Clever Titles That Inform Even without Lampshading Them

It’s a good thing I don’t book-blog pseudo-professionally, or I’d be in trouble for taking this long to read another book and review it. Of course, I finished this one last month sometime, but even so, reading has fallen by the wayside in the business of life. I’m going to try to pick it up again, though, because I just got a bunch of books for my birthday. Huzzah.

The Caves of Steel (Robot, #1)The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I finished this book some time ago, but never quite got around to writing a review. I hope I shall do it justice with retrospect alone.

It is difficult to say enough about the brilliance of Asimov’s work. He always entertains, and his science fiction always provokes thought experiments and the examination of curiosities. The characters of Elijah “Lije” Baley and R. Daneel Olivaw are compelling, each in their own way.

Lije has a tenacity that is appropriate to his profession, but (at first) lacks the ingenuity and pattern-discovery that we typically associate with a detective; this comes in time, but not before tilting at every windmill he passes in an effort to solve the case, resolve his fears, and return to a normal (somewhat humdrum) life, without all the wildness of human-like robots and politically-charged murder and conspiracies and the idea that Earthmen should recolonize space. This gives us a glimpse of the distant future Asimov has imagined: what sort of cultural changes might drive men to stay in their caves of steel and avoid the warmth of the sun and the taste of fresh air? What economic and social changes would there be? And how would a man fit into that world, especially a man concerned with finding justice? Would he even be so concerned?

R. Daneel neatly strikes that balance between human and inhuman; he is human enough for us to enjoy his presence (narrowly avoiding the uncanny valley), but rigid enough in his programming that we still see him as the outsider. I think the description provided in the story of Daneel’s programming fits him to a T–a robot designed to blend into human society and study human behavior, provided with an additional bit of “justice” code, where “justice” is defined as adhering to the law of the land. He is, at one and the same time, our “outsider,” who is so foreign that Baley spends much of the book despising him, but also our “straight man.” Everything in Baley’s world that is topsy-turvy from our own, we see it analyzed and organized and categorized through Daneel’s eyes. This builds Asimov’s world without info-dumping, while also avoiding the oh-so-tired trope of the “doe-eyed innocent” who has to have everything explained to him.

“The Caves of Steel” wasn’t the perfect book, though. Like all science fiction, it eventually becomes outdated, and the possibility of realizing the world imagined becomes less, and we start to wonder how applicable these warnings (and hopings) could even be applied to our lives. “Caves” is not so far gone as all that, but I still think its commentary had much more impact in the 1950s than it does today. Industrialism and pure productivity and dedication to labor and urbanization and all those things coming off the second World War have faded in the minds of many today; they still linger, here and there, but not so pervasively, I think (not that I was there).

I will say that I found Baley’s tilting at windmills tiresome after a while, but I feel the same when watching cop shows and the like; “How do these cops get away with accusing everyone and their mother of the same murder? Is this the ‘shotgun’ approach to getting confessions? ‘Yell at everyone, and someone will crack’? Or is it ‘even a broken clock is right twice a day’?” Informative of his character and Asimov’s world, yes; indicative of a good “whodunit,” not so much.

At any rate, a very good read, with some reasonably expected drawbacks. I will read the sequel (The Naked Sun) eventually, but I just got a pile of books for my birthday, and Asimov isn’t going anywhere.

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