An Audio-Book Review: Elementary, My Dear R. Daneel, Elementary!


 

The Caves of Steel

and

The Naked Sun

By Isaac Asimov

Unabridged Edition published by Tantor Audio

Read by William Dufris

 

The Story:

I have always held a special place in my heart The Caves of Steel. This was the very first science fiction novel I ever read. It made me an avid reader of SF. In fact, it made me an avid reader, period. Before I found this book on a table of approved summer reading when I was in Junior High School, I read a lot, but only because it was required that I do so. Until I read The Caves of Steel I didn’t realize reading could be so much fun!

And so, for all of twenty-five cents (standard price for a paperback back in the days you had to avoid Sabertooths while walking home from school) I discovered that reading was fun and incidentally that science fiction was not, as I had previously misunderstood, just a long line of monster movies (especially from Japan and starring Raymond Burr).  Of course, this book was just the start, I eventually moved on to the “Hard Stuff” like The Foundation Trilogy (well, it was just a trilogy back then) and to works by other authors; Ray Bradbury, Robert A. Heinlein, John Boyd, L. Spague decamp, Edmund Cooper, J. R. R. Tolkien, Gordon Dickson, Philip K. Dick, Arthur C. Clarke many others.

The Caves of Steel may have been the first SF detective story. Certainly it was written in response to Editor John W. Campbell’s statement that science fiction and mystery were incompatible genres and could not be successfully mixed. According to Campbell, an SF author could simply invent facts in his imaginary future that were unknown to the reader. Asimov maintained that clues of that sort could be embedded in the plot even if they were not obvious.

The Caves of Steel introduced two of Asimov’s favorite protagonists, Detective Elijah Bailey and R. Daneel Olivaw, a robot so human in appearance he can pass for human. Isaac Asimov may be best known for his Three Laws of Robotics that all robots must obey;

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.

Over the years, he played even with these supposedly immutable laws, adding a so-called Zeroth Law in which a robot could not harm “Humanity” in general, although this law, while implicit in the actual Three is not programmed in and is difficult for robots to follow . Other authors have refuted the Three laws or added ones that take precedence over the Three; even a so-called Minus One Law in which Sentience in general has precedence over Humanity.

I find most of these latter day add-ons as so much philosophical hokum. I cannot help but wonder how many authors who have written in Asimov’s future history have done so in an attempt to put their own stamp on that universe or who just cannot help but take any notion to its ultimate ridiculous extreme. I suppose it is hard not to look at the Three Laws (a staple of science fiction – and incidentally overused in many SF dramatizations) and not want to either find exceptions or tack on a memorable addition to them. The Three Laws are famous and the author who adds something to them and makes it stick would be equally famous. But that’s needless vanity to me. If you’re going to write a story in someone else’s universe try to stick to the precepts they have already established.

In some ways we could blame Asimov himself, not so much for adding his Zeroth law, but for extending R. Daneel’s life until well after the fall of the First Empire on his timeline. Well, it was an obvious extension, I suppose. Why shouldn’t a robot be able to live for many millennia so long as his positronic brain doesn’t wear out? So long as the rest of his body parts are replaceable, he goes on…

Well, never mind what comes that far in the future. The Caves of Steel takes place on Earth about three thousand years from now. There are fifty colony worlds, called the Spacer Worlds, but no new world has been colonized in 200 years (I think). The Spacer Worlds are free of Earthly diseases and the Spacers live much longer than normal Earthlings. Consequently, over time the Spacers have come to dominate the Earth and have prohibited Earthlings from establishing any new colonies. With nowhere else to expand, Earth is a collection of very large and self-contained cities (the Caves of Steel of the title) from which few if any humans ever emerge. Earth humans are mostly claustrophobic and will panic at the thought of going outside, in fact.

For reasons that are expressed over the course of the book, a group of Spacers have established an enclave on the outskirts of New York which is referred to as Spacertown and it is there that one of their leading citizens is murdered. Lije Bailey is assigned to investigate the murder and is also assigned to work with R. Daneel, a very new robot, who, it turns out, is visibly identical to the murdered man. Bailey stumbles through his investigation, often leaping to erroneous conclusions, but in the end he, with R. Daneel’s help, finds the culprit.

A few years later, Asimov wrote the first sequel, The Naked Sun, in which Lije bailey is hired to investigate a murder on one of the Spacer Worlds. Once again he teams up with R. Daneel to solve the crime. This may have been a case of Asimov proving the first book was not a fluke, but the story, while very different from the first is another excellent example of how two genres can be mixed successfully.

For now I am choosing not to review the third Lije Bailey and R. Daneel book, “The Robots of Dawn,” at this time partially because it was written decades later and partially because Asimov’s style had grown and developed over the years, so that while I felt the characters were true to the way they had originally been presented, the story feels different. The first two novels match each other perfectly. The third was not only written much later by a more mature author, but takes place years later as well. I do not mean to criticize Asimov’s later works, at least not because they were written later, but The Caves of Steel and  The Naked Sun are so alike in style that I think they deserve to be reviewed together.

The Caves of Steel and The Naked Sun are classics of 1950’s science fiction. They are also perfect examples of the genre and what it can do. They are entertaining and exciting, while also being thought-provoking and informative. Robots in these stories are thinly-veiled latter day slaves. They think and are sentient (some more than others) and yet they have no choice but to obey orders. Do they “feel?” I think that the implication is that they do even if they do not feel in the same way humans do. IN many ways Asimov was exploring the nature of civil rights before most people were even aware of the African-American Civil Rights Movement. The Caves of Steel was written before the U. S. Supreme Court handed down its decision on Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas and before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on that bus in Montgomery. It was a time that very few outside the African-American community were even aware there was a Civil Rights movement – the big headlines had not yet been printed.

But aside from the interesting albeit underlying messages, these two books are primarily detective novels in a science fiction setting. You do not need to be an SF fan to enjoy them, if you are an SF fan but not into mysteries, they are still enjoyable. I seem to say this a lot, but good writing is good writing regardless of genre and/or intended audience.

 

The Audiobooks:

 

William Dufris puts a lively voice on Asimov’s stories. His job rates, in fact, as excellent. He manages to put the correct emotional value into each line of dialogue without ever going over the top. None of his voices rely on strong accents or “funny voices.” Most importantly, he reads the stories well and sounds like he is enjoying them as much as his audience. This is a rare combination and professional readers do not get much better than this.

All in all, these are great stories of 1950’s science fiction and wonderful recordings of them. Even long-time fans who have read these stories repeatedly should enjoy the experience of listening to them through Mister Dufris’ voice.

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This entry was posted in Audio Books, Books, Commentary, Isaac Asimov, Reviews, Science Fiction. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to An Audio-Book Review: Elementary, My Dear R. Daneel, Elementary!

  1. Redhead says:

    I read these books years ago, and should really read them again. Last year I reread I Robot, and as always, adored it. Asimov is such a comfort read sometimes!

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