Journey Through The SFF Classics: Isaac Asimov’s “Caves Of Steel”

Well, this was my first Asimov robots book, and I really enjoyed it. In fact, it’s been a decade, but I don’t remember enjoying the Foundation series as much as I did this. It’s a thriller detective story at heart with a SF setting.

The premise is that Spacers, descendents of Earth who have grown up on colonies in space, have returned to live outside the domed cities of Earth. In this case, New York. The spacers keep most Earthlings from entering their cities for fear of disease and are standoffish. Most of them don’t come into the domes either. Instead, they send robots. But the Earthlings distrust robots. In fact, many fear them. Then a spacer is murdered. Grizzled New York detective Lije (Elijah) Bailey is assigned to investigate and, in the interests of proving he’s fair, assigned a spacer partner named R. Daneel Olivaw. The R designates his species: robot, or really an Android, since he looks identical to his human creator, the murder victim. Lije’s natural distrust of robots and his own family’s fears are brought into play as they get to know each other and begin to investigathe. At first, Lije accuses the Spacers themselves of the murder as a plot to destabilize relations between the two group. But over time, he begrudgingly comes to respect Daneel, and, in fact, together they discover a far deeper plot.

Although there are moments of silly dialogue (Asimov isn’t known for great dialogue according to anything I’ve read) like “Why you need go in for–for no purpose?” AHEM, he is known for great ideas. His future view of the Earth could happen, but I’d hope it doesn’t. The idea of big cities encased in domes and a countryside run by robots solely for agricultural and resource gathering is a bit sad to think about. People so used to dome air they get sick in the open air? Wow. That would be disappointing for someone who enjoys the outdoors like me. Still, the story moves at a nice clip and the character building of the two leads is very strong. Supporting characters who get some attention include Jessi, Lije’s wife, a Spacer robotics scientist, and the Police Commissioner, who is Lije’s old classmate and friend. But mostly the story centers around Lije and Daneel as they investigate and interrogate various bit players and examine evidence.

Unlike today’s novels, the book is short at 191 pages. And there are a few archaic phrases such as “he took a wrong turning” which seem to have been proper usage at the time (1953) when the book was published, but which aren’t common now. So in that sense, the book feels dated. But Asimov gets a lot of plot into its short length. I was engaged from very early on. I wanted to know what would happen next, and I look forward to The Naked Sun, Robots Of Dawn and Robots and Empire. I may squeeze them into this Journey Through The SFF Classics as I expand that list. We’ll see. I have plenty on the list to keep me busy for a while, as you may remember from the introductory post.

In any case, this is a highly entertaining and fast read and I think it would be a great entry not only to classic science fiction and fantasy but to Asimov for anyone who has not yet read his work or many classics.

Next up on my Journey: Do Androids Dream Of Electronic Sheep? by Philip K. Dick

Bryan Thomas Schmidt is the author of the space opera novels The Worker Prince, a Barnes & Noble Book Clubs Year’s Best SF Releases of 2011 Honorable Mention, andThe Returning, the collection The North Star Serial, Part 1, and has several short stories featured  in anthologies and magazines.  He edited the new anthology Space Battles: Full Throttle Space Tales #6 for Flying Pen Press, headlined by Mike Resnick. His children’s book 102 More Hilarious Dinosaur Jokes For Kids from Delabarre Publishing. As  a freelance editor, he’s edited a novels and nonfiction.  He’s also the host of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Chat every Wednesday at 9 pm EST on Twitter, where he interviews people like Mike Resnick, AC Crispin, Kevin J. Anderson and Kristine Kathryn Rusch. A frequent contributor to Adventures In SF PublishingGrasping For The Wind and SFSignal, he can be found online as @BryanThomasS on Twitter or via his website. Bryan is an affiliate member of the SFWA.

Journey Through The SFF Classics: A Beginning

Okay it’s time. For two years now, I have amassed a library of classic SFF books but have not managed so far to tear into reading them. To be fair, I read 52 books a year just for SFFWRTCHT. And I do get requests for other interviews now, so I read another 20-40 for those throughout the year. That’s a lot of reading for a guy who takes about 5 days to go through a 350 page novel. That amount of reading will not change. I am still committed, happily, to that and grateful for the way it has allowed me to read a broad spectrum of SFF contemporary works by a wide variety of authors.

But I have this gap in knowledge that keeps coming back to haunt me, and, as time goes on, I fear it only deepens. As I go to Cons and participate in panels, as I talk with other writers about craft, not being familiar with some of the very classic works everyone so often talks about is a handicap and I must overcome it. So I am challenging myself to a Journey Through The Classics. I’m starting with a few core books and will expand as I can.  I am going to read these, most of them fortunately much shorter as older novels used to be, and then add more to the list, with the hopes that I can start catching up my knowledge of the SFF field through history. I have also acquired a number of older magazines, some pulp, some 20-year-old issues of magazines like F&SF, Analog and Amazing. I am going to work my way through those as well. But first, I need to get going on these books, so here’s my list, most of which I have not yet read, some of which I  may have at some point but don’t remember.

The Dying Earth by Jack Vance
The Skylark Of Space by EE Smith
To Open The Sky by Robert Silverberg
Do Androids Dream Of Electronic Sheep? by Philip K. Dick
The Caves Of Steel by Isaac Asimov
The Listeners by James Edwin Gunn
The Weapon Shops Of Isher by A.E. Van Vogt
Nerves by Lester del Rey
Necromancer by Gordon R. Dickson
The Triumph of Time by James Blish
Swords Against Death by Fritz Leiber
Neuromancer by William Gibson
Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein
Stranger In A Strange Land by Robert Heinelin
Dune by Frank Herbert
Doc Savage: The Thousand Headed Man by Kenneth Robeson
Stands Of Zanzibar by John Brunner

It should be noted before someone suggests it, I have already read the entirety of Asimov’s Foundation. I realize Van Vogt has more noted books but so far I have not found them so I will read one of the ones I have. The Silverberg and del Rey are personal choices. I have never read del Rey and feel I should since he is an icon. Silverberg is my favorite of all SFF authors and I have not read his early work and want to do that. A friend recommended To Open The Sky as one with faith (not just religious) themes, and since I have done panels on this to great reception I feel it’s time to start reading source material for those so I can only increase their value.

I am also not committing to read these books in any particular order. Honestly, I likely will attempt the shorter ones first, because of my reading time and just to get in a flow. I plan to do reviews/commentary on these as I finish for my own value more than anyone else’s, although I will share that here. These will not be full on reviews but really more my own ponderings and interactions with the texts. They’re classics. What do I have to add that hasn’t been said before by many people? Not much as a reviewer, but as a fan and writer interacting with them, I hope there will be some nuggets of learning and discovery worth sharing.

I certainly reserve the right to update my list at my own discretion. In other words, I will allow you to suggest books but I feel no pressure about which I choose to read and when. I have left A Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy by Douglas Adams off the list because I read half and didn’t care for it. I do need to read it again but I’ll have to get in the right mood. And before the smart alecs show up, I do have a sense of humor. I love comedic books. I just found this one odd, not all the funny. But I do respect its place and regard amongst fandom and I do feel I should give it another chance at some point so I’d expect it to come on the list at some point during this Journey which may last several years because it takes as long as it takes.

For a good list of some of the books I’ve read in  the past, including many considered classics, I posted my 70 Most Memorable SFF Books I’ve Read here.

I hope some of you will engage with me on this journey and perhaps even join me. Who we are today is very much informed by the past. And often whom we become and the strength, value and character of it is determined by our knowledge of the past. After all, we not only learn from our mistakes but those of our forefathers.

I very much look forward to the education of this journey and to your thoughts and my own along the way. For what it’s worth…

Bryan Thomas Schmidt is the author of the space opera novels The Worker Prince, a Barnes & Noble Book Clubs Year’s Best SF Releases of 2011 Honorable Mention, and The Returning, the collection The North Star Serial, Part 1, the children’s book 102 More Hilarious Dinosaur Jokes For Kids from Delabarre Publishing and editor of the anthology Space Battles: Full Throttle Space Tales #6 which he edited for Flying Pen Press, headlined by Mike Resnick. As a freelance editor, he’s edited a novels and nonfiction.  An affiliate SFWA member, he also hosts Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Chat every Wednesday at 9 pm EST on Twitter and is a frequent contributor to Adventures In SF PublishingGrasping For The Wind and Hugo nominee SFSignal. He can be found online as @BryanThomasS on Twitter or via