Thursday, July 9, 2015

The Caves of Steel, by Isaac Asimov

This week I'm reviewing just one of Isaac Asimov's books, in this case going to the robots series with the first book, The Caves of Steel. This book follows the adventures of detective Lije Baley and his robot partner, R. Daneel Olivlaw as they try to solve a murder. Ostensibly this book is supposed to be a murder mystery story, but personally I didn't find it to be a terribly good mystery novel and it seems to exist more to set up a later story more than anything else. Which is weird considering I didn't think that was Asimov's intention when writing it in the first place. At least, not according to the introduction from him anyway.

Time-line wise this book is set hundreds of years after humanity has sent colonists to the fifty Outer Worlds, but well before humanity has expanded in a second wave of emigration and colonization, which will ultimately result in the First Empire. Earth is currently inhabited by eight billion people, with the population slowly inching upwards, and all of humanity is packed in great hive Cities across the globe. To the point Earth-born humans have forgotten life outside the Cities and many find the prospect of life in an uncontrolled environment terrifying. The fifty Outer Worlds, although technologically superior to Earth, amount to only about five and a half billion people, and are incredibly vulnerable to disease due to generations of people with no exposure to earth-borne pathogens. The result is two cultures that do not understand each other, and don't really tolerate each other as well. A small delegation of Spacers maintain a presence on Earth, but this delegation is tenuous at best. The situation becomes much worse when a prominent Spacer gets murdered and the Spacers are convinced an Earth conspiracy is to blame.

The biggest issue I have with this murder mystery is that there are no clues, no evidence, and only one possible suspect. However the only suspect is dismissed because of a sci-fi technobabble test that proves he doesn't have the personality to commit murder, which leaves Lije and Daneel with basically no clues or anything to work on. The result is that Lije and Daneel just kind of stumble around through most of the book trying to make any connection whatsoever. Left with no possible solutions, Lije and Daneel consider half a dozen impossible solutions which prove, eventually, to be impossible. I feel like it's unfair to the reader to make a mystery with absolutely no clues, because that makes it impossible to solve the mystery. It seems like a deliberately low trick.
But as I said earlier, the mystery also feels secondary to the story, which is kind of weird if this is meant to be a detective story. For quite a lot of this novel, although you get a lot of this in science-fiction novels, it's just the technological exposition. Look at all the things that are different in this future I've created! Most humans eat yeast! How weird is that? That's not really the most annoying part, though, because I'm just used to that in science-fiction books and the exposition has to go in somewhere. The problem is that this book sets up its society, shows what's wrong with it, and then proposes a solution to fix it, to the detriment of the detective story. I feel like this book could have either been a science-fiction commentary on overpopulation and humans' fear of technology, or it could have been a science-fiction detective novel, but by attempting to do both the book suffers. And while I don't doubt that Asimov has the writing skills to make a story, for whatever reason it just doesn't work out in this novel.

I am going to read the next book in the robot series at some later point and if it improves any I'll probably look into reading the other ones, but I've got a guarded opinion at the moment. While some of my favorite stories come from Asimov, he also produced a book I ended up throwing against the wall so clearly his work can range from very good to very bad. I'll just have to see where it goes.

- Kalpar

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