Welcome to the first Summer of Asimov, where we'll be examining the third of the so-called Big Three Golden Age Science-Fiction authors. We've already covered the technologist Arthur C. Clarke and the political futurist Robert A. Heinlein, so now we get to the philosophical fantasist, Isaac Asimov. Covering Asimov adequately over one summer proved to be a daunting task, especially with the current coronovirus situation, so I've had to split it into two. This year, we'll be spending most of our time with the Robot and Empire series--tackled in a carefully chosen order--and next year, I plan to cover the entire Foundation series. So sit back, relax, and enjoy some vintage, epic science-fiction from one of the grandmasters of the genre.
Like some of his best robot stories, Asimov patterned his first robot novel, The Caves of Steel, as a fairly standard mystery narrative. This is not to say the book should be called "standard" in any other way, as it is, in true Asimov fashion, incredibly clever and thought-provoking. Set in a semi-dystopian future Earth, where normal cities have been replaced with "The Cities," gargantuan, enclosed buildings that cover hundreds of miles of real estate and are capable of housing hundreds of millions, the novel was one of Asimov's biggest early hits, taking advantage of the deep lore he'd established in his robot stories.
In the book's future (which by Asimov standards is the "near" future), while humanity has managed to populate a handful of other planets in the galaxy by virtue of a strong reliance on an advanced robotic workforce, Earth is increasingly insulated and reluctant to trust both the Spacers and their soulless robots. To combat this robo-phobia and save the Earth from its growing stagnation, the Spacers have established a colony of their own on the outskirts of New York, Spacetown, hoping to slowly export their synthetic creations, combat deep-seated human prejudice, and show the Earthlings that there might be more to life than their homeworld.
But a prominent figure in this plan, a visionary roboticist in Spacetown, has just been murdered, apparently by an Earthman. Enter Elijah "Lije" Baley, the low-level but highly-skilled Earth detective assigned to solve the case before word gets out and passions flare out of control on both sides. If that weren't enough, he has to work with a Spacer partner who happens to be a robot with the perfect likeness of the murder victim, who might just represent his replacement should he fail at his job.
This has absolutely nothing to do with the novel
There is a lot to like about this story, from its ingenious twists and turns, its logical and natural plot progression, its intense world-building, its understated style, and its introduction of R. Daneel Olivaw (Asimov's greatest recurring robot creation). I could gush all day about the way it manages to have a politics-heavy plot without being political--Asimov is a little better than Clarke and Heinlein at both political nuance and the heuristic of charity--and I could go on about how the book seems to be more about the setting than anything else, which is interesting in and of itself.
All that said, though, I'd rather talk about the handful of things I think it does poorly, primarily its principal character, Lije Baley. Asimov is trying to split the baby with this dual detective archetype, a kind of middle ground between the hard-edge anti-heroes of Dashiel Hammett and the morally upstanding heroes of more conventional detective stories. Baley is a confusing character, then, and we are told more about his character through dialogue and his reputation than we are shown it through his own actions. A few times--especially early on--he is generally unlikable and hard to relate to.
Asimov alludes to a more radical past where Baley was willing to participate in semi-violent protests against the Spacers, and Baley does have a built-in prejudice against robots that seems to be well-earned. However, at the same time, Baley only intermittently seems driven by his passions, as he mostly just goes along with his obligations while Asimov hides the man's thoughts in order to set-up the surprise of a dramatic reveal of his current theory of the case. Granted, I do appreciate that the detective gets it spectacularly wrong the first two times this happens--for perfectly logical reasons that all fall in line with the traits we've been told about him--but the narrative obscurity conspires to make his character seem a bit under-written and under-realized, a cypher more than an actual person.
The cheesy Signet paperback cover is somehow the most accurate depiction of the novel
He does have an arc, of course, and a good one at that. He learns to appreciate his robot companion and come around to the point of view of the Spacers, and that mostly works, though there are no singularly defining moments that explain his change of heart. Unfortunately, it all gets muddled by the fact that he's a family man with a wife and son, both of whom serve as important plot points. He never comes across as a family man, and his relationship with his wife feels particularly strange, even after the twist about his wife is revealed late in the story. He also gets angry and combative very suddenly at random intervals without a lot of obvious reasons, which doesn't help endear him to readers.
Maybe I'm just being nitpicky about poor Lije, though. After all, any failings in the main character are more than made up for by his companion, R. Daneel Olivaw. Asimov has an arguably undeserved reputation for being better at writing robots than people, and this book does a pretty good job making that case. That said, I don't think it's true in most of his writings, as there are several human characters who are just as deep and interesting as Olivaw, including the likes of Susan Calvin and the great Hari Seldon.
Ultimately, though, this is the third book I've covered in a row that I'd consider a good starting point for anybody interested in getting to know Asimov as a science-fiction writer. The Caves of Steel is a brisk paperback thriller that finds a good harmony between pulpy fun and intelligent science-fiction, and I think that's where Asimov shines brightest. Of course, due to its immense popularity, it was only a matter of time before Asimov would be forced to write a sequel, but that's a subject for next week.
-e. magill 6/11/2020
SPECIAL THANKS TO MY PATRONS: