The Caves of Steel

July 11, 2018

Book Cover for The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov

After my post on telepresense, I got DM from my Internet friend and colleague Matt Weinberg of the Vector Media Group. He was eager to recommend one of Isaac Asimov’s books, The Naked Sun, which deals a lot with this concept of telepresence. But he said that this book is part of Asimov’s Robot Series and I should start at the beginning with The Caves of Steel. This was a welcome recommendation because in 2018 I’ve been trying to read more Science Fiction, partly because I want to break away from non-fiction and partly because I want read others’ thoughts about the future.

Opening The Caves of Steel I didn’t know what to expect. The last sci-fi book I read was pretty hokey so I was prepared for the worst. I was pleasantly surprised however.

The Caves of Steel is a sci-fi noir detective story set a thousand or so years in the future. The crux of the book is that Detective Elijah Baley undergoes an experiment where he is partnered with a sophisticated robot to help solve a mysterious case. In the first few pages of the book we’re met with the tension of robots taking human jobs.

Whoah.

I was not expecting that. Even though this book was written some 65 years ago, it feels amazingly more prescient today as the Singularity is appearing on the horizon. It reintroduces and plays heavily on the 3 Laws of Robotics which is maybe kitschy to think this, but I hope people creating the AI of the future are imbuing this ethical foundation.

This book had me hooked. And since it’s a detective story, I can’t say much more. But one thing that touched me was the societal dynamics. In the book there are three groups of people:

  • Earthmen: People who live on Earth, typically in large City-sized communal housing.
  • Spacers: People who colonized other planets and came back to Earth and live separated from Earthmen.
  • Medievalists: A cult-like group of Earthmen who believe that humans need to rebuff robots and modern technology and return to the soil.

What I loved about these depictions is that I could identify with each persona: the blue-collar Earthmen, the logical and science-minded Spacers, the reactive and leery Medievalists. I like asking myself “Who am I in this book?” I felt like I identified with equal parts of each and it made for a better read to feel connected to each character in a different way.

I also loved that I couldn’t pinpoint political affiliations. Never did I find myself saying “Oh, those are the Liberals and those are the Republicans” (well, except maybe the Medievalists). Capitalism, communism, nativism, and globalism are all still mixed together but presenting themselves differently. Each group seemed like an evolution of our current society, new morality evolved by clear decision paths that create their distinct identities. That was the most impressive bit of Science Fiction. That, and the robot stuff.

This is an incredible page-turning read. All in all, a timeless sci-fi classic with a bit of pulp detective novel mixed in. And the vintage cover art is orgasmic. I couldn’t recommend it more and thanks Matt for sending me down this path. I’ll probably exhaust the whole Asimov catalog.