In The Spotlight: Isaac Asimov’s The Caves of Steel

Hello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Isaac Asimov was renowned not just for his scientific work, but also for his science fiction. What not everyone knows is that he was also a crime writer. His Elijah Baley/R. Daneel Olivaw series explored several themes, including what detection might be like in the future. And besides, Mr. Confessions of a Mystery Novelist is an Asimov fan ;-). So today, let’s take a closer look at the first of Asimov’s Baley/Olivaw series, The Caves of Steel.

As the novel begins, New York City detective Elijah “Lije” Baley is assigned to a particularly difficult case. Noted scientist Dr. Roj Nemennuh Sarton has just been murdered, and Police Commissioner Julius Enderby asks Baley to investigate. This isn’t a straightforward investigation, though; it’s got lots of political ramifications. In the futuristic New York in which Baley lives, humans belong to two very different societies. One group, called the Spacers, is made up of the descendents of humans who first explored space. The other group, the Earthmen, is composed of humans whose ancestors remained behind. The two groups dislike and distrust each other; there are barriers preventing Earthmen from going into Spacetown without specific business there, and any Spacer knows better than to go into Earth cities. Sarton was a prominent Spacer, so the Spacers believe that an Earthman is responsible for the murder.

In order to keep the investigation as low-key as possible, so as to prevent even more trouble between Earthmen and Spacers, Baley is asked to work with a Spacer partner. He’s not happy about the idea, but he does understand the reasons for it. Not only will this help ease tensions between the two groups, but it will also convince the Spacers that the Earthmen are serious about finding Sarton’s murderer. And then Baley is informed that his Spacer partner will be R. Daneel Olivaw – a positronic robot. If there’s anything that Earthmen dislike more than they dislike human Spacers, it’s robots. Spacers have integrated robots into their lives and work with them. To Earthmen, though, robots are a serious threat. Many Earthmen blame robots for taking over their jobs, among many other things. So when Baley is asked not only to work with Olivaw but also to take him into his home for the length of the investigation, he initially refuses. He hates robots himself, and he is afraid that if he takes Olivaw into his home, he could be putting his family at risk, since it would soon get around that the Baley family is harbouring a robot. Despite these fears, though, Baley is concerned with justice. He wants Sarton’s killer caught. So he very reluctantly agrees to work with Olivaw.

Together, the two detectives begin their investigation. There’s no shortage of suspects, either. Many Earthmen hate Spacers enough to kill one. And then there’s Sarton’s own people. He was in favour of slowly collaborating with Earthmen so that at some point in the future the two groups would partner. There are many Spacers who are strongly opposed to this line of thinking. In the end, Baley and Olivaw find out who killed Sarton and why. It turns out that Sarton’s murder did have to do with his work, but not in the way one would expect.

This is a futuristic novel, so one element woven throughout it is Asimov’s portrayal of what the distant future might be like. The picture we get is somewhat dystopic, but (and this is important) not without hope. The human population has climbed to eight million, and almost everyone lives in Cities. Those population areas aren’t like the cities we know. Instead, they are huge domed fortresses, completely protected from elements such as weather. Resources and living space are scarce and are carefully doled out. On one hand, no-one starves. On the other, unless one has achieved a high status, it’s not much more than subsistence living. Meals, entertainment and personal hygiene are handled in communal areas, and the number of children each couple is entitled to have is based on I.Q. ratings, Genetic Values and employment status. In fact, the only reasons that Baley, his wife Jessie and their son Bentley are entitled to a decent apartment with a personal source of water is that both have high I.Q. ratings and Baley has a reasonably high status as a detective.

That said, though, there is plenty of hope in this novel. As Baley and Olivaw work together, we see how Spacers, Earthmen and robots might co-operate to improve humankind’s lot. We also see hope in Baley’s slow conversion to the possibility that there’s life outside the domed City, and that besides making wiser use of the Earth, humans can consider exploring and colonising other planets.

Asimov uses The Caves of Steel to make some interesting social commentary, too. In the friction between Earthmen and Spacers and in conditions of life on the Earth presented in this story, Asimov comments on xenophobia, over-population, and possible solutions to more than one of the social ills he observed. But the novel isn’t preachy. That’s primarily because rather than spending time discussing the larger issues, Asimov tells the stories of the individuals involved in the plot. For instance, we care about the characters of Lije, Jessie and Bentley Baley, and as they cope with life, we get clearly the messages that Asimov sends.

This brings up another interesting element in this novel – the partnership between Baley and Olivaw. At first, they don’t work well together. Even though Olivaw is a robot, and therefore doesn’t have what you’d call human emotions, he does find it difficult to work with Baley. For his part, Baley hates robots, doesn’t trust Olivaw and certainly doesn’t want to work with him. As the story goes on, each gets to know the other. They develop a trusting relationship that Asimov uses as a metaphor for the way disparate groups of people might work together. What’s most effective about this relationship, though, is that it’s portrayed on a very, well, human level. Baley and Olivaw have different strengths and weaknesses and come to depend on each other, and as they do so, it’s easy to cheer for them.

This novel is often considered a science fiction novel. There are robots, a futuristic Earth, all kinds of technology and so on. However, it’s just as much a police procedural as it is anything else. Baley and Olivaw follow leads and clues, get evidence, interview suspects and witnesses and discuss theories of the case. It’s that police work rather than any sort of highly sophisticated technology that  leads to the truth. You could say that this is really a detective story that happens to take place in the future. And that’s what Asimov intended it to be.

The mystery itself is engaging and its solution isn’t obvious. The careful reader will pick up the clues, though, as Baley and Olivaw eventually do. The solution makes sense given the context, and in the end, the two sleuths put the case together.

An engaging mystery set in a science-fiction context, The Caves of Steel addresses some larger issues through the ways in which those issues affect the characters. But what do you think? Have you read The Caves of Steel? If you have, what elements do you see in it?




Coming Up On In The Spotlight


Tuesday 5 July/Wednesday 6 July – Mrs. Jeffries Forges Ahead – Emily Brightwell

Monday 11 July/Tuesday 12 July – McGarr and the PM of Belgrave Square – Bartholomew Gill

Monday 18 July/Tuesday 19 July – Indemnity Only – Sara Paretsky


Filed under Isaac Asimov, The Caves of Steel

6 responses to “In The Spotlight: Isaac Asimov’s The Caves of Steel

  1. I didn’t know that Asimov wrote mysteries! I learned something new today. Well, it’s a fascinating look into the novel. I don’t read many mystery novels set in the future but I will put this one on my TBR.

  2. Clarissa – You’re not alone. A lot of people haven’t heard of his mysteries, but they really are interesting (well, they are to me). I’m not typically a science-fiction kind of person, but some writers make it work. He was one of them.

  3. I had no idea! This is worth checking out, as I have an avid Asimov fan living under this roof. Thanks, Margot!

  4. Elspeth – My pleasure :-). I really think that people who like Asimov’s work will thoroughly enjoy this; it’s vintage Asimov stuff.

  5. Patti Abbott

    The only books I have read by him were the Black Widowers series, which I enjoyed.

  6. Patti – That’s the thing about Asimov. He was prolific enough so that it’s hard to read everything he ever wrote. I confess; I haven’t read the Black Widowers novels although you’re not the first person who’s praised them.

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