It’s heralded as one of the best books Asimov ever wrote, but to me The Caves of Steel felt pretty pulpy. Maybe there’s not a lot more to be expected from a 200 page SF novel released in 1954.
There’s really not much meat on the bone story-wise: it hardly does anything new with the revolutionary ideas Asimov introduced to humanity in the earlier robot stories, and it basically only toys around a bit with them, in what is just a plain, straightforward and wooden detective story.
It’s also not nearly as well thought out as any of the books in the Foundation trilogy, which were published a few years before, and that’s a shame. Here, Asimov writes about a robot that talks and understands English very well, and can even mindread pretty complex mindsets (like the emotional ability of a human to kill or not), yet doesn’t understand or even hasn’t heard of words like “mercy”, “forgiveness”, “curiosity” or “bible”. That’s just inconsistent writing, sadly only for the sake of a few pages with some vague Ethics 101-stuff.
There’s other annoying stuff: while there are some interesting (and probably visionary) bits about ecology, overpopulation and the limits of Earth’s resources in the book, and hence about the reorganization of cities, there’s absolutely no justification for the fact that those cities on future Earth aren’t open to the air, the sun, the weather. Air-pollution? Radiation? Who knows? ‘Caves of steel’ seem like a neat idea – and makes for a good title – but as well crafted world building goes, it’s a gimmick only. The effects on humans of living indoors aren’t explored at all.
Finally, on a surface level the book seems to radiate a message of peace and understanding, since it’s about adjusting and overcoming prejudices – but actually — tiny spoiler alert — the main character’s development is the only one in the book, and paraphrases as this: “human is nudged to overcome fear of robots due to mild drug administered to him, without his knowledge”.
Still, it definitely was a mildly entertaining, fast read with some nice SF tidbits. So, those who have an interest in Asimov or 1950ies SF should give it a chance, for sure.
originally written on the 11th of July, 2015