Asimov’s Centennial: The Caves of Steel

The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov
Hardcover: Doubleday, $2.95, 224pp, 1954

The Caves of Steel is a murder mystery embedded in a science fiction novel of complex, clashing societies. Both levels work hand-in-hand throughout the book.

It all begins when detective Elijah “Lije” Baley is summoned into Comissioner Julius Enderby’s office by the commissioner’s simplistic robot, R. Sammy. Enderby is an old college friend who has surpassed the doggedly competent Baley in status by being a political animal, especially capable of dealing with the Spacers (people of the now-independent and much more powerful ex-colonies of Earth). He was due to meet with a sociologist/roboticist, Dr. Sarton, in Spacetown (the home of the Spacers on Earth, just outside of New York City), but arrived to find the Spacers in a tumult because Sarton had just been murdered. While most everyone on Earth, including Enderby and Baley, could be considered “Medievalists” who revere Earth’s long-lost glory days, the Spacers believe a group of extreme Medievalists have conspired to commit this murder. Due to delicate tensions between the Spacers on Earth, those back home, and the Earthers themselves, the Spacers are willing to keep the incident quiet until the murder can be solved and are willing to let an Earth detective take the lead on one condition: that he partner with a Spacer robot. However, Enderby tells Baley that he, and not the robot, must actually solve the case. Thus Baley finds himself in what becomes “a nightmare of murder and robotics,” forced to work with a partner he initially despises (and who is nothing like Earth robots), which brings his family and himself into danger as the importance of the case and the extent of the labyrinthine conspiracy within it grows.

Except for things related to general points, I’ll let the second half of the book remain shrouded but, in the first half, Baley and the robot, R. Daneel Olivaw, try to learn about each other and their societies in order to develop a working relationship while also learning about the case itself. Baley develops his first theory of the case which leads to a dramatic confrontation with Dr. Han Fastolfe at Spacetown in which he lays out his theory, though he feels sure that, if he’s wrong, he’ll be “declassified” (that is, shamefully lose hard-earned status and be left in poverty with no privileges, just as his father was). And (it being the middle of the book), he is wrong. Nevertheless, Fastolfe is not offended by Baley but, rather, intrigued by aspects of the detective. He then explains to Baley the threat he sees to both Earth and the Outer Worlds and what he wants to do about it. As Olivaw later rephrases it, “We are not here just to solve a murder, but to save Spacetown and with it, the future of the human race.”

What makes this so is one of the strongest elements of the book (though it vies with many other strong elements for that title): the extremely complex depiction of contrasting and seemingly successful but perhaps fatally flawed societies. Earth has become a world of Cities and one of the foremost is Baley’s New York City which is nothing like the “Medieval” New York City (of our times) but is a cave of steel [1], completely enclosed and built above the motorways of the old city, which is now an otherwise empty basement used by emergency services for fast travel to points in the true city. Everyone lives packed together in a rigidly classified, hierarchical society, eating communal meals, taking semi-communal showers, and has grown into a society of agoraphobes. [2] They are dependent on yeast cultures and other hydroponics for everything from energy (“Petroleum had long since gone, but oil-rich strains of yeast were an adequate substitute.”) to food. The cities have held together so far but are strained and fragile, with the humans in them unwilling to leave them or the Earth, despite Medievalist cries of impossibly going “back to the land” which can no longer support them. [3] Meanwhile, the Spacers have developed a world of long-lived, disease-free, eugenically-filtered and population-controlled humans who live a life of robot-assisted luxury. And they, too, have become unwilling to risk that comfort and those long lives on colonizing new worlds, a practice that was given up 250 years earlier. The prospect facing humanity is the quick demise of an unstable Earth and the slower demise of the ossified Outer Worlds. The alternative to this is his vision of a “C/Fe” culture (what we might now call a “C/Si” culture) where the overly carbon-based (human) Earth society might fuse with the overly iron-based (robot) Outer Worlds society on newly colonized planets. However, the Spacers efforts at social engineering on Earth aren’t working, the Medievalists and anti-Spacer and anti-robot sentiment seem to be growing stronger, and the forces back home want Spacetown abandoned. This murder could be the last straw.

Another of the strong elements is the characterization. Asimov consciously favored ideas over characters and critics often deduct points for this, yet he created Susan Calvin, The Mule, Bayta and Arkady Darell… and Baley and Olivaw. While a relatively minor character, Jezebel “Jessie” Baley is also memorable and sneakily important. The part of the book involving her name made a big impact on my first reading and has always stuck with me. Jessie is a nice girl whose real name is that of a “wicked” woman, which she treasures as a secret side to her superficial plainness which makes her feel safely spicy. The man who would write Asimov’s Guide to the Bible has Lije thoughtlessly trample on this by explaining away Jezebel’s wickedness (which also ties in to the novel’s theme of the tensions between the old and the new). This was not quite fatal to their relationship but caused a permanent scar. Interestingly, Elijah and Daneel (if taken as “Daniel”) are also Biblical names and, if I’m not mistaken, both have connotations of straight-arrows of justice and both contain the theistic name “El.” This is another theme as Olivaw’s notion of justice is initially “that which exists when all the laws are enforced,” and further notes that “[a]n unjust law is a contradiction in terms.” Later, Baley tells him a Biblical story related to this which has resonance throughout the tale. As even a robot can undergo some modification, so Baley shows depths and ability to change. He’s a fundamentally stable and grounded man but has a sort of poetic streak, a sense of wonder, and hidden depths of adaptability (especially when encouraged under certain circumstances). Further, the relationship between the two goes from Baley’s antagonism bouncing off Olivaw, to an almost McCoy-and-Spock sort of affection-and-antagonism, to something that may be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

This is a short book (probably 70,000 words which my Fawcett Crest paperback manages to crush into 191 pages) and amazingly takes place over only two or three days but is such a lean, mean, detecting machine, so packed full of events and ideas, that it just underscores how fat and wasteful modern bugcrushers are. In order to try to minimize the fat of this review, I can’t get to a fraction of what could be discussed. These range from major issues like how much this is supposed to be symbolize regionalism in the United States or be about race (unlike the Empire novels which clearly have a heavy component of that, I think parts of this are more purely about machines and, for example, the displacement of people by automation) to only slightly less important issues like this future Earth’s own “civism” vs. old “fiscalism” within the “C/Fe” notion but I also don’t want to leave the impression that this book is completely serious and deep. For instance, when Baley asks what Sarton died of, he’s told, “He died of a missing chest,” and there are many sheer adventure scenes such as trying to lose a group of followers by “strip-running” or dangerously crossing the “slidewalks” which run at various, often very high, speeds. [4]

There are a few problems with the book, though. This seems to be set 3000 years in the future which, like the Empire novels, leaves plenty of wiggle room but is excessive. Also, this crushing overpopulation so far in the future is quantified at a population of eight billion which is about what Earth’s population is today. Though Baley recalls a story he “viewed” as a kid, there are no instant communication or surveillance devices like phones or cameras (excepting Olivaw, himself, and he is impressed by Earth’s computers which are far more “massive” than those of the Spacers). Oddly, “one of the few luxury crops still grown on Earth was tobacco,” which no longer seems likely. And speaking of social engineering, I’m once again ideologically uncomfortable with Asimov’s apparent Rousseau-ian comfort at forcing people to be free or otherwise manipulating them into behaving as they “should.” (Though it is very good that the malleability and relativity of social mores is understood and given importance.) At one point, Fastolfe admits, “It is not pleasant to listen to the preaching of a stranger” and, though his points may have had their validity and the overall thrust was to colonize space, which I’m all for, I still had to agree with the principle. Speaking of that colonizing, everyone in the book seems to assume that people only colonize from negative reinforcement to get away from things, rather than to “seek out new life and new civilizations” or other positive motivations and I also question the specific argument that long-lived people would be less likely to risk their lives colonizing new worlds. I think they might be more likely to do so, being better able to see more of the result. More importantly, Baley is cast as a police officer and Olivaw is converted into one but, in some senses, they operate more like drawing-room sleuths than cops and there is some mild illogic which I can’t get into [5] though the big picture of the case works very well. I also have a quibble with one piece of tech which could have been introduced earlier or even dispensed with, but it was at least introduced early enough and, either way, it was a minor issue, as all these quibbles are.

This doesn’t have the obvious scope of the Foundation series (except in a common thread of forces engaging for the betterment of humanity over large spans of time). Still, it is a superb science fiction novel which addresses large social concerns through a fascinatingly deep and complex futuristic milieu and an excellent mystery novel which plays fairly and daringly with the reader [6], not to mention that it features a pair of great characters. While the Foundation stories punch my buttons the most, this is also a masterpiece.

[1] The narrative voice describing Baley’s reflections uses “cave of steel,” Fastolfe mentions “caves of steel,” and a Medievalist (who is ironically also a zymologist) refers to “caves.” The first is semi-neutral but the other two are negative and associated, literally, with a mode of living, and metaphorically with wombs and even with a sort of “realistic Platonism” (to horribly misspeak) in that the caves can be seen as blocking off a real engagement with the actual universe. Conversely, the caves of steel are also like mini-proto-Trantors (though this recognizes that, literally, at least some of the world must remain unenclosed).

[2] Odd note: there is a passage where a mid-level character describes his fear of flying in a way that sounds like Asimov himself might be talking and this was serialized in the agoraphobe H. L. Gold’s Galaxy magazine.

[3] On this point, Fastolfe says that Earth is “in a blind alley” which recalls Asimov’s story of that name on a similar topic.

[4] The resonance with other works is also notable. I already mentioned a sort of McCoy/Spock motif but I also thought of Khan’s “2D thought” in Star Trek II when the idea of defending only a single point of Spacetown came up. The scenes in Bladerunner of administering the Voigt-Kampff tests would seem to be taken directly from this (there was something like that in Dick’s Androids, if I recall, but it wasn’t as exact). Almost Human featured a cop duo of human and robot. And Silverberg’s The World Inside would seem to be set in this exact Earth, (minus Spacers and robots, and moved to Chicago/Pittsburgh in the future of the 60s from New York in the future of the 50s.

[5] One trivial example I can give (because not related to the actual case) which gives a sense of the size of them (most are slightly bigger, but not much) is Baley saying to Olivaw, “You keep your mouth shut,” which might not sound like much, but is actually an order which Olivaw immediately violates. Similar lines having to be obeyed have driven the plots of at least two robot stories (“Robot AL-76 Goes Astray” and “Little Lost Robot,” if I recall).

[6] I’ve never been a reader of ordinary mysteries and I honestly can’t remember if I “solved” this the first time (though I doubt it) but I thought I remembered whodunnit right away. Then my confidence was shaken by some facts presented in the book until I remembered howdunnit awhile later. So I think the reader who does figure it out will feel pleased, the one who doesn’t will be fascinated and feel fairly treated, and the book still completely works even when you know the ending because of all its substance apart from the mystery.