Top positive review
Interesting, well-written, thought-provoking
Reviewed in the United States 🇺🇸 on August 27, 2019
I loved this book. It offered a look at an alternate future where overpopulation has fractured man into two camps. Earthlings never trusted their robot creations, preferring to keep them hidden or out of sight. Spacers embraced robots and looked to them for security and performing all the small tasks to which we're accustomed. The result is that people on Earth have lived in climate-controlled covered cities that sprawl not only above ground but below, and lived there so long that the act of being outside and exposed to nature brings forth anxiety attacks. Earthlings feel safe when they know there's people and walls all around them. Spacers, on the other hand, have taken over 50 other worlds and place more emphasis on privacy and independence, with the unacknowledged exception being their dependence on robots to watch over and protect them.
The world-building in this series of novels is very deep and detailed. All citizens of Earth are given the necessities to live, but only just enough. You get basic food, a place to sleep, and a little bit of access to recreational services. Everyone is classified according to their jobs and contributions, and the higher a classification you have, the more you are entitled to. Higher classifications get better and bigger apartments and a wider selection of food. And with food being served in cavernous cafeterias, sometimes one even gets to occasionally prepare their own meals in their own kitchens, if their rating is high enough. Bathrooms are rarely in the apartments assigned to citizens, and instead are large and sprawling communal areas where different societal norms have taken hold. Women tend to chat and socialize extensively in their "Personals", while men, in an attempt to afford each other privacy, have developed a deep aversion to acknowledging in any way other residents (never look at someone, and never ever speak inside a Personal). The difference between the two sexes almost seems a bit sexist, but in reality just reflects some of the views towards the sexes that exist even to this day. Later books in the series where life is shown on Spacer worlds shatter these conventions and seem foreign to our protagonist. All in all, it's a fascinating background in which the story unfolds.
And the story is a simple murder mystery. Elijah Baley is a detective in NYC's police department. NYC, incidentally, has grown over the centuries, and grown so large that cities like Trenton, NJ are considered boroughs and are part of the enclosed city-structure. There is a settlement of Spacers called Spacertown outside of NYC, and a prominent roboticist has been murdered. This creates a bit of a political crisis. Spacers have advanced their technology and can enforce their will upon Earth and Earthlings, who have been content to just live in their covered cities. Spacers tend to strongly dislike Earth, and there is a very real and substantial fear that Spacers may take control of Earth. Having one of their prominent citizens murdered will only enhance this, and it's up to Detective Baley to resolve this murder. He is assigned a partner in the form of R. Daneel Olivaw, a humaniform robot (one so lifelike it's hard to tell apart from a human). Daneel is one of only two robots in existence who are like this. Baley must get over his inherent dislike of robots that all Earthlings feel and work with Daneel to find the murderer and quell the rising unease between Earth and the Spacers.
Isaac Asimov is not exactly a poet with his writing, but he's very effective and clear and professional, and his world-building is superb. His attention to details draws the reader in and makes for a very effective mystery. Like all good sci-fi writers, he doesn't lose sight of the story during the process of introducing the reader to the science. By the time the story is resolved, the reader does enjoy Baley and Daneel, and has the pleasure of looking forward to reading more about them in the two follow-up stories, "The Naked Sun" and "The Robots of Dawn". Those two take place on two different Spacer worlds, and in some wonderful writing, the differences in those worlds is as dramatic as the difference is between the futuristic Earth of "The Caves of Steel" and our own present Earth. If you enjoy science-fiction that introduces new advanced concepts and worlds and ideas, but still enjoy being not so far removed from our own world that everything is unfamiliar, this is a wonderful story in which to indulge.