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The Caves of Steel
Isaac Asimov
Narrated by William Dufris, unabridged
Tantor Media, 7 hours 44 minutes

The Caves of Steel
Isaac Asimov
Isaac Asimov was born in 1920 in the town of Petrovichi, Russia. When his family came to the US in 1923, they moved to Brooklyn, NY, eventually settling nearby one of the several candy stores bought by his father. In 1942, he took a wartime job at the Philadelphia Naval Yard and moved back to New York in 1945 where he was inducted into the army.

He attended the Brooklyn campus of Seth Low Junior College and then Columbia University. He graduated with a B.S. in Chemistry in 1939. He got into the master's program in chemistry at Columbia on probation. After a year the probation was lifted, and he earned his M.A. in Chemistry in 1941. He continued on at Columbia in a Ph.D. program where he earned his Ph.D. in Biochemistry in May 1948 (with time out for war service).

He worked as a junior chemist at the Philadelphia Navy Yard from May 1942 to October 1945, together with fellow science fiction authors Robert A. Heinlein and L. Sprague de Camp. In 1948 he obtained a post-doctoral position at Columbia and, in 1949, he took a job as instructor of biochemistry at the Boston University School of Medicine, and was promoted to assistant professor in 1951. He was promoted to associate professor, which provided him with tenure, in 1955. He gave up his teaching duties and salary at the School of Medicine in 1958 , but retained his title, so that on July 1, 1958, he became a full-time writer. In 1979, the school promoted him to the rank of full professor. Asimov died on April 6, 1992 of heart and kidney failure.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: I, Robot
SF Site Review: The End of Eternity

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Nicki Gerlach

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In the first of Isaac Asimov's Robot novels, he introduces a world where, a thousand years from now, the citification of Earth is complete.  All of Earth's eight billion people live and work inside great enclosed cities -- the caves of steel of the title -- never experiencing weather, never seeing natural light, never breathing fresh air -- and, for the most part, never thinking twice about it.  However, the Cities are not a Utopia.  For one thing, the elitist Spacers, long-ago galactic colonists who have returned to Earth, have brought their robot technology back with them, and the robots are taking over jobs from regular Earth citizens.  There's growing anti-robot prejudice that frequently results in riots, demonstrations, and destruction of property, which in turn earns harsh sanctions from the Spacers. 

Elijah Baley is a regular police detective, content in his work and his life until the day his boss assigns him the most delicate and dangerous case of his career. A Spacer scientist has been murdered by an Earthman, and Baley is responsible for finding the culprit and avoiding increased tension between the City and Spacetown.  But, of course, he's not going to be allowed to work alone.  He has been assigned a partner from Spacetown, R. Daneel Olivaw… and the R. stands for robot.  Olivaw is unlike anything Baley's ever seen, a robot designed to exactly mimic human appearance; and in Olivaw's case, the appearance he is mimicking is that of the murder victim.  Baley must overcome his anti-robot prejudices and learn to work with Olivaw in order to solve the murder, and, what's more, uncover the real reason for the underlying tension between the Spacers and the Earthmen. 

There is a very fine line for an author to walk when setting their science fiction novel in Earth's future… Not far enough in the future, and they run the risk of the future catching up to the book (vis. 1984 and 2001) without catching up to the technology, making it simultaneously dated and implausible.  On the other hand, setting the book too far in the future runs the opposite risk of having technology catch up to the book, without catching up to the future.  Both of these problems are particularly evident in classic sci-fi -- more time since publication equals more time for either the predicted technology or timeline to be proven wrong. 

That said, The Caves of Steel actually fares pretty well against the dilemma of future timing.  While I think Asimov over-shot when he set it a thousand years in the future -- no one in 1008 C.E. could have predicted the internet, and I similarly think 3008 is going to be different from 2008 by a matter of substance, not degree -- a lot of the issues that get raised are oddly prescient of problems facing today's world.  Sure, the predicted "eight billion people on Earth oh my god we all have to live in shoeboxes and shower communally and eat yeast" seems a trifle hyperdramatic, given that we're currently pushing seven billion, but from the viewpoint of a 2.5-billion-global-population-1950s, eight billion probably seemed like a sufficiently scary big number.  (Even more scary is that Asimov thought it would take us a thousand years to get to eight billion, and we're probably going to manage to do it in 75.)  However, Asimov's proposed solution to over-population -- increased galactic colonization -- is impractical by today's lights, not just because we lack the technology, but because it's at best a stop-gap: eventually those worlds are going to become over-populated as well.  Still, I think the rather grim picture that Asimov paints of an overcrowded Earth is potent enough to shock people into thinking about overpopulation, and that's all to the good. 

Apart from the deeper cultural and philosophical issues raised by this book, the plot was interesting enough to keep me engaged.  While murder mysteries aren't usually my genre of choice, I had a gut instinct as to the guilty party from relatively early on in the book, and although I couldn't quite piece together the evidence by myself, it certainly made sense with no glaring holes when the characters explained it during the denouement.  In retrospect, the pacing of the story is a little strange, with long chunks of philosophical discussion about the nature of roboticity, humanity, citification, colonization, etc. interspersed with more typical detective work and action-oriented sequences, although both types of sections were done well enough to hold my attention without dragging. 

One issue I did have with this book was the handling of the female characters.  Even making allowances for the time and cultural change that has occurred since this novel's original publication, the women in this book (not that there were many) just plain annoyed me.  Part of this was the narrator's responsibility – his voices for women were forced and could get rather shrill -- but part of this is surely because the women in the novel are essentially shells, good for little except clinging to their husbands in fright and gossiping in the bathrooms.  It wasn't egregious enough to ruin my enjoyment of the book, and the women get relatively little "screen time," so periods of annoyance were brief, but grating nevertheless.  Dufris did a fine job with the rest of the narration; characters were distinguishable by voice, especially after the first chapter, and the acting injected the right level of personality and emotion without getting overdramatic or yelly. 

Overall, I think The Caves of Steel would be a good first exposure for the uninitiated to Asimov's work or to classic science fiction in general, and the audio version would be an enjoyable way to revisit the book for those who are already fans. 

Copyright © 2008 Nicki Gerlach

Nicki Gerlach is a mad scientist by day and an avid reader the rest of the time.  More of her book reviews can be found at her blog, fyreflybooks.wordpress.com/.


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