In 1966, Isaac Asimov’s first three FOUNDATION novels won a one-time Hugo Award as the “Best All Time Series” for science fiction. While I still think the award was a reasonable (albeit highly subjective) one for the time, I’m becoming more and more convinced that Asimov’s three “Robot/Mystery” novels starring Earthly detective Elijah Bailey and his partner R. Daneel Olivaw (the “R.” stands for Robot, naturally) are better books, and quite possibly would have been a better choice for the award. Having just re-read his original FOUNDATION trilogy, I think I’m in a good position to compare it to the ROBOT novels.
The Caves of Steel is the first book in the ROBOT series. The setting is a densely populated Earth, a few millennia in the future. Our home planet has become a backwater, looked down upon by the rest of the human galaxy, and humanity is highly resentful of the fact. About fifty “Spacer” worlds, or human colonized planets, exist, each of which has a much smaller population than Earth, a higher standard of living, and a robotized economy. Immigration to the Spacer worlds is almost non-existent, due to prejudice against the poorer Earthlings. The Spacers also fear earthborn sickness, as they have eradicated disease on their home worlds and have little natural immunity to such illnesses. Meanwhile, Earth’s population lives in huge cities that are mostly underground warrens or barracks. The scarcity of natural resources and living space means that all living conditions are highly controlled and regulated, with only the elite having much space and privacy.
There is limited contact between Earth and the Spacers, with different groups pushing their political agendas. Some Earthmen known as “Medievalists” wish to return to a sort of idealized past, where people live outdoors and work the land. These groups shun any increased usage of robot technology (which is highly unpopular on Earth even among those who don’t share the Medievalist agenda), as well as any increased contact with the Spacers. Among the Spacers themselves, one camp wishes to expand Earth’s contact with the rest of humanity and the galaxy, while another group wishes to continue Earth’s isolation. There is a fear among Earth’s leaders that some in the later Spacer faction might even consider “eradicating” the problem of Earth if its population reaches Malthusian proportion.
In the midst of all this Asimov introduces two of my favorite characters of his. Elijah Bailey, a New York police detective, and R. Daneel Olivaw, a Spacer developed robot who is so human in his appearance that only a trained roboticist can tell the difference between him and the real thing. Olivaw’s positronic brain (Asimov’s term for an Artificial Intelligence robot brain) gives his mind a highly logical cast (think of Spock in the Star Trek series), and his contrast in outlook and debates with the emotional Elijah take up a good bit of the dialog between the two.
The novel starts when a visiting Spacer scientist is murdered while visiting the Spacer enclave just outside New York City. In order to avoid a political scandal that might have disastrous implications for the fragile relationship between the Earthlings and Spacers, the murder is kept quiet in the hopes that a quick investigation will discover the culprit along with his method and agenda. Since no Spacer can safely move freely about the city without catching disease or being subjected to danger from anti-Spacer extremist groups, the humanoid robot Daneel is the only logical choice for the Spacer representative in the investigation. Elijah is convinced that only a Spacer could have committed the crime, as the Spacer enclave is highly secure and he believes it would be impossible for an Earthman (who are for the most part highly agoraphobic) to have traveled outside the city in order to breach the enclave. The Spacers are convinced that the crime must have been committed by a Medievalist or other extremist Earth citizen, bent on sabotaging any thawing of the relations between the two groups.
Asimov throws in some more realistic family situations than he has in his earlier fiction. Elijah’s relationship with his wife Jessie (short for Jezebel) is under stress due to the fact that Olivaw has to stay with them and their son while the investigation is ongoing. I won’t spoil much more of the book except to say that it’s one of my favorites and that I still think it holds up well.
The Caves of Steel began as an answer to a challenge from Asimov’s editor John W. Campbell, Jr., who maintained that it was impossible to meld the two genres of mystery and science fiction together successfully. Campbell maintained that technological advances would make it too easy for the detective to solve the crime, in effect “cheating,” and thus robbing a true science fiction story of any mystery, or vice versa. Asimov’s first effort in this field proved Campbell wrong, and I highly recommend the book, first of the ROBOT novels.