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We interrupt M(art)ch Madness to bring you this discussion of a science fiction classic.

I picked up The Caves of Steel for free, I think, at a fair at my son’s school. My expectations weren’t high – not due to the price – but because I’ve struggled to enjoy Asimov’s novels. Asimov is one of the Big Three of mid-century U.S. science fiction writers, with Robert Heinlein and Arthur C. Clarke, and while I’ve read and enjoyed many of Heinlein and Clarke’s novels, Asimov eluded me.  As a young teenager I loved his short stories like “I, Robot” and “The Bicentennial man” but when I tried to read the Foundation Trilogy, I foundered. Too abstract, too complicated. I picked up Foundation again a few years ago as an adult, and I again lost interest. The problem, I realized, might have to do with how he wrote it, as a series of short stories that spanned thousands of years, and which therefore lacked a protagonist or organizing narrative to propel the action. When it comes it science fiction, at least, my tastes seem to be pretty meat-and-potatoes.

From that standpoint, then, the Caves of Steel was much more to my liking. It’s a murder mystery, told as a police procedural, set in a grim, future New York. The story centers around Elijah Baley, a haggard detective assigned a robot partner to solve the murder of a prominent robot scientist. While the mystery takes its twists and turns – some predictable, some not –  the book draws its energy from the tension between Lije, who resents robots and the threat they pose to earth’s workers, and Daneel, his robot partner. Asimov’s New York is a crowded, suffocating fortress, sealed from the elements, a cave of steel.  The economy is centrally planned, meals are eaten in mass “kitchens” and even toilets and bathrooms are shared expect for the lucky few with high enough status to win perks. Given its publication date, it’s hard not to read it as an anti-communist tract, but the critique is more subtle than that. Asimov’s New Yorkers lead proud, hardscrabble lives and disdain the aloof “spacers,” space colonist who left Earth generations ago and who have returned to share the benefits of their civilization in a manner that suggests the worse of noblesse oblige. It is the spacers who have brought robots to earth, and whose introduction threaten the advancement of workers desperate to improve their classification.

Through Lije, and his grudging acceptance of Daneel, our perspective and sympathies shift, and the spacers’s goals become less threatening and it’s the New Yorkers, clinging to their cramped, stratified way of life,  who become less sympathetic. The murder mystery then becomes a vehicle for a more complex story about free will and destiny. Along the way, Asimov wanders in and out of the Bible, and uses the literal intelligence of the robot as a foil for questions about mercy and justice.

There are flaws, of course, and the Caves of Steel can feel a bit dated. The writing is overwrought, and Asimov could have removed about half his adverbs to positive effect. It also has the sexism that seems endemic to the genre of that era, and the one female character, Lije’s wife, Jessie, is almost always in hysterics. Still, the pacing is brisk, the suspense genuine and the interplay between the Lije and Daneel feels like the template for all the ’80s cop buddy to come.

Books completed this year:

1, The Man in the High Castle (Dick)
2, Disgrace (Coetzee)
3, The Finkler Question (Jacobson)
4, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (Heinlein)
5, Beautiful Ruins (Walter)
6 Petropolis (Ulinich)
7, The Caves of Steel (Asimov)

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