Ahh, the robot: docile servant or humanoid waiting to explode in revolution against humanity. Modernism riding a technological high that science would solve the world’s ills, it’s only natural that the majority of the science fiction of the era would depict the metal men as the former. Isaac Asimov a leading proponent of this view, after writing a collection of short stories (I, Robot) and establishing the ground rules (literally) he published his first novel-length work The Caves of Steel in 1954. Utilizing the three rules of robotics in an interstellar murder mystery, the story had strong resonance with the genre readers of the time. Whether the story continues to resonate depends on what expectations the reader brings to the table today.
The Caves of Steel introduces Elijah Baley, a mid-level detective working for the New York City police force, who is charged with investigating a murder at nearby Spacetown at the story’s outset. The small area just outside the domed metropolis of NYC having special diplomatic rights, Baley must accept the requirements of the Spacers, and soon after finds himself paired with a robot investigator, R. Daneel Olivaw, as he starts his inquiry. Anti-robot, Baley must deal with his own feelings about humanoids as he and Daneel fight through confusing clues and the red-tape of performing an investigation in the pro-robot Spacetown. Olivaw intelligent, consistent, and helpful, Baley’s sentiments undergo an evolution the closer the pair draw to the murderer. But will Olivaw obey his programming when the final confrontation comes? That is for the reader to discover.
The Caves of Steel is a murder mystery that Asimov builds using the simple devices of traditional mysteries and the toolkit of science fiction. A techno-puzzle mystery the result, certainly at the time the novel was published it was something fresh on the market, and would become something later writers would do more with (from Larry Niven to Greg Egan). Beyond the technical elements, Asimov plays two sides of humanity against itself. The Spacers, a long-sighted group, live in relative comfort on the hundreds of inhabited planets, their lives with robots and nature in harmony. While on Earth, its teeming 8 billion crowd beneath metal domes in strictly-regulated, hyper-urban environments that render life a rat race for resources, homes, money. Rather than using the setup for commentary on human practices of the time, it is instead a mirror which makes Spacer life (i.e. life with Robots, our friends and helpers) all the more appealing. A full-on expression of modernism’s hope that metal sentience could be produced to suit mankind’s utopian needs, it exudes optimism to the nth degree—and to an ethical degree if one considers the unexpected climax.
And the remainder is just as dated. Dialogue laid out in cut and paste fashion, story transitions so clunky one can literally see Asimov jumping to the next point in his story outline, and the overall mindset of an era we are currently trying to improve upon, Asimov’s approach to gender, employment, and altruism in government are of a bygone year. The fact the story is written in, ahem, simplistic prose does no further favors. A full-on product of the times, it’s perhaps best to be read for nostalgia purposes. (Charles Stross and Corey Doctorow, both modern sci-fi writers in dialogue with Asimov’s robot stories in their own works, do offer them some minor value. But it could also easily be considered full-on genre navel-gazing.)
In the end, The Caves of Steel is genre of old, and it shows it. Needing to be read in the context of the 50s for full appreciation, Asimov’s worldview does not endear, nor does his static style of writing. Original at the time, and thus something of a genre milestone, its place in history balances the shortcomings but comes recommended mostly for those looking into the backlog of the science fiction. Certainly we have a far different, more complex view of robots today…