Isaac Asimov gave science fiction its Sherlock and Holmes with his uneven ninth novel, 1953’s ‘The Caves of Steel’

May 11, 2020

By Matthew E. Milliken
May 11, 2020

The legendary science-fiction writer Isaac Asimov published his first novel in January 1950. By the end of 1953, 10 Asimov books were in print:

Pebble in the Sky, his first book, which forms the Galactic Trilogy in conjunction with The Stars like Dust (1951) and The Currents of Space 1952).

I, Robot, Asimov’s second volume, a compilation of previously published stories that had established the author’s famed laws of robotics.

Foundation (1951), Foundation and Empire (1952) and Second Foundation (1953), the first entries in a seven-book cycle of novels about the evolution of a galaxy-spanning human society.

Biochemistry and Human Metabolism (1952), evidently a textbook on which Asimov collaborated with two co-authors.

David Starr, Space Ranger (1952) and Lucky Starr and the Pirates of the Asteroids (1952), published under the pseudonym Paul French, the first two works in a children’s science-fiction series that included at least six original Asimov tales.

And yet this inventory somehow undersells the prolixity of Asimov, who would go on to write and edit hundreds of volumes of fiction and nonfiction.

The Caves of Steel was the 11th book, and ninth novel, published by Asimov. A hardcover edition appeared in 1954, but the text debuted the previous year in the October, November and December issues of Galaxy magazine.

I don’t know how much currency Asimov has these days, but 20 or so years back, I suspect a poll of regular science-fiction readers would have named the Foundation books as his most influential and most popular. And why not? It’s an ambitious and enjoyable series, after all. Personally, however, I’m more partial to the works I think of as the Robot trilogy.

The Caves of Steel is the first of these, and as I remember the least welcoming. It’s set on Earth some hundreds of years in the future, but an Earth none alive today would truly recognize. Some eight billion people huddle in metal warrens known as Cities, where resources can be used with utmost efficiency.

Toilets and bathing facilities are entirely communal; having a wash basin in one’s own apartment is considered a luxury. Food is cooked exclusively in industrial kitchens and consumed in attached dining rooms. Healthy adults who lose their jobs are subject to declassification, meaning that they receive minimal rations. Robots are bitterly resented, for each one can take the place of one or more workers.

(Based on faulty recollections of The Caves of Steel, I erroneously wrote last month that the Cities were underground, which need not be the case, and that robots were unheard of, which doesn’t accurately capture the situation.)

The Spacers — inhabitants of 50 Outer Worlds scattered around the galaxy — collectively have a much smaller population than Earth. Thanks to their use of countless robots, they also lead comparatively luxurious lives that regularly last more than three centuries. (Earthers’ life spans have not lengthened.) Moreover, Spacers hold every advantage in technology and military force. They haughtily dictate trade terms to Mother Earth’s crowded billions and almost never set foot on the planet.

So it’s with no little surprise that Lije Baley, plainclothes detective grade C-5 in the New York police department, hears that he is to investigate the murder of an off-worlder in a special New York conclave called Spacetown. He soon finds himself saddled with a Spacer partner called R. Daneel Olivaw. The R. stands for robot, but Baley has no idea what kind of colleague he’s going to get:

They made their way back to the expressway. R. Daneel caught the purpose of the accelerating strips and maneuvered along them with a quick proficiency. Baley, who had begun by moderating his speed, ended by hastening it in annoyance.

The robot kept pace. He showed no awareness of any difficulty. Baley wondered if R. Daneel were not deliberately moving slower than he might. He reached the endless cars of expressway and scrambled aboard with what amounted to outright recklessness. The robot followed easily.

Baley was red. He swallowed twice and said, “I’ll stay down here with you.”

“Down here?” The robot, apparently oblivious to both the noise and the rhythmic swaying of the platform, said, “Is my information wrong? I was told that a rating of C-5 entitled one to a seat on the upper level under certain conditions.”

“You’re right. I can go up there, but you can’t.”

“Why can I not go up with you?”

“It takes a C-5, Daneel.”

“I am aware of that.”

“You’re not a C-5.” Talking was difficult. The hiss of frictioning air was louder on the less shielded lower level and Baley was understandably anxious to keep his voice low.

R. Daneel said, “Why should I not be a C-5? I am your partner and, consequently, of equal rank. I was given this.”

From an inner shirt pocket he produced a rectangular credential card, quite genuine. The name given was Daneel Olivaw, without the all-important initial. The rating was C-5.

“Come on up,” said Baley, woodenly.

Baley looked straight ahead, once seated, angry with himself, very conscious of the robot sitting next to him. He had been caught twice. First he had not recognized R. Daneel as a robot; secondly, he had not guessed the logic that demanded R. Daneel be given C-5 rating.

The trouble was, of course, that he was not the plain-clothes man of popular myth. He was not incapable of surprise, imperturbable of appearance, infinite of adaptability, and lightning of mental grasp. He had never supposed he was, but he had never regretted the lack before.

What made him regret it was that, to all appearances, R. Daneel Olivaw was that very myth, embodied.

Olivaw is what Asimov would in later books call a humaniform robot, meaning that he is by outward appearances indistinguishable from a person. His speech and manners are a bit stilted, but not enough that someone would suspect why.

‘The Caves of Steel’ by Isaac Asimov.

Before the duo can return to Baley’s apartment, where Olivaw will be staying throughout the investigation, they run into trouble — an ugly crowd milling around a shoe store that’s just replaced its clerks with robots. A little later on, Baley’s wife, Jessie, suddenly realizes that Olivaw isn’t human. As the pair probe the death of roboticist Roj Nemennuh Sarton, they run into plenty of other distractions.

There are reasons for that, one being that this is hardly the most complicated murder plot ever devised. Moreover, Asimov seems much more interested in describing the future society that he’s created than having his detective sort through the evidence. Baley is tasked with solving a murder in the first chapter, but he learns almost nothing else about the crime beyond the victim’s name until chapter five, about a quarter of the way into the book. Not until chapter nine, roughly a third of the way through the volume, does Baley visit the scene of the crime. (Mind you, he isn’t shown photographs of the location before this excursion.)

This early version of Baley is a rather prickly fellow, which I think makes the book less engaging than its successors. And yet there is one way in which The Caves of Steel makes for easier reading than the first sequel. Although the Baley of the first book despises robots, he doesn’t address them as “boy,” and they don’t address people as “master” and “mistress,” which was a very jarring element in The Naked Sun.

The Caves of Steel falls short of being a great novel, but it launched a trilogy that I found to be both memorable and pleasing. Mystery aficionados may enjoy this book, and many science-fiction readers should find it entertaining. It’s probably not a good fit for an audience not already partial to these genres, however.

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