The Story: The Caves of Steel is a science fiction mystery that pits Earthmen against Spacers, Humans against Robots. In this case, Elijah Bailey, an NYPD detective, is given the task of identifying the murderer of a prominent Spacer ambassador. In his commissioner’s eyes, the killing makes Earth look bad and and their seemingly inability to catch the killer a show of incompetence. However, Elijah won’t be going at it alone. In a sign of not-so-good faith, the Spacer community assigns one of their own to the case – a robot named R. (short for Robot) Daneel Olivaw, who was created in the dead man’s likeness. Elijah harbors a deep-seated prejudice against Robots for one basic reason – they’re not Human. But his previously held notions get put to the test when Daneel proves he can behave more like a man than a machine and both of them are pitted against an extremist group threatening to tear Earth and Spacer societies apart.
My Take: The Caves of Steel works both as a compelling sci-fi work and a good detective story. Naturally from Asimov, you can’t expect anything less but an engaging plot, strong characters, and a rapid pace. So, yep, give the Grandmaster a heart round of posthumous applause.
The novel hits the ground running by setting up its main character and basic premise but it’s not too much too soon. We’re taken through multiple twists and turns as Elijah and Daneel work to uncover, not only the murderer, but also each other’s views about their respective societies. Elijah doesn’t take too kindly to Robots (at first) and there are many things within Human society Daneel doesn’t understand. So the story is a learning process for both of them but it never feels heavy-handed in its delivery.
Thus, two big themes The Caves of Steel deals with are prejudice and the past. Though Asimov himself asserted science fiction is not social prophecy, it can be a medium through which good questions regarding society can be raised. In the case of prejudice, we see Elijah hold to a middle ground – he isn’t completely on board with the integration of Robots into Human society yet he doesn’t harbor a passionate hatred for folks with a positronic brain. He keeps an open mind and desires to engage the truth and, through which, teaches readers how to look past any differences to learn the other side to a person’s story since first impressions are rarely right.
Regarding the past, The Caves of Steel‘s chief antagonist consists of an extremist faction known as the Medievalists who seek to return to a simpler time in Earth’s history by dumping all technological trappings. Again, this message is dealt with a deft hand. While it’s not wrong to learn from the past or reminisce, there is a problem with trying to recapture the past, which is what the Medievalists do to excessive extremes. Again, in both cases, it would have been easy to turn the novel into a sermon about how we should learn from the past rather than live in it. But Asimov avoids this and, instead, allows readers to carry away their own meanings.
From a writing standpoint, The Caves of Steel is classic Asimov. The pace is quick but not too fast. The characters are interesting and well-developed, especially the two leading men, and the world-building is believable and solid. Likewise, it manages to remain a sci-fi piece without trying too hard to sound or look futuristic (such as having sci-fi set pieces or props without establishing a good reason or purpose to the plot) nor does it sound like a contemporary detective mashup with robots. Overall, The Caves of Steel is extremely reader-friendly due to its engaging storyline and characters, so I imagine it would capture the attention of a diverse group of readers, not just science fiction fans.
Language – Minimal. Some PG-level profanities get exchanged in tense situations but these are non-pervasive and infrequent.
Violence – For a murder mystery, there is very little violence depicted on the page. Most of the events, such as the murder Elijah and Daneel investigate, is related in flashback and never in graphic detail. In fact, the most “gruesome” incident is when a robot is “killed” by decapitation, but the actual event itself is only related in conversation and never shown.
Sexual Material – None. Elijah showers before entering Spacetown and catches sight of Daneel emerging, naked, from a neighboring shower stall though his look is strictly out of curiosity, not for sexual reasons. Later, Elijah adds to a discussion (for information purposes only) that Daneel was made to pass for a human man since he has “organs” (as the book puts it) a robot normally wouldn’t need to have.
Overall, The Caves of Steel is a fantastic blend of old school detective/murder mystery and classic Asimov hard sci-fi. I suspect this novel would have a large appeal to readers in both camps and all points in between. If you’re new to Asimov’s speculative fiction works, this is a great starting point!