1954’s The Caves of Steel is the first of Isaac Asimov’s novels that feature Elijah Bailey and R. Daneel Olivaw.
Elijah is a human. R. Daneel is a robot. They fight crime!
Elijah Bailey’s unremarkable career as New York cop takes an unexpected turn when his boss summons Elijah into his office. A murder with potentially disastrous political consequences has been committed in nearby Spacetown. No terrestrial law enforcement organization wants to be stuck with the sticky task of solving the murder of Roj Nemennuh Sarton. The City of New York’s police department was the organization least able to turn down such an unappealing job. Elijah is the unlucky detective to whom the work has been handed.
Spacetown is enclave of the Spacers. Once mere colonies of Earth, the fifty or so extra-solar worlds have outpaced Earth in every regard save one: overcrowded Earth is home to an unimaginable eight billion people, whereas all fifty Spacer worlds together hold only three and a half billion. Their economic and military power gives the Spacers the upper hand over Earth. Any conflict between Earth and Spacers will not end in the Earth’s favour.
Although the one-sided treaties between Earth and the Spacers would allow the Spacers to take over the case entirely, the Spacers settle for insisting that one of their own assist Elijah in his investigation. Their choice highlights one of the crucial differences between the Spacers and the Terrestrials: Elijah’s new partner is R for Robot Daneel Olivaw.
The low population Spacer worlds are utterly dependent on robot labour. They are determined to see comparatively backward Earth progress along the same path. The ultimate result, the Spacers are convinced, will be a far more prosperous Earth. The immediate result of handing jobs to robots is that a lot of people being thrown out of work and onto public assistance for the rest of their lives. As a consequence, anti-robot sentiments are widespread on Earth. Elijah himself does not care for robots, although he works with them if the task demands it.
Sarton was a roboticist. In fact, he created R. Daneel in his own image, a robot so humanoid only close examination and various quirks of behavior betray that he is not human. Was Sarton murdered by a single person? Or is his murder the act of a terrorist organization? If so, this may be the first step towards an open conflict that Earth can only lose. It’s up to Elijah and R. Daneel to find out whodunnit!
I wonder how many SF authors in the 1950s bothered to write from the POV of people on the short end of unequal treaties?
Asimov thought eight billion people were a lot of people in an era when the whole world had fewer than three billion people. A modern author writing about an Earth with twenty-odd billion people might similarly over-estimate the impact of so many people. In this novel, the effects of a large population are amplified because most humans live in crowded cities. We are never shown the vast, empty countrysides which must exist.
This is another example of a book with faster than light drives, artificial intelligence, and male-female relationships right out of the 1950s. Readers who would prefer not to think of this book as hopelessly dated in this matter could always tell themselves that society cycled around back to relegating women to unpaid positions, as a vain attempt to reduce the number of the officially jobless.
Asimov’s depiction of robots, which are generally obsequious, grinning, and subject to arbitrary dismantling on human whim, is a bit disquieting. The humans are convinced that robots lack a certain vital element that denies them true personhood … but of course human economic well-being is dependent on believing that.
In later books, R. Daneel eventually sets himself up as the covert ruler of mankind (a theme Asimov used a few times, generally favourably). One can see in the interactions between Elijah and R. Daneel the seeds of his later decisions: R. Daneel is sophisticated enough to spot that the first law of robotics (allow no humans to be harmed) may have a utilitarian corollary: individuals may be allowed to suffer if this serves the greater good. Let’s call this the zeroeth law1.
Elijah is not an underappreciated genius, passed over by lesser men. In fact, he seems well suited to working away unnoticed in the mid-ranks of the police department2. He accuses a number of people of various crimes throughout the book, only to be confronted with undeniable evidence that he is wrong. This could be an instance of a common mystery trope (the bumbling policeman), but I think there’s something else going on. Elijah was chosen by the higher-ups because they believed he could be easily controlled or blamed if his investigation went in the wrong direction. They were wrong.
Readers new to Asimov (and really, there have to be billions of people who don’t even know who he is) could do worse than to read this as a sample of his work. It showcases Asimov’s typical strengths and weaknesses. If it all seems a bit dated, then probably Asimov is not for you. If it turns out you enjoyed this, good news: Asimov wrote a lot of books, both fiction and non-fiction.
1: Daneel does have one blind spot: his understanding of justice is too hard-edged for a fuzzy world:
“Justice, Elijah, is that which exists when all the laws are enforced.”
The robot understands that not all laws can necessarily be enforced at all times. He believes that:
“There are degrees of justice, Elijah. When the lesser is incompatible with the greater, the lesser must give way.”
Nonetheless, even in this book R. Daneel does seem to be able to zeroth-law his way past legal and ethical conflicts. This foreshadows his much later role as the hidden ruler of humankind.
2: Elijah seems to a bit tone-deaf in social interactions. He is prone to lecturing his wife (whom he feels is woefully uninformed). This habit has plot consequences. Perhaps his career stalled because he’s a wet-blanket know-it-all. He may have suspicions that there’s something wrong; he doesn’t seem to like himself all that much.