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The Asimov of Steel!,
This review is from: The Caves of Steel (R. Daneel Olivaw, Book 1) (Mass Market Paperback)
Ah, Asimov. There's something terribly cozy about his fiction. Even when it's a work that you haven't read before, there are always a few touchstones to make any story seem familiar. With almost any other author, this would be a criticism, but this isn't the case for Asimov. His body of work often overlapped, but he was talented enough never to make his stories seem repetitive.
THE CAVES OF STEEL almost feels like two different kinds of stories in one. In one sense, Asimov constructed a mystery novel within the trappings and conventions of the science-fiction genre. But he's also very interested in world-building. He goes to great lengths to describe what life will be like in his future. I was on a train from Connecticut to Maryland, and I was quite amused at passing through geographical locations that Asimov had futurized. New York becomes a gigantic enclosed City, and Asimov takes great care to describe what the layout will look like and what the transportation methods will be. New Jersey becomes a gigantic yeast farm, and I'll let readers of this review make their own New Jersey jokes at this time.
The main plot focuses on an unexplained murder, and Earth detective Lije Baley has been teamed with R. Daneel Olivaw, with the "R" standing for "Robot". Not only are anti-robot feelings running high on Earth, but there is also a lot of animosity between Earth and the colonies. So, the murder of an important "Spacer" attracts enough attention that the forces of both sides are brought together to discover the truth.
Creating fully fleshed out characters was not always Asimov's strongpoint, and many of the secondary people feel fairly flat. Fortunately, the two main detectives have been thought though fairly well. Of course, since one half of the team is robotic, Asimov was making things easier on himself since he did seem to enjoy creating robots as much as he enjoyed creating human characters. But the interplay between the Earther and the robot are just as good as anything Asimov wrote in I, ROBOT, or indeed, anything of his that I've read.
I read Asimov's final autobiography (he wrote three volumes over the years) a couple of years ago, and it's fascinating to see how much of himself he put in his stories. Asimov famously hated leaving his apartment, and was apparently uneasy about being in wide-open spaces. So it's not surprising to see that in the future of THE CAVES OF STEEL, mankind is overwhelmingly agoraphobic. When a robotics scientist is transported in to the story and gives a short lecture about how he hates flying, we know that this is Asimov himself expressing one of his own personality quirks. Little asides and pieces of dialog further this impression. When Baley delivers a speech about an Old Testament King, the tone is almost identical to that of some of Asimov's essays that deal with Biblical subjects.
Mystery and science fiction were the two fictional genres that I feel Asimov was the most successful at. Here, he combines these into one utterly engrossing story. The plot is a lot of fun, and so is the world-building that Asimov undertakes. But I think what I remember most about the book is the partnership of the two main characters. Having robots and humans intermingle is something that Asimov did quite a lot of in his novels and short stories, but I think the pairing in this book is probably one of his most successful. I already own the sequel to this book, THE NAKED SUN (yet another in my overflowing and increasing too-read pile), and I am already looking forward to being reunited with these two characters.