Thousands 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”
To 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:
- A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
- A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
- 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”
On 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: