identity of the murderer, however, has stuck with me all this time.  And it never once detracted from the story, even though I could see little things in hindsight that I know must not have been visible the first time around.  

I always love coming back to Asimov.  His writing style is so simple, but he is able to convey very complex ideas successfully.  He once wrote that when he sits down to compose a book or story, he knows two things about it: the problem to be solved, and the solution.  The rest he creates in order to get from the beginning to the end without compromises.  Since he knows the solution, he knows exactly what needs to be shown in the middle parts.  And he writes it from start to finish, with only very minor changes after it is completed.  Other authors who do this (Star Wars' Kevin J. Anderson, for one example) are not nearly so successful.  

But Asimov leads this story off with the problem, right from the very start: a Spacer has been murdered, and the Spacers are sure it must be a citizen of New York City who has committed the act.  The police Commissioner brings Elijah Bailey in on the case, nervously telling him that this could be disastrous to Earth if it is not quietly and quickly solved.  

And through the characters, we learn the state of society on Earth.  It is quite communist, and I wonder how these books became so popular with this kind of setting in that era.  Perhaps it is because an anti-communal group gains power by the end.  There are much fewer Cities three thousand years into the future, and all of these are extremely large, and all covered by a shell to keep out mother nature.  They are caves of steel.  Most of the people are agoraphobic -they have a fear of open spaces.  People have ratings based on their contribution to society, which give them status, and those ratings can be hereditary.  Flavored yeast is the main diet, but Earth is running low on that, too, with a population nearing 8 billions.  Somehow, in his prophetic way, Asimov missed out on the way trees will become endangered.  Yeast is made from wood pulp, which is getting low, but will last centuries longer.  Living quarters are assigned by family size and status, but there is no such thing as a private washroom, shower or kitchen.  People don't eat in their apartments if at all possible -such a thing is a luxury few can afford.  

And people hate robots.  They fear that robots will take over their jobs.  Already, R. Sammy has taken over from an office boy at the police station.  Bailey fears that they could become police officers, too.  Bailey is one person who even took part in a riot when Spacetown opened up, bringing Spacers to Earth for the first time in a concentrated and permanent region.  Many centuries ago, Earthlings colonized thirty planets, terraforming them to make them livable.  This explains how they can still have apples on Aurora instead of some exotic fruit.  Centuries ago, the Outer Planets broke away from Earth, and Earth turned inwards, and grew more and more distant within itself.  The Spacers use robots to do everything -in fact robots outnumber Spacers by a large margin.  But Earthlings don't trust them.  

It is amazing how much information Asimov plants within his characters.  Much of this is done by well-placed memories, every single one of them having importance to the case at some point.  

The Spacer who was murdered was a roboticist who was planning to use robots to infiltrate New York and look for people who were open to the concept of change.  Spacers know that Earth cannot sustain the lifestyle that is no life at all, really, of the City dwellers.  They want to force Earthlings back to the open land, or, even better, to colonize more worlds, and make a life better than even the Spacers have it.  So he created a humaniform robot, R. Daneel Olivaw.  Once his creator was killed, Daneel was recruited as a detective.  He is even equipped with a brain-wave analyzer, to determine whether people were capable of committing the murder.  

Bailey, who agreed to let his partner stay at his home, is horrified that his partner is a robot, but he cannot immediately tell the difference between Daneel and a human.  He resents the robot, and that prejudice hinders him in the case often.  At one point, early in the investigation, Lije thinks he has it solved.  Daneel had threatened a mob at a shoe store riot, and the evidence points to Daneel not being a robot, since robots cannot harm humans.  But he is demonstrated wrong as Daneel shows him that his blaster is not functional, and, even better, that his arm and other body parts are made of metal.  

Later, Lije accuses Daneel of committing the murder himself, that he may be a robot built without the First Law of robotics: "A robot may not harm a human, or through inaction, allow harm to come to a human".  But a roboticist, who does not recognize Daneel as a robot at all until it is pointed out to him, tests Daneel for this, and is convinced the robot is bound by the First Law.  

Lije seems to have reached a dead end, until his wife comes to him in a panic and admits to belonging to a Medievalist movement, a fanatical group that believes people should go back to living outside the Cities, that life was better before the Cities, back, say, in the twentieth century.  Suspicions begin to stir within Bailey, and through conversations with Daneel, memories of his son Bentley's questions, and the sudden destruction of R. Sammy in the office, he thinks he has the answer.  

Lije and Daneel go to arrest a man who works at the yeast processing plant, whom his wife named as being a member of the fanatical group, and who was at the shoe store riot, and who tried to follow the pair from a kitchen one day, with an unknown purpose.  That chase from the kitchen, along the acceleration strips, back and forth, through the commuter shuttle, and back through more strips to the power plant, was a really great chase scene.  It was done with action, passion, and resentment (that Daneel was as good as Lije at strip-switching), that it is among the best chase scenes I've read.  

The man they arrest doesn't provide much information, except to recognize Daneel as a robot.  Bailey had listened to a Spacer talk about colonization, about Earth dying, and a progressive future earlier in the book, and he now gives his own version of the speech, very much impassioned, to the yeast worker, whose outlook seems to change.  Daneel goes even farther to suggest that the man's children could live better lives, in open space, without the threat of declassification, in such a world.  

And the man is intrigued.  Daneel senses the change both in Bailey and the yeast worker.  And as the word spreads, as the ideas spread, more and more people could come to believe that this is a good idea, and that it was initiated mot by Spacers, but by Earthmen.  So the Spacers decide to pack up and go, even though the murder case has not been solved.  

But the case still nags at Bailey.  The missing link is the question about why he is being framed for the destruction of R. Sammy.  Why?  Why, his mind asks.  And he realizes that it is the Commissioner who must have killed the Spacer roboticist, because he thought the man was actually Daneel, a simple robot.  A simple robot who could pass himself as human without anybody knowing that it was a robot.  The Commissioner, with his glasses and windows (both unheard of in that day and age) was obviously a medievalist.  The man denies it, until they find shards of glass in the doorway, where the Commissioner had dropped and broken his glasses.  A plea-bargain is made right there.  There will be no prosecution if the Commissioner agrees to take charge of convincing the Medievalists that colonization of other planets is a good thing.  Of course, he agrees.  

As I mentioned, every detail here was very important.  It was probably impossible to figure out who committed the murder from the clues given, except that the Commissioner was very nervous all the time, especially when he thought Bailey was getting close.  Even knowing who committed the murder (I had forgotten the motive), I couldn't figure out how Bailey arrived at the conclusion.  But to be fair, he was riding a gut instinct, and didn't know for sure until the Commissioner confessed.  But looking back on it, everything makes sense.  

As for the characters, Bailey and Daneel, the obvious main ones, were extremely well-developed.  I think I know Lije very well by now, and the book is less than two hundred pages long.  The Commissioner is less developed, necessarily, but still, we know him from Lije's point of view.  Jessie, Lije's wife, is a whiner, and became quite annoying.  There is a reason for this, as Asimov admits that he really doesn't know how to write women characters, because he never understood women.  Neither does Bailey!  So while I didn't really like her, and her confession didn't really work well for me, she was absolutely necessary, and if their relationship had been any different, the story probably wouldn't have worked out so well.  Any other characters were completely peripheral, though all were necessary, as well.  

Daneel's deduction that Jessie was a member of a Medievalist group was one of the best moments in the book.  Bailey denies it to the end, until Daneel reminds him that he said it was not customary for a father to put his son in jeopardy, even if the father is more indispensable.  He then asks if is customary for the mother of a child to do so, and as Bailey is denying it, he realizes that this is exactly what Jessie did, sending Bentley out looking for him.  

The discussion of the Bible, all throughout the story, was quite interesting.  There was no preaching, but it looks as though, even if Asimov doesn't consider himself of a religious nature, he still sees the Bible as a moral code, a way to live life.  He tries to show Daneel the power of forgiveness, and by the end, the robot realizes that sometimes forgiveness can be better than laying down the law.  

Even Jessie's part in the book couldn't detract from the power of the writing, and the curiosity of exactly who did the murdering and why!  When Bailey claims it is the Commissioner, the book is written so well that we can't help but think that Bailey is stretching for a solution.  But as he makes his case, building on evidence we have seen but not put together, the realization that he is right comes like a wave, and is very powerful.  It took me a while to get used to the society they were living in, but aside from the lack of technology, it seems a plausible future.  I definitely have to read more Asimov more often!  And this book was a fine example of what to anticipate.  

 
   

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