THE CAVES OF STEEL (1954) by Isaac Asimov

Asimov-Caves-of-Steel-panther1985Thousands of years in the future the cities of Earth are housed in domes, the eponymous caves, and humans are too agoraphobic to leave. Settlers from their off-world colonies come back after centuries but insist on living separately and promoting the use of robots, generating malcontent as humans lose jobs to their mechanical counterparts. Then one of the most senior robot scientists is murdered …

I submit this review for (deep breath): Carl V’s The 2014 Sci-Fi Experience at Stainless Steel Droppings; Katie’s 2014 Book to Movie Challenge at Doing Dewey (for review links, click here); and Patti Abbott’s Friday’s Forgotten Books meme over at her fab Pattinase blog.

“We are not here just to solve a murder, but to save Spacetown, and with it, the future of the human race”

Elijah “Lije” Baley is a New York Police detective who has some sympathy with the ‘medievalist’ movement that would like to turn the clock back. He is also resentful of the way that robots have put some of his former colleagues out of work and is worried that this might happen to him, fearing the same demotion in status that ruined his father’s life. None the less, he believes in progress and when a prominent scientist from the colonist ‘Spacers’ is murdered, his boss and old friend Julius Enderby assigns him to the job. Enderby is a meek and mild-mannered politician at heart who has been liaising with the Spacers and who, despite being on the scene of the crime, is at a loss to explain how it could have been committed. The Spacers enforce a strict quarantine in their Spacetown so no one, not even a law representative such as Enderby, would have been allowed in holding a gun – and yet Dr Sarton was blasted away – but the weapon is nowhere to be found and there is only one way out of the city. Yes, one could walk out of the dome and try and cross the open terrain between the two parts of the city, but after centuries of living on domes, the people of Earth are now terrified of wide open spaces. And yet there is a dead body and of the case is not resolved soon, there could be terrible retribution …

“The City was the acme of efficiency, but it made demands of its inhabitants”

Asimov-Caves-of-Steel_pyramidTo solve the case, and keep the Spacers happy, Lije is assigned an android partner, R. Daneel Olivaw, who is utterly lifelike. Indeed he is almost too hard to distinguish from the ‘real’ thing, leading our hero to make some pretty colossal mistakes partly because Daneel has been made with realistic genitalia (Asimov has a lot of fun sending up the bathroom customs and etiquette of the future). Baley in fact is frequently shown to be a pretty poor detective if a pretty decent human being. First he accuses Daneel of being a human masquerading as a robot (which is easily disproved); then, having accepted his robot status, accuses him of being the murderer, despite the fact that this would contravene the first of Asimov’s celebrated three laws of robotics:

  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 Law.

As the story progresses a second murder takes place – though this time,it is a robot that is ‘killed’ – could it be that the robot ‘knew too much’? As a whodunit this is not necessarily very hard to solve (true of most of Asimov’s excursions into the mystery genre), not least for a paucity of suspects (dragging in Baley’s flighty wife Jessie into the proceedings is a pretty poor red herring), though working out the seeming impossibility of the murder method is well-handled. Equally,  the final showdown and the discovery of crucial evidence at the final moment and the actual method employed, have a fine irony that really made me smile.

“Earthmen are so all coddled, on enwombed in their imprisoning caves of steel, that they are caught forever”

Asimov-Naked-Sun-pantherOn re-reading this book after a long gap, I was surprised at how strong the religious subtext is (Asimov remained firmly agnostic if not downright atheistic all his life). Scripture is invoked more than once and part of the plot turns on a discussion of whether Jezebel was indeed a good wife or not. Daneel is even, to some extent, presented as a gift from the heavens to help deliver humanity to the next stage of their evolution. Less this make the book sound too heavy, along with a couple of well executed chases along futuristic high-speed travelator systems, the core of the novel is the evolving relationship between Lije and his Candide-like partner that makes it such a success and has kept the series such a perennial. It is a shame that the rest of the cast of characters are a bit thin, most notable Baley’s wife, Jessie, who really is a bit two-dimensional. R. Daneel Olivaw and Baley were paired in three novels and one short story – Daneel also appeared solo in Robots and Empire (1985) and several of the books in Asimov’s Foundation series.

The Lije Baley and R. Daneel Olivaw series

  • The Caves of Steel (1954)
  • The Naked Sun (1957)
  • Mirror Image (1972, short story)
  • The Robots of Dawn (1983)

R. Daneel Olivaw also appeared solo in several of the books in Asimov’s Foundation series. He also been portrayed on screen a few times. The Caves of Steel was adapted by Daleks creator Terry Nation for a 75-minute play broadcast on the BBC in 1964 with Peter Cushing cast as Lije. It was a pretty faithful adaptation within the constraints of studio productions of the day and what remains of it certainly looks intriguing though unfortunately most of it remains lost. For further information on this missing 75 minute play, see Colin Cutler’s exemplary essay at 625.org.

Story Parade / The Caves of Steel (5 June 1964)
Director: Peter Sasdy
Producer: Eric Taylor
Screenplay: Terry Nation
Art Direction: Richard Henry and Peter Seddon
Music: BBC Radiophonic Workshop
Cast: Peter Cushing (Baley), Kenneth J. Warren (Enderby), John Carson (R. Daneel Olivaw), Ellen Mcintosh (Jessie)

I submit this review for Bev’s 2014 Golden Age Vintage Mystery Challenge Bingo in the ‘Place in the title’ category:

mark1-Vintage-Golden

***** (3.5 fedora tips out of 5)

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47 Responses to THE CAVES OF STEEL (1954) by Isaac Asimov

  1. Sergio – An excellent review as ever. I agree with you that perhaps the ‘whodunit’ isn’t as hard to work out as the ‘howdunit’ is. But it’s still a good solid read. And I always give Asimov extra points for venturing more or less successfully into the crime fiction genre. One of the other things I like about this series is the atmosphere Asimov created. Solid buildup of tension and suspense once you accept the world he created.

  2. justjack says:

    Ah, a much beloved favorite of mine. Possibly my favorite of all Asimov’s novels. But The Naked Sun was also very fine, and I appreciated how the setting couldn’t have been more different from that of The Caves Of Steel.

    I also rather like how the series eventually tied into the Foundation storyline.

  3. TracyK says:

    You know how much I like this book and The Naked Sun. A great pair of books and I hope to read The Robots of Dawn someday too. Great review and thanks for the extra info on the TV adaptation.

  4. TomCat says:

    Excellent review, Sergio! I hold this book and The Naked Sun in high regard, and not just because they’re great mystery novels set in far-flung future, but also for refuting the argument forensic science has killed clever plotting… decades before it was made. Yes, I sound like a broken record player on that point.

    • Thanks TC and I think your point is very well made and I agree completely. I really enjoyed reading this one again and can’t wait to crack on with Naked Sun too. I can;t remember the plot at all but no dissrespect to Asimov, it really has been about 25 years I think …

      • TomCat says:

        It’s really good and build further on all the good parts from the first story, but was dissapointed over Robots of Dawn and Robots and Empires, because they phased out the mystery element in favor of SF stuff and social commentary.

        By the way, I recently reviewed the short Bailey/Olivaw story, “Mirror Image,” if you’re interested.

  5. Colin says:

    I’m not at all familiar with this book Sergio, but then I’m pretty ignorant of sci-fi in general. Sounds intriguing though.

    • Definitely worth a read Colin. I wish more of the Cushing adaptation were available as it seems to have been pretty decent and very faithful. That and all the episodesof Out of the Unknown would be nice too come think of it, while I’m dreaming … well, that;s what SF is all about, right?

      • Colin says:

        I’ve often thought I should acquaint myself better with sci-fi, because I don’t have anywhere near enough stuff to be getting on with as it is you know ;)
        There just seems to be so much it’s hard to know where to dip in – Asimov sounds like he may be a good launching point though.

        • Ah well Colin, obviously very glad to provide you with a coordinated list of SF jumping on points :) By the way, watched the first five minutes of episode 1 of Naked City last night with an uncredited Peter Falk getting mowed down by Eli Wallah while the Sunday Service bells rang out – utterly wonderful!, thanks chum – does it getter better than that? A really classy ‘cold open’.

  6. I just picked up a copy of THE CAVES OF STEEL/THE NAKED SUN in a thrift store for a quarter. After reading your review, I want to drop everything and reread these robot novels. As a kid, I really loved THE FOUNDATION TRILOGY, too.

  7. John says:

    Um…at the risk of sounding like the Correction Police : His nickname is Lije, not Lijah.

    When reading these robot mysteries I find myself getting caught up in Asimov’s philosophical idea and his amazing oracular powers to predict human behavior and mores of the future. I’m willing to overlook his weakness as a fiction writer such as his sketchy women characters. In THE NAKED SUN (a book I think superior to this one) Gladia is pretty much like any stock woman character from pulp fiction. She appears again in ROBOTS OF DAWN and I ‘m hoping she gets a bit of dimension to her.

    Never knew of the TV adaptation. Fascinating!

    Like Tracy I’m hoping to read ROBOTS OF DAWN later this year. Daneel and Lije are wonderful characters, quite the “Odd Couple” of science fiction.

  8. Loved this as a kid, but tried to reread it last year and couldn’t finish it. The scenes with the wife and son(who talks like a character in a Andy Hardy movie-all golly gee pop and gee whiz dad dialogue) are so poorly written that I couldn’t finish it.

    • There is no question that Jessy is the real weak link in the novel – it does hurt it though I still found much to enjoy.

      • Todd Mason says:

        One of Algis Budrys’s most telling points about Asimov is that he always seemed to treat fiction as another form of the essay. Only rarely would he let his characters breathe…”The Ugly Little Boy,” “The Bicentennial Man”…in some fleeting bits, Wendell Urth (where he echoes Asimov himself, particularly, in his clastrophilia, for example.).

        • Budrys’ seems a very correct way of approaching Asimov Todd, thanks for that. The plot does have some especially amusing moments (like when Lijah realises he has been drugged and why) but these work best when subordinated to the theme, absolutely.

  9. Yvette says:

    Oh now this sounds like the sort of sci-fi I might like to read, Sergio. Thanks for the intro. I’m familiar with Asimov of course as a revered writer of sci-fi, but I’m embarrassed to say I don’t remember ever reading anything by him, though I suspect I must have at some point.

    Yes, I must have since I know about the law of robots and all.

    Another excellent and intriguing review, kiddo.

  10. Richard says:

    I really like Asimov’s robot novels and stories, and reading this shows how far off track the film I, Robot got.

    • I didn’t enjoy that I, Robot film much either, though having said that I have no problem with films going their own merry way when ti comes to adaptation – I mean I really like Minority Report without being a fan of Cruise or Spielberg and am much more of a Dick fan whose stories got remarkably embroidered.

  11. Bev Hankins says:

    I loved this (and the others in the short series of SF/Mysteries by Asimov) back when I was in my science fiction phase (30-some years ago). Asimov is one of my all-time favorites and I was so pleased that he had crossed over into my first love–mysteries. It’s probably time to do a re-read.

  12. Todd Mason says:

    Asimov was indeed an utter and confirmed lifelong atheist. Rather like myself, only far more influentially!

  13. Sergio, I was intrigued by Asimov’s three laws of robotics which in a way reminded me of the Will Smith film I, ROBOT. I haven’t read much of Asimov and whatever I did was a long time ago. So your review of this novel, as thorough as ever and with the interesting covers, has rekindled my interest in the writer.

    • Thanks Prashant – the three laws were used for a series of short stories by Asimov that he later collected in the I, Robot volume though the movie is a bit of a distant relative shall we say?

  14. Pingback: Nautical naughtiness – Classic crime in the blogosphere, January 2014 | Past Offences

  15. Ela says:

    Sounds really interesting, though I have not ever read anything by Asimov (I know I should have!).

  16. Jeff Flugel says:

    Hey Sergio! Enjoyed this…I’ve read a bunch of Asimov’s “Black Widowers” mystery stories and enjoyed them, but have never read THE CAVES OF STEEL or its sequels. Been meaning to someday, and your review has spurred me to track down at least the first 2 books in paperback real soon. Thanks for including that snippet of the Cushing BBC CAVES…damn shame nearly all of it is lost…looks quite interesting and stylish for an early BBC production.

  17. Colin says:

    Pretty late I know, but I just finished this book. I had a pretty good time with it in truth.
    I quite agree that the mystery, the whodunnit aspect anyway, is thin stuff. I’d worked out who the killer was very, very early – aside from the dearth of suspects, the motivation was clearly telegraphed – but the actual method was tougher.

    I did feel it got itself bogged down in description or explanation of lots of futuristic minutiae, but I guess that’s par for the course with SF. On the other hand, I quite liked the philosophical/religious allusions and felt they were integrated successfully.

    The central duo of Lije and Daneel made for an attractive pair of characters, although Lije’s outbreaks of hotheaded stupidity in the earlier stages of the investigation did start to grate a little and I was glad to see him grow as the story wore on. As for Jessie, she was a bit cardboard I thought. The whole business about her name was nicely done, although I did think it was a bit of a stretch to use it as the basis for her actions later on. I think there was the potential there for a much more interesting character but it never panned out that way.

    • Cheers mate – well, I do pretty much agree with what you say – the method is much less easy to suss than the culprit and the Jess character does hurt it a bit. But the good bits like the central duo do stand up, which was a nice surprise after 30 odd years frankly (which everything was like that) :)

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