As Asimov himself tells it, Caves of Steel started out as something of a challenge. The editor at Galaxy Science Fiction, Horace Gold, wanted Asimov to write a robot novel. Asimov had just published the collection of his robot stories, I, Robot, and was feeling he had pretty much exhausted the subject. Besides, he wasn't sure if he could sustain a whole novel with a plot about robots. Gold suggested he make it a mystery.
Asimov's previous editor, the legendary John Campbell, had always claimed that it was impossible to write a science fiction mystery; that the detective would just pull out his "pocket frammitaz" and have it spit out the answer. Asimov liked mysteries, and incorporated mystery elements into many of his stories; and later went on to write several non-science fiction mysteries, such as his "Black Widower Club" short stories. The resulting novel about a human detective trying to solve a murder before his robot partner beats him to it, is a splendid fusion of science-fiction world-building and buddy cop story. And a decent enough mystery as well.
The story is set some thousand years in the future. The population of the Earth has increased to 8 billion; and to support them all, nearly all of those people have been concentrated into huge mega-cities that have been organized for optimal efficiency. The cities are completely enclosed, and designed to be as nearly self-sufficient as possible. The famous architect Le Corbusier once said that "A house is a machine for living in." Well, the cities of this era have taken this idea to the nth degree: the entire city of New York is one big machine in which its 20 million inhabitants live.
Elijah Baley, ("Lije") is a cop in this machine; a plainclothes detective with a C-5 rating. This grants him the privilege of a three-room apartment; the right to sit in the good seats on the Expressway except during rush hour; a private stall in the communal rest rooms where he can shower and wash his clothes; and the privilege of eating at home a couple times per week instead of in the communal kitchens where most citizens get their food. He has a wife, Jessie, and a teenaged boy, Bentley. He dreams of someday getting promoted to a C-6, and lives in dread of the possibility that he might lose his classification as his father did when he was a boy.
Baley's boss is Julius Enderby, the Commissioner of Police for New York. Enderby is an old college buddy of his; but one a little more talented at bureaucratics than Baley and so was able to advance up the police hierarchy more quickly. Enderby has a high enough rank that he can indulge in certain eccentricities, such as wearing eyeglasses instead of contact lenses or having great transparent sections installed in the wall of his office looking outside. "In the old days, all rooms had things like this. They were called 'windows.' Did you know that?" It is because of Enderby's old friendship with Baley that he has called him in for a special assignment. For one thing, the case is important enough that if successful, Baley will jump a rating all the way to C-7. More importantly, the case is so sensitive that Enderby needs someone he can trust to handle it.
There's been a murder in Spacetown.
About a thousand years ago, Earthmen first started colonizing other planets. From that initial wave of colonization and secondary waves sent out by the colony worlds, there are now fifty inhabited planets out in space. These Outer Worlds have always been hostile to Earth, especially after the early wars for independence; and for centuries they have barred further emigration from Earth. Some years ago, a group of these "Spacers" established a community on Earth adjacent to New York. This causes a lot of resentment among the Earth folk; especially because the Spacers insisted on strict limits to their contact with Earthmen and set up force-barriers to enforce those limitations. Since the Barrier riots, there's been an uneasy truce between the Earthmen and the Spacers.
The Spacers have also been pressuring Earth's governments to incorporate more robots into it's workforce. Robots were initially developed on Earth, but have never been widely used there except in mining and agriculture. But now robots are being introduced into the economy and it is resulting in a lot of angry displaced workers.
One of the Spacers has been murdered, and the Spacers are convinced that an Earthman must have been the culprit. This has the possibility of exploding into a major political crisis; but the Spacers have agreed to let the New York City Police have jurisdiction over the investigation -- provided one of their own agents assist in it. Lije Baley will have to work with a Spacer partner.
Baley does not like robots. He himself knows a bright young kid who used to work as an office boy in his department before he was replaced by one. And Enderby has made it clear that if he does not solve this case, it is possible that Baley himself might be replaced by a robot.
To Baley's surprise, his new partner, R. Daneel Olivaw (the "R" stands for "robot"; an naming convention that the Earthmen insist upon), does not look anything like the plastic-faced smiling automatons he is used to seeing. Daneel looks perfectly human. "...it is only logical that our people use a robot of pronounced humanoid characteristics in this case if we are expected to avoid unpleasantness. Is that not so?" Daneel explains. Baley has to admit he is right.
But Daneel does not just appear human; he is perfect: handsome, calm, confident, intelligent; the very personification of the Earth stereotype of the Spacer übermensch. Baley gets bit by a feeling of inferiority that gnaws at him for much of the rest of the novel, had how Baley overcomes this sense and comes to a genuine appreciation for his positronic partner, (as well as Daneel's understated attempts to understand humanity) are the heart of this story.
As part of the assignment, Daneel will be staying at Baley's place. On they way there, they come across a riot at a nearby shoe store. The store utilizes robot sales clerks and a customer is loudly refusing to be waited on by a robot. "Maybe you think you can talk to me like I was dirt. Maybe it's time the guv'min' reelized robots ain't the only things on Earth. I'm a hard-working woman and I've got rights." A crowd has gathers around the shop and the scene is growing ugly.
Daneel takes charge of the situation. He draws his weapon and threatened to shoot into the crowd unless it disperses. Baley is shocked by this; but the threat works and the mob breaks up and leaves. Baley warns Daneel not to pull a stunt like that again. Daneel does not see his problem: the law was upheld and no one was hurt.
Before Baley and Daneel arrive at Baley's home, we get a couple flashbacks to how Baley met his wife. She was lively and vivacious and he, even as a young man tended to be dour. Yet they hit it off, partially because of their names: Baley's first name was Elijiah, and her first name was Jezebel. She was tickled to find that their Biblical namesakes were arch-enemies. Jessie reveled in her bad girl name; it gave her a vicarious sense of wickedness that she enjoyed. Then one day, shortly after they married, Lije, in a moment of petty annoyance, told her that the Biblical Jezebel probably wasn't really as evil as she is portrayed.
This is a bit I find purely Asimovian. Asimov, at the time he wrote this novel, was just beginning to move from being a writer of science fiction, to a writer of non-fiction articles and books popularizing science and other fields of knowledge. Although an atheist, (or perhaps because he was an atheist), he had a lifelong interest in the Bible and some of the 300+ books he wrote in his lifetime were about Biblical scholarship.
Baley came to regret his revisionist take on Queen Jezebel. He soon came to realize that by destroying Jessie's image of her wicked namesake, he has taken something precious away from her.
But that was all in the past. In the present, Baley has to introduce her to his new partner. They have a tense dinner of zymoveal and protoveg, ("There's nothing wrong with zymoveal," Jessie scolds her complaining son. "...they're full of vitamins and minerals and everything anyone needs and we can have all the chicken we want when we eat in Community on the chicken Tuesdays." Jessie used to be a dietitian in a Community Kitchen and knows whereof she speaks). Bentley has heard about the shoe store disturbance on the news but Baley does not want to talk about it. Bentley further embarrasses his father by telling Daneel that he's working on a school paper about robots. "It's a quite complicated subject." Bentley says. "I'm against them myself."
After dinner, Jessie goes off to have a "girls night out" with her friends, and drags Bentley with her to keep the boy out his father's hair. Baley and Daneel need to discuss the murder.
The Spacers believe that the murder was committed by an organized group of Medievalists; Earthmen who espouse a Luddite philosophy and hate the modern world -- especially robots. (In this era, the 20th Century is considered to fall within the "Medieval" period). Baley knows that most Earthmen tend to be Medievalist in attitude to some extent or another; in Enderby's case it's reflected in his fondness for anachronisms like eyeglasses and windows; in Baley's own case it is a fascination with history, especially the history of folkways like the Bible. He is skeptical that there's any group of Medievalists organized enough to pose a terrorist threat. Daneel reminds him of several recent instances of anti-robot violence -- including the one they just witnessed at the shoe shop.
The Spacers originally established Spacetown as part of a campaign to modernize Earth and bring it up to the same social and economic levels as the Outer Worlds. This will require converting Earth to what Daneel calls a "C/Fe" society, meaning a society based on both carbon-based life, (humans); and iron-based machines, (robots). The Spacers did not, however, anticipate the resistance of the Earthmen to this change.
Part of the problem is that the Spacers are as ignorant of Earth culture as the Earthmen are of Spacer culture. The Spacers are unable to mingle with the Earthmen, partially for psychological reasons (they are unused to dealing with the crowds of Earth's densely-populated cities) and partially because they have a justified fear of Earth diseases; (a fear which many Earthmen interpret as a contempt for 'dirty' Earthmen, thus compounding the situation).
Dr, Roj Nemennuh Sarton, a Spacer from the planet Aurora, had come up with a promising breakthrough: a humaniform robot, lifelike-enough to actually pass for human, who could walk amongst the people of Earth and gather data on them. Daneel was the first of these robots; before any others could be built, Dr. Sarton was murdered.
Baley concedes that this would be a strong motive for a hypothetical Medievalist organization; but they would still lack the means. Spacer security at the entry-point where it connects to New York is very stringent, and the murderer, if he were an Earthman, would not be able to smuggle the blaster used as a murder weapon through the checkpoint. Daneel counters that there are many other exits from New York City -- about five hundred in all -- from which the murderer could have traveled to Spacetown by walking cross-country. Baley finds this impossible. Earthmen have been living in their enclosed cities for so long, that the idea of walking outside under the open sky seems unthinkable. Still, Daneel insists that this is the only way a weapon could have been smuggled into Spacetown.
About this time, Jessie returns, obviously upset. She asks Daneel point-blank if he is a robot. He admits that he is.
Later that night, after Baley has retired, he has a quiet conversation with his wife. Jessie claims that she guessed Daneel was a robot because she overheard some gossip in the Ladies' room. "The rumor is all over town. It must be... They said there was talk about a Spacer robot loose in the City. He was supposed to look just like a man and to be working with the police." Jessie is afraid that if people find out Daneel is a robot, there could be another riot and her family could be hurt, possibly killed.
As they have their discussion, Baley has a thought. He creeps to the door of the room Daneel is staying in and peeks in. Daneel is not there. His idea is confirmed when some minutes later, he hears Daneel return to the apartment.
Baley assures his wife that everything will be fine. He has the whole thing solved.
NEXT WEEK: Has Elijah really solved the case? Since we're only a third of the way through the book, the chances of that aren't good. In chapters 7-12, Elijah visits Spacetown; a beautiful theory meets an ugly fact; Elijah hears a sermon from a Spacer; and gets chased out of a cafeteria.