Reaction: The Caves of Steel

Go, and sin no more!

Today, Isaac Asimov is probably best known for his short stories (most famously Nightfall) and for his Foundation trilogy, itself composed of connected short stories. His attempts at novels have received rather less praise, and certainly less attention. The Caves of Steel, together with its sequel, stand as the most lauded of his longer works, yet still are overshadowed by his more famous stories.

The Caves of Steel is a science-fiction detective novel. On a future earth, with an impossibly high population of eight billion people (the book was written in the early fifties, when world population was crawling past two and a half billion), Elijah Baley is a police detective (rating C-5) tasked by his superior with solving the murder of a visitor from an alien planet. In doing this he must co-operate completely with his alien counterpart – a perfectly humanoid robot – yet it is also paramount that Baley solve the mystery before the robot does.

Baley’s world is a grim future of immense, sealed arcologies, universal agoraphobia, a diet of a thousand different types of yeast, and a rigid ‘ratings’ system that apportions every detail of luxury, from the number of children to the allocation of a personal washbasin, from the right to eat in one’s own room to the right to sit on the expressway, according to seniority, parentage and utility to the state. Into this world has come a colony of ‘Spacers’, descendants of early interstellar colonists – contemptuous, beautiful, and terrified of disease. The goal of the Spacers, from their open-air colony beside the immense closed City that New York has become, is to introduce robots into the economic system of Earth, for reasons they conceal; so far, they have succeeding only in introducing very primitive models into the Cities (though the open space beyond them is now entirely work by robots), and even they have provoked increasing discontent among the natives whose jobs have been taken from them by the new machines – only the immense military superiority of the Spacers has allowed them to push their project so far, and resistance is growing daily. Now, one Spacer, a man who has been developing a new type of robot, indistinguishable from humans in appearance, has been murdered, in Spacetown, where no murderer could have reached him (Spacers themselves being, of course, constitutionally incapable of anything so vile), and from where no weapon could have been removed without discovery. Baley’s partner in his investigations is the very robot that the dead man has designed, R. Daneel Olivaw, shaped in his maker’s image – stronger, smarter and more dependable than any human detective, and one day perhaps the perfect replacement for Elijah Baley.

Asimov is often criticised for the weakness of his plots, which often are sacrificed to the demands of exposition – but that is hardly evident here. Unlike many of his other works, here the ‘ideas’ are not the purpose of the story – the science fiction is a flavour for the detective story, and everything revolves around the plot. Who killed Dr. Sarton – assuming he was killed at all? Both Baley and the reader are bombarded with misinformation and with misdirection, with red herrings and with distractions; at one point Asimov relates to us a common game on Earth, in which young boys chase each other along a dangerous series of moving strips, the ‘leader’ endeavouring to shake off his pursuers with dexterity and clever side-steps; it feels as though Asimov has taken this as the model for his novel. In hindsight, the route he takes is not that complicated, but to follow him in the heat of the moment is difficult; all the clues we need to unravel the book are made clear, most of them quite early on, but like Baley we are unable to piece them together and sort the meaning from the static. What appears a casual detail becomes later integral to the plot; what appears important is seen to be nothing more than a diversion – or else the important is hidden in plain sight, where we are sure it must be a misdirection.

This is not to say that there are not ideas in this novel. Most importantly, Caves is one of, if not the, formative example of the concept of arcologies, although the word is not used in the novel. The era of ‘Civism’ (it inhabitants return to our own time as the Middle Ages) is gently adumbrated; with a more forceful author, this society would be presented as a dystopia, but Asimov avoids this through the viewpoint character of Baley – a grumpy, dissatisfied man, privately fascinated by ancient history, and yet no revolutionary, with a strong nostalgic conservativism and a tough shell of pragmatism – who is not blind to the problems of his world, and yet fundamentally still relishes its virtues. The same attitude is seen throughout the City; although there is talk of ‘Medievalists’, a pseudo-terrorist agitator movement that calls for a ‘return to the soil’, Baley observes that every citizen is a Medievalist in their own way – his own superior, for instance, wears anachronistic spectacles in place of contact lenses, and has even had “windows” installed in his office (a merging of nostalgia and pride – an ancient concept that allows him to experience the modern City in a new way); everybody yearns to return to something more simple, and yet hardly anybody is willing to make the changes necessary to do so. The ultimate irony of the Medievalist movement is that their “return to the soil” is rendered impossible by their own terror of the outdoors.

The depiction of Earth’s culture is also kept from dystopia by the opposing possibility, the culture of the Outer Worlds. Where Earth is crowded like a zoo, the Outer Worlds are free and open – each family has their own living structure, affording them perfect privacy. Earth is reduced to eating yeast and highly-processed foods (Baley is familiar with fruit only in the form of condensed sauces); the Outer Worlds live on the fresh produce of their verdant worlds. Earthmen live in a seething hive of filth and sweat; in the Outer Worlds, all disease has been eradicated. Earthmen must work for their privileges, the unemployed “declassified” and relegated to a subsistance life in communal ‘barracks’; the Spacers live lives of luxury, idleness and intellect, their needs catered to by armies of obedient robots. Without disease or hardship, Spacers may live for centuries, and as a result place very great value on their own lives; they have become extremely risk-averse; naturally, it is not efficient to spend resources where they will go to waste, and so deficient or disabled children are euthanised. Where Earth is religious, and structured by the ritual politeness that enables such densities of living to be maintained, the Outer Worlds are atheist, rational, and entirely efficient. Neither Spacer nor Earthman is given a utopia in this book, but neither is either denied their virtues; the implicit dilemma between the two cultures is a genuine one.

The second major topic is, of course, robotics. As the novel begins, Baley seems to think of himself in fairly progressive terms, but he is also highly antipathetic toward the robots gradually supplanting his colleagues, and far from please to be forced to work with R. Daneel. Surely, we think, we are dealing with a heart-warming tale about a man’s realisation that robots are as human as the rest of us? Well, no. It’s true that Baley comes to respect him, and it’s true that questions about where the difference between them lies are raised, but this is not another “we’re all the same” story – it is clear that, however much Daneel may look like a man, he is entirely inhuman. Unusually, the ‘theme’ of the nature of robots is not tacked on to the tale, but integral to it – it is possible to see the question of how Baley’s attitudes toward Daneel change as one of the central driving mechanics of the plot (and it is a genuine change of quality, between different conceptions, not merely an invetiable progression toward a more compassionate quantity). Above all, Daneel, made in the image of a human, acts as a mirror to humanity – not only to the human characters, but to the human reader, who is never certain how to interpret him. At one time, we might imbue him with human qualities – is he sarcastic? does he know more than he lets on? At other times, we might see him as nothing more than a calculator, naive and linear. It is not clear which is true – or even whether there is any truth to the matter. Any construction we place on him relies on human concepts, none of which can be applied to an alien like Daneel , not even in negation. Instead, Daneel, residing squarely in the ‘uncanny valley’ of near-humanity, can only be a passive mirror for our own preconceptions; Daneel mirrors humanity, and that changing mirroring is mirrored by the plot.

If Asimov’s plots are sometimes looked down upon, his characters are widely lambasted and ridiculed. Asimov, it is said, simply does not do characters. Well, that may be true of much of his work, but it is not true here (and there are many other character-focused exceptions to be found among his stories – The Ugly Little Boy, C-Chute, Hostess, and of course The Mule all spring to mind). Asimov has a firm grasp of psychology and, when he tries, a knack for telling details: Baley is in essence a stock detective character with little in the way of original features, but by the end he feels fully, for want of a better word, ‘lived-in’ and believable and sharp-focus; his wife, Jezebel, may not be particularly deep or unique, but she is adumbrated deftly, giving us an character considerably more complex than we might expect from her limited screentime; his superior, Enderby, is, it’s true, rather flat and cliché, but it is a bold high-contrast flatness that is achieved with very little effort; Daneel, meanwhile, impressively combines inscrutability with complete transparency in a way that seems simple at first but which treads a very fine line (as a host of Daneel-imitations throughout the decades since have shown.

Nor can too much criticism be applied to Asimov’s prose. He himself admitted that his aim was clarity and not poetry, but clarity need not mean boredom or inaptness; throughout the novel, the prose is clear, simple, varied, natural – unobtrusive. It does not get in the way or call attention to itself, either through flamboyance or through ugliness. Furthermore, on the few occasions when the author permits himself a wholly descriptive passage with no pressure of plot placed upon it, his prose can ascend to a crystal elegance that may not be sublime but that is not without it’s own beauty. This line, for instance, describes sleep falling on the City, in accordance with ancient habit, even though, segregated from the sky and lit by artificial lights, nobody knows that it is night:

“The expressways empty, the noise of life sinks, the moving mob among the colossal alleys melts away; New York City lies in Earth’s unnoticed shadow, and its population sleeps.”

Though that be said, it must be admitted that Asimov’s writing is not without flaws: his dialogue is often wholly unbelievable. Most of the dialogue is either composed of short, functional exchanges that move the plot along, or else of long lecturing speeches. In a few places, these are appropriate, an almost inevitable for the genre, but at other times they feel forced and fraudulent; the worst offenders are the recollected passages between Elijah and Jessie regarding Biblical details, which struck me as ridiculous for a private conversation between a married couple. The dialogue of their son, Bentley, is even more grating (though fortunately minimal), but this may be understandable in light of the era – perhaps it should be no surprise to hear him speak like a stereotypical American teenager from the fifties (his favourite word is “Gosh!”) when the novel was, after all, written in America in the fifties. And although the dialogue is clunky, it is usually so functional that it does not get in the way of the story.

The dialogue of Bentley dates the book, and it’s not the only thing to do so. Like much historical science fiction, Caves is strange amalgam of the visionary and the of-its-time; though much of its culture is futuristic, it still reads like a Fifties society with changes added. On the technical side, Asimov failed to predict the extent of the impact of computers (though not as badly here as elsewhere), and the extent of population growth (it has us at eight billion thousands of years into the future, rather than now), and its impact (our eight billion feels nothing like as crowded as theirs!); in general, he fails to predict the speed of advance, which makes his timelines seem peculiarly elongated.

This details, however, are quibbles, and the assiduous reader can mentally edit most of them away (so what if he says eight billion? Maybe he meant eighty…). The biggest problem most will have with the book, if they can aclimatise to the old-fashioned and stilted dialogue, is a lack of emotional engagement; although there are real-feeling characters, I never really cared about them all that much, and too many of the secondary characters are stock footage or plot devices. That said, this is a detective story, a genre not known for its realism and emotion, so readers should not be too disappointed. My biggest concern would really be that the book has no particular purpose – it’s not the best mystery story out there, it’s not a character tale, and it doesn’t focus fully on the SF elements. But then, it’s only a brief read.

The Caves of Steel is one of Asimov’s best books, and it is also a more approachable book than the better-known Foundation series, making it, along with some of his short stories, an ideal entrance point for those not familiar with the author. Importantly, it is also a very short book (my copy is only 200 pages, although they are densely printed) – this may be either an advantage, as it takes little time to read and is therefore little risk, or a problem, depending on where you buy it (my copy has a RRP of £5.99 on the back, as much as an 800-page tome at the time, which is clearly a ridiculous price for its length). If you’re paying full price for this, don’t bother – it’s good, but not THAT good. If, however, price isn’t a concern, it’s worth a go.

Adrenaline: 4/5. It’s short, it’s fast-paced, and its plot is devious, while the writing is functional and doesn’t slow the reader down. It has a number of tense moments, and even a chase scene. It is, it’s true, never actually thrilling (it’s too dry for that, and has too little space to build up affectual import), but it’s mechanically compelling. I was up late into the morning finishing it.

Emotion: 2/5. Almost a 1, but saved by the effective, though minimal, characterisation. Asimov is very rarely a writer of elation or weeping, and the most I can say is that I did vaguely care what happened to the characters.

Thought: 4/5. There are too elements to this: the ideas, and the mystery elements of the plot. Neither, by itself, is exceptional: I am not a reader of mysteries, and this one was intriguing and page-turning, but even I can recognise that it was not at the top of that genre, and jaded readers can probably work out what’s going on far too early (for myself, I guessed who was responsible for what early on, and was mostly right, but could not work out the whys or the hows). The ideas, meanwhile, are thought-provoking and not entirely resolved, but are not given enough screentime, or viewpoints, to really grab hold. The combination of the two, however – thought-provoking plot in a  thought-provoking setting – was note-worthy, with each helping to deflect attention from the other to maintain a state of confusion longer than one might expect.

Beauty: 2/5. Not an attractive book; the odd beautiful image does not redeem the functionality of the writing, the clunkiness of the speech, or the skilfull but shambling plot.

Craft: 4/5. Only the dialogue and a few overly jerky, somewhat contrived plot-developments let this down. The prose may not be spectacular, but there is nothing wrong with it, the plot may not be elegant but it is engaging, and Asimov shows great dexterity in juggling foreground and background, presenting his facts openly but only drawing attention to them when required, like a magician performing a trick. It is also worth noting that although space does not allow a full depiction of the setting, the glimpses we are given are innovative and convincing; for a book that must create not one but two alien cultures, while pursuing a police inquiry, making world-affecting choices, debating the nature of humanity, and deliberating on the proper course of human progress, all in only 200 pages, it depicts a world far more believable and solid than it has any right to.

Endearingness: 3/5. I respect the book, but I don’t love it – the mystery elements make re-reading less rewarding, the characters are likeable but too distant to feel like friends, and the setting, dirty and depressing, is not somewhere I particularly want to revisit, however memorable it is.

Originality: 3/5. Let’s be clear: this book was stunningly original. It was the first major science fiction mystery novel, it was the first work in the now commonplace genre of arcology futures, it was a pioneer in robot stories (Bladerunner and the character of Data in Star Trek are among those obviously greatly in debt to it), it turns its ingenuity to almost every element, however small, of its setting (the moving strips, for instance, are simple but startlingly original), and it’s even an important progenitor of modern mismatched-buddy-cop stories. It’s also innovative in seemingly following the path of a dystopia without making that the focus of the story. Unfortunately, what matters here is originality to the reader, and the very importance of the novel in the history of science fiction means that most of its elements have been re-used so often that the reader will be familiar with them. Asimov does, however, use this tropes with their original freshness, and many elements turn out to be rather less familiar than they may appear from a description of them.

Echo: 0/2.

Overall: 5/7. Good. A modern reader may have some problems getting into this book; it is dated, it is in places contrived, and due to the many emulators it will often feel familiar, at least on the surface. Get beyond that, however, and it’s an extremely clever novel that attempts, and mostly achieves, several different things at once – it has a rare combination of intellectual interest and excitement, which here do not conflict, but actually co-operate. While it may have a cardboardy feel around the edges, this can be blamed as much on its narrow scope and short length as on the author, and the plot is pacey enough to carry the reader past such concerns, once it has grabbed hold. If you’ve never read Asimov, it’s a good starting point – if you can’t read this, you probably can’t read much of his work (a few of the better and more unusual short stories excepted), since his weak points here remain weak, and while it is not perhaps the best of his novels, it is probably one of the most accessible.

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One thought on “Reaction: The Caves of Steel

  1. […] Asimov – The Caves of Steel […]

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