I thought I'd read this before. I really thought I had. But maybe I just saw it on my Mom's headboard when I was little, with other Asimovs, and thought I'd read it. Because it rang not a bell at all.
that I knew within the first 30 pages who the murderer was. So either I
had read it and blocked out everything but that, or Asimov didn't
construct his mystery particularly well in this case. I think it's the
latter. It's a matter of a few extraneous details at a moment that felt
far too obviously one chosen to weave in things that would be important
It's too bad, because I enjoy Asimov's actual mystery
series quite a lot. But, as I've said in the past, the real key is, is
there enough here, even when the mystery is gone? It's a big yes for me.
Lije Baley, cop, is paired with R(obot). Daneel Olivaw to solve
a crime - a Spacer has been murdered in their separate Spacetown, and
it appears to have been a job by an Earthman. Baley hates the idea of
robots, and being partnered with one, but does his job - although he is
often blinded by his hatred to some fairly obvious matters. It makes one
wince. But his screw-ups are interesting and understandable.
what made this book really work for me is the society Asimov has
created, and his explorations of its strengths and weaknesses. This is
not future capitalist society. Nor is it communism, but a curious
mixture of both and something else - what he calls Cityism. In a highly
interdependent society, everyone has access to the same base level of
living (a very poor one), but can earn privileges based on the position
one holds and its importance to the overall scheme.
centralization on a huge scale, and the places where it binds are
obvious - indeed, the book revolves around a "Medievalist" revolt
against the huge Citystate. (For "Medieval," read "20th Century".) They
want to go back to the land, and hate and despise Spacers for starting
to introduce crude robots to the culture.
But there are too many
humans for that, really. Where could they go? Spacer worlds are
underpopulated, but are stagnant (and regarded by the Medievalists as
Where this gets particularly interesting is in the
discussion over humans losing their jobs to robots, who can do basic
tasks (Daneel, a Spacer robot, is far advanced beyond those available in
general society.) It caught me short, when I noticed Asimov was using
specific words to describe those robots that were taking people's jobs
for less money (maintenance, basically), and the violent reaction
It was "inscrutable" that did it. I started to pay
attention, and most of the words used to describe these job-stealing
robots were specifically ones that were commonly used to describe
Chinese workers on the Pacific coast of the U.s. and Canada, when racism
and violence frequently broke out, and the Chinese workers were
targeted by angry white workers. It's very subtle, but it's not a
That parallel drawn, this opened up into an examination
of how "foreigners" are regarded by the working-class, and the violence
he was discussing was drawing on a long tradition of racism and
nativism. Medievalism had worthwhile ideas, but there was this distinct
tinge that was there to point out that these are not even necessarily
new arguments, but they are sometimes ugly.
Where do you go from
there? Asimov suggests into a hybrid culture, working with, not
against, the "other." To create something entirely new, provide a
genuinely new frontier to a world that had forgotten not only what a
frontier was, but even what daybreak looked like.
On one level, Caves of Steel
is not a great murder mystery. It's an interesting but not spectacular
science fiction book. But once he started to get me thinking about race
and class, I was hooked.