-Spoilers for the entire Foundation universe-
Publisher: Harper Voyager
Series: Robot (1)
Publication Date: 1950
Elijah Baley is just another policeman in the sprawling supercity of New York. But when a visitor from the Spacer colonies is murdered, he finds himself thrust into the spotlight. As he uncovers a deadly conspiracy, he must also work to overcome his own prejudices. Thankfully, his new partner R. Daneel Olivaw, is on hand to assist . . .
The Caves of Steel is one of Isaac Asimov’s most famous novels, and deservedly so. The first novel that truly fits into the larger Foundation universe, it serves as a perfect opening to the wider future history, while also being a perfect standalone story in its own right. That is, of course, an artefact of its creation. Not originally part of any series, but slotting in neatly to both its direct sequels and the wider narrative into which it was later patched.
As a standalone, then, this is the perfect synthesis of social science fiction and murder mystery. Asimov deftly weaves his two loves together, creating a crime that is wholly reliant on imagined technology, while not being utterly impenetrable to the new reader. On a reread, the murder itself is obviously less of a mystery, but the lining up of Chekov’s guns is as fascinating as when they are fired. As with all of Asimov’s work, you can see the cogs grinding away if you look closely, but this never detracts from the enjoyment of the story. Watching Baley set up argument after argument only to have the straw men fall back down is never anything less than fun, even if you know it’s inevitable that he’ll fail many times before reaching the correct solution.
Elijah Baley is a typical Asimov protagonist. Intellectual and capable, but not a superman. With his ingrained prejudice against robots and spacers alike, he’s a flawed and rounded individual. But while Baley is our protagonist and has a long journey ahead of him, he is not the most notable character introduced here. That honour falls to R. Daneel Olivaw. The R standing for robot. A robot as unnervingly human as the Bicentennial Man Andrew Martin became, yet still bound by the Three Laws of Robotics. The interplay and dialogue between partners alternates between jovial banter and owner/master relations, but there is no denying that he is a unique individual.
Reading Daneel’s early interactions with human beings, as he attempts to understand them, is interesting enough on its own, but is seen through a new lens when you know of the crucial role he has to play in future novels. Daneel here is a far cry from what he will one day become, and his infancy is echoed by the early development of the spacer civilisation. Earth sits overpopulated and stagnant while the spacers have colonised fifty worlds, closing off the stars to the homeworld of the human race. Neither side has the right of it, and both are deeply flawed, but neither are they overwhelmingly dystopian. Even when the systems are flawed, they still work better than nothing at all.
One of the true classics of science fiction, The caves of Steel is great both alone, and as a precursor to what comes next.