• The Good: Unique combination of the mystery and scifi genre
  • The Bad: Whodunnit detective narrative is good but not great
  • The Literary: Highly effective worldbuilding

Three millennia in the future, New York City police detective Elijah Baley is like most other Earthers, distrustful of the arrogant humans who left Earth to colonize the galaxy and distrustful of robots. But when a prominent human Spacer is murdered under mysterious circumstances, Baley is ordered to help track down the killer.

There are robots who live on Earth, but even with their positronic brains they still look and act like robots, mostly filling the role of assistants. Baley’s new partner, R. Daneel Olivaw, is clearly designated a robot by his R. initial, but he’s indistinguishable from a man, and even stranger, he’s made in the image and likeness of the murder victim.

Chronologically, Caves of Steel is the second book in the Robot series, but it’s very different from I, Robot. This installment is a detective mystery novel, unlike the original collection of short stories exploring the implications of the three fundamental laws of robotics. Set in the far future, this novel is about what it’s like to have a lot of humans living alongside a few advanced robots, a society both dependent upon and afraid of technology, controlled by a highly organized bureaucracy.

I especially enjoy the exploration of the psyche of man and his distrust of technology, including robots, but also the ever-pervasive sect of Medievalists who want to get back to nature, live outside of cities, and, in this case, live off something other than various forms of yeast. With the current situation on Earth, it’s no wonder. Humans live in extremely overpopulated cities encased in huge metallic domes, with transport between cities underground. The Spacers, on the other hand, limit births to ensure great wealth and longevity among their people.

The novel’s central plot device is the murder of Roj Nemmenuh Sarton, a Spacer Ambassador who lives in Spacetown, the Spacer outpost just outside New York City. But the mystery doesn’t compel me as much as the odd-couple relationship between Baley and R. Daneel. Baley’s prejudice toward robots is outweighed by his need to pursue the truth and justice, and it’s a pleasure to follow their dynamic. Thankfully, Baley isn’t too hard-boiled or noir. Instead, he has emotional outbursts that play off the logical and emotionless R. Daneel.

Caves of Steel was nominated for a retroactive Hugo Award for Best Novel for 1954, and I can see why. This is a surprisingly earnest story that combines the detective and science fiction novel. Highly recommended for science fiction enthusiasts!