The Caves of Steel

Isaac Asimov
The Caves of Steel Cover

The Caves of Steel


Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc: December 1991 edition
Originally published 1953
Series: The Robot Series #1
Intended Audience: Adult
Sexual content: N
Ace/Genderqueer characters: Y
Rating: PG
Writing style: 3/5
Likable characters: 4/5
Plot/Concepts: 4/5

These books started me into my love of robots, at a time when I still didn't fully understand the asexual label or how it fit me. Generally, robots as a "race" are by default asexual, unless they are programmed otherwise. At least, that's what makes the most sense, right? Sometimes authors forget this, but thankfully, Asimov never did as far as I know.

Asimov's greatest strength is probably the extent to which he understands and explores the rules of his universe. This series revolves around the unchangeable Three Laws of Robotics. Excuse the obligatory quoting of the Laws, but with Asimov, they make up a core aspect of every plot line having to do with robots.

1) A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm; 2) A robot must obey the orders given to it by humans, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law; 3) A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.

Deceptively simple? Well, these laws do make Asimov's robots, for the most part, a docile and lovable bunch, although Asimov doesn't shy away from discussion of the Frankenstein complex either. What I find most impressive, though, is how he finds ways to weave these three laws and their effects on robots into the conflicts of human society. Which brings me, finally, to the first book in this series: The Caves of Steel.

Elijah "Lije" Baley is a Plainclothesman (policeman) living in a City with a capital C. Due to overpopulation, the people of earth have crammed themselves into massive temperature-controlled Cities where they never see the outdoors. Most suffer from intense agoraphobia due to this, Lije included. The Spacers—long-lived descendants of people who left Earth long ago to settle other worlds—are watching Earth from a settlement just outside New York City. Anti-robot sentiment abounds among Earthpeople but the Spacers love robots and depend on them for everything. When a Spacer is murdered, Lije is assigned a Spacer android partner, Daneel Olivaw, to help him investigate the murder and keep peace with Spacetown.

My favorite part of this first book is the dynamic between Daneel and Lije as they learn to cooperate as partners. Lije is a fairly likable character, especially in the sense that he changes and grows. Surprisingly, so does Daneel—the supposedly unchanging and unruffled robot—but in subtle ways which do not feel forced. Their relationship dynamic provides for some funny, cute, and entertaining moments, especially as Daneel is a kind of foil for Elijah's self-consciousness as a flawed human being.
In short, Asimov writes robots really well. He makes their mechanical mentality convincing, but gives them nuanced personalities that make them all the more endearing. But his only really strong human character in this series is Lije, and this is why The Caves of Steel is the strongest book of the four—because it centers on Lije, his family, and his city. Asimov's world-building is also very well thought out, even apart from the effect of robots on society. He addresses the ways in which crowded city life on a planet with limited resources might affect the structure of society and human psychology. He has so many ideas that he tends to info-dump a bit, which can be frustrating for some readers. However, there is plenty of action and crime-solving to balance it out. As a detective novel, it's good in the sense that I didn't figure out who had committed the murder until Lije did.

There is no sexual content to speak of in The Caves of Steel. Lije is married but his sex life is not addressed in the book, and sex does not play a role in the mystery either.

As far as gender identities represented in the books, most of the characters are male or presented as male, including the few robots. Daneel as an android has a male physical appearance (albeit modelled after the more androgynous Spacer rather than an Earth man) and adopts human behaviors in order to blend in, but those who are not androids have no particular gendered behaviors. Unfortunately Lije's wife is the only memorable female character, and she plays only a small role in the background. So gender roles among the earth-people are very old-fashioned. Daneel partially makes up for this in his questioning of earth society. Overall I find it enjoyable despite its flaws.

Like most mystery series, The Robot Series is episodic in nature. You can enjoy one without needing to read the later volumes. That being said, you would not want to read them out of order.