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Book cover art by Stephen Youll (1st); Michael Whelan (2nd); John Berkey (3rd).
Review © 1998 by Thomas M. Wagner.

One of the most famous and popular of SF's enduring classics, The Caves of Steel, Isaac Asimov's 11th novel, is a prime example of virtually flawless storytelling and is even held by some to be the best novel Asimov ever wrote. That may be arguable, but The Caves of Steel, after over half a century, remains a tremendously satisfying reading experience. Truth to tell, there are sequences where the book shows its age a bit. But most of those scenes really don't damage the end result in any significant way.

The story is a nifty murder mystery set in a distant future Earth in which humanity now lives in enclosed city-sized buildings known as, of course, Cities. Between the people of Earth and the Spacers, human emigrants from Earth who live amongst 50 independent colonized planets, there exists a powerful antagonism which is made no better by the introduction of R's (robots) designed and perfected amongst Spacer colonies to do all the menial tasks humans do, freeing up humans for a life of leisure and pleasure. At least, that's how it works off-world. In the Cities of Earth, as robots became integrated into Earth's rigidly heirarchical society, and some of them began taking sorely needed jobs away from people, hostilities erupted into riotous frenzy. Now, robot integration is a slower process, though one that meets with no less hatred.

Elijah Baley is a police detective who is called in to solve the murder of a prominent Spacer in a cordoned-off sector of New York called simply Spacetown. At the Spacers' insistence, Baley is partnered with — horror of horrors — a robot, R. Daneel Olivaw. And yet Olivaw is the first of a whole new breed of R's. Nearly human in appearance and demeanor, Olivaw was in fact invented by the murder victim, a Spacer scientist actually sympathetic to Earth people who hoped the new generation of human-like robots would improve the pace of Earth's technological growth and help Earth overcome its xenophobia. The Spacers, and Olivaw, believe the scientist was murdered by an underground anti-Spacer organization which knew of these plans, and, to say the least, disapproved strongly. But despite Earthfolks' hatred of Spacers, Baley knows of no organized terrorist cells dedicated to their destruction. This is, after all, a society of such restrictive social customs that people don't even talk to each other in the bathroom. Nevertheless, as Baley and Olivaw pursue the case, clues mount up which point to a conspiracy almost as labyrinthine as the endless tunnels of the Cities themselves.

The Caves of Steel is, quite simply, a delightfully twisted little mystery. I like to think I'm pretty good at these kinds of things — I can peg the endings of detective novels I read about half the time, and I figured out the climactic twist in the overpraised film The Usual Suspects less than an hour in. But Asimov stayed several jumps ahead of me throughout this tale; one terrific storytelling ploy was to have Baley make some humiliating goofs early in the investigation, not something you'd ever find a flawless thinker like Poirot doing. It was also terrific fun to see such an early, and unconventional, variation on what has since become a cliché to end all clichés: the "buddy cop" story. Again I must note that there are some scenes that haven't worn too well. An early bit involving a near-riot at a shoe store just seemed contrived to me, as if Asimov needed a deliberate inciting incident to kick his plot into motion. Still, taken against the novel as a whole, that isn't such a big deal.

The Caves of Steel goes beyond the boundaries imposed by genre convention. More than merely an entertaining whodunnit, this novel is ultimately about humanity's need to overcome the fears and prejudices which senselessly prevent our own betterment as a species. For 1953, it was a revolutionary idea. Today, it might seem old hat, but, if ongoing racial strife is any indication, it's an idea we still sorely need. With indispensible stories like this coming effortlessly from his pen, it's no wonder that Isaac Asimov was, and still is, one of SF's true masters.