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- ISBN: 978-0553293401
- Title: The Caves of Steel
- Author: Asimov, Isaac
- Publisher: Bantam Spectra, New York
- Year: 1954
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Set in Asimov’s early robot-foundation universe, The Caves of Steel is the first of three detective novels involving plain-clothes detective Elijah “Lije” Baley, and humaniform robot R. Daneel Olivaw.
It has been over a thousand years since human society integrated with robots, and interstellar travel was introduced. The exploits of Dr. Susan Calvin, outlined in I, Robot, Robot Dreams_, and Robot Visions, have since been forgotten or attributed to myth and legend.
Earth society has become massively overpopulated and pathologically agoraphobic, living for generations inside massive cities, referred to as caves of steel. These great cities are so massive as to integrate New York, Boston, and Washington into superdense clusters, burrowing into the ground. The residents therein develop a phobia of open spaces, never venturing outside the rooms, halls, and corridors of infrastructure.
Population has reached a density as to require strict resource rationing based on a class system. Water is rationed in communal showers, food is rationed in cafeterias, yeast becomes the primary agricultural produce, with flavor additives to emulate the taste of meat, grains, fruits, vegetables, etc… The massive populations and integrated technologies are on the verge of catastrophic failure.
Meanwhile, the human race has nearly branched off into a different path of evolution, personified in 50 nearby planets, terraformed and settled by Spacers. Unlike earth, the Spacers embrace robot technology, and have become dependent and weakened by their service to humanity. Earthen pathogens have been eliminated from the Spacer worlds, technology is highly advanced, and the Spacers eschew unhealthy ways of living. As a result, the average Spacer lifespan is over 300 years.
Long lives and strict population control cause the Spacer worlds to become risk averse and stagnant, their robotic culture is slowly regressing. Humanity is at risk as the Spacers and Earth people are heading towards self destruction.
Dr. Han Fastolfe, a Spacer Roboticist, realizes that Spacers and Earthmen must work together to expand further in the galaxy to ensure the survival of the human race. His efforts are centered in New York City, where anti-Spacer sentiment runs particularly high. His efforts are thwarted, when his colleague, Dr. Roj Nemennuh Sarton, is murdered in Spacer territory, apparently by an Earthman.
Plain-clothes detective Elijah Baley is drawn into the politically charged case, and comes to discover his success may determine the future of humanity. He begrudgingly accepts the help of a Spacer designed humaniform robot R. Daneel Olivaw, though the robot becomes a focus of his investigation.
The novel forms an important basis for the rest of the robot-foundation series, however it is quite possibly my least favorite. Although I thoroughly enjoy the description of overpopulated earth and the overindulged Spacer worlds, I find the petulance of Elijah Baley and the whining of his wife a little grating. Also, the plot direction is just a little transparent and one-dimensional, which is rarely a good thing in a detective mystery.
However, Asimov is a great writer, and even the lesser of his works are still worth reading. Besides, taken as part of the whole series, the plot of The Caves of Steel is a requisite and revealing component.