Back when I was trying to survive high school, I used to find solace in the school library. I’d hide myself in the back, where the high bookshelves formed a narrow corridor and the only thing that could fit at the end was an old-fashioned wooden chair. I’d sit and read whatever I had with me, or whatever I could get my hands on in that rather limited collection. I spent many hours there during my years at high school, but the one book that I clearly remember reading — devouring, actually — was The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov.
I don’t know how many times I read that novel over the next few years. I loved its presentation of a futuristic, crowded New York City, its smart but bumbling detective Lije Bailey and his partner, the cool enigmatic robot R. Daneel Olivaw. At various times I had conversations with friends as to who would play Lije and Daneel if a film was made; the actors changing as their predecessors grew out of the roles.
I think the last time I read it was about 20 years ago. I’ve been reluctant to revisit it again. It was one of those books that were, perhaps, better off remaining as a good memory, I thought. But recently, while I was going through the Brooklyn Public Library online, it came up in a listing, and on a whim, I borrowed it.
The Caves of Steel takes place in a future in which the population of an overcrowded Earth live in huge domed tension-packed cities. Detective Lije Bailey lives with his wife Jessie and their teenage son in a small apartment in New York City. He is informed by his boss, Commissioner Enderby, that he has been assigned to investigate the murder of a visiting Spacer — one of the people who live off-planet on what were once Earth colonies.
The murder is a political and cultural minefield — what will the Spacers do if an Earther committed the crime? What will be the reaction of the Earth population, who distrust the Spacers? But what is even worse, Lije is forced to take as a partner a robot — a representative both of the Spacers and of the technology that may one day take away his job — named R. Daneel Olivaw.
Back to the future, culturally speaking
The Caves of Steel was actually already becoming dated when I first read it in the 1970s. It was first copyrighted in 1953, and its author was writing with the same unconscious blinders that many science fiction writers wore in those days.
I was most struck back then by how Lije’s wife Jessie was written: Superficial, gullible, somewhat vain, a woman who (quite naturally, in the viewpoint of the story) gives up her job when her son is born and remains a housewife even though he’s now an adolescent. It was actually Jessie whom I remembered most about the novel, even though she actually plays only a peripheral role in the plot.
What I didn’t remember, and what struck me forcefully this time, was how incredibly 1950s the story is in general outlook: Not only its treatment of its women characters (or, rather, woman — with a few brief exceptions, Jessie is pretty much the only female character in the novel), but in its presentation of the population in general, all of whom could have stepped out of a typical television sitcom of the time.
This is New York City, and yet everybody — both the arrogant Spacers and the crude and defensive Earthers — all seem to be cut from the same indistinguishable ethnic mold. There are only a few times when anyone is physically described with any specificity — Daneel has bronze hair and Jessie has brown hair and hazel eyes — but the very lack of description in the 1950s usually implied a pretty non-diverse population. It was typical of the time — but to a modern reader, it is jarring.
Class and classifications
On the other hand, the story has a good deal of interesting things to say about attitudes towards class — attitudes which, unfortunately, have not changed all that much. The society that Asimov creates revolves around one’s status as a worker. Everyone has a specific classification which determines where you stand in the society. Your rating determines where you can live, what you can eat, where you can sit on the subways, even whether you can have a working washbasin in your apartment.
Loss of a job, therefore, can mean a radical change in lifestyle and the loss of most of life’s comforts. Lije was traumatized as a youngster when his father was “declassified” and lost all status; after the death of his parents, he and his sisters were relegated to what were basically a futuristic version of Dickens’ workhouses. Lije has scratched his way back up to a reasonable standard of living, but the deprivations of his childhood constantly hang over him.
Which is why he understands the general hatred of robots that permeates Earth society — robots are taking jobs from humans, and the loss of a job means an inevitable slide into poverty. It’s a fairly obvious but effective retelling of the fear of the immigrant that repeatedly rears its head in American society — they are different than us, they don’t belong here, they will work for less (or, in the case of robots, for nothing) and therefore will take our jobs.
(This fear of the foreigner, of the person who, due to an “unfair” advantage could take over, wasn’t unknown to Asimov. A Russian Jewish immigrant, he had made it into what was then Columbia College, but was shuttled instead into Seth Low Junior College in Brooklyn, which had been created to pick up the Jewish and Italian-American students who didn’t make it into the main school under the quota that then existed.)
Spacers, on the other hand, stand in for what we might call the 1%. They live off-planet, the descendants of those who colonized a number of planets and who now live in societies permeated by the luxuries provided by robots (and by a very low birthrate), only coming to Earth occasionally — and never mixing with the Earth population.
It is an inherently unstable environment — one that is pervaded with discontent and the possibility of riots. The death of a prominent Spacer could be disastrous.
The story has a lot of the science fictional assumptions that were common at the time. People live in large urban domed cities (resulting in a case of mass agoraphobia); they travel on moving sidewalks; space travel across large distances is expected (although not common); they communicate using what are essential phones with TVs. People view what are called book-films with portable viewers, although like most of his contemporaries, Asimov didn’t foresee the extent of mobile computing and communications that would actually occur. (However, Daneel, able to communicate at will with the Spacers and provide data upon request, occasionally acts as sort of a smartphone with legs.)
Should you read it?
Here’s the difficult part: Would somebody unfamiliar with Asimov’s work like this novel? It’s hard for me to say — while it took me a couple of chapters to get into the novel this time, by the middle of the book I was enjoying the pace, the interaction of the characters, and the eventual solving of the mystery. But a lot of that could have been simple nostalgia.
On the whole, I think this would be an worthwhile novel to read, especially for somebody interested in 1950s science fiction. The style of the writing is much simpler than is usual today, the characters aren’t as sophisticated — and the sexual/cultural politics are well out of date. However, Lije Bailey and Daneel Olivaw remain a highly likable pair, and the story handles some interesting class issues under the guise of a futuristic society.
However, for somebody looking for an introduction to Asimov’s robot stories, I would much more likely recommend the short story collection I, Robot.
Asimov followed up with another novel called The Naked Sun, in which Lije partners again with Daneel, this time visiting one of the Spacer colonies. Two more novels followed about 30 years later: The Robots of Dawn and Robots and Empire. I remember reading The Robots of Dawn when it first came out and disliking it, because it didn’t seem to fit in which the other two. I should try it again.