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The Caves of Steel

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Cover artist  Ruth Ray
Language  English
Publisher  Doubleday
Author  Isaac Asimov
Page count  224
4.1/5 Goodreads

Country  United States
Series  Robot series
Originally published  October 1953
Preceded by  I, Robot
Adaptations  I, Robot (2004)
The Caves of Steel t0gstaticcomimagesqtbnANd9GcQaZYKNQdDrR9BeG
Genre  Mystery Science fiction
Followed by  The Naked Sun, The Caves of Steel, The Rest of the Robots, Liar!
Similar  Isaac Asimov books, Foundation Universe books, Science Fiction books

The Caves of Steel is a novel by American writer Isaac Asimov. It is essentially a detective story, and illustrates an idea Asimov advocated, that science fiction is a flavor that can be applied to any literary genre, rather than a limited genre itself.


The book was first published as a serial in Galaxy magazine, from October to December 1953. A Doubleday hardcover followed in 1954.

A television adaptation was made by the BBC and shown in 1964: only a few short excerpts still exist. In June 1989, the book was adapted by Bert Coules as a radio play for the BBC, with Ed Bishop as Elijah Baley and Sam Dastor as R. Daneel Olivaw. More recently, Akiva Goldsman has been hired to produce a movie.

Plot introduction

In this novel, Isaac Asimov introduces Elijah Baley and R. Daneel Olivaw, later his favorite protagonists. They live roughly three millennia in Earth's future, a time when hyperspace travel has been discovered, and a few worlds relatively close to Earth have been colonized—fifty planets known as the "Spacer worlds". The Spacer worlds are rich, have low population density (average population of one hundred million each), and use robot labor heavily. Meanwhile, Earth is overpopulated (with a total population of eight billion, three times that of Asimov's 1950s), and strict rules against robots have been passed. The eponymous "caves of steel" are vast city complexes covered by huge metal domes, capable of supporting tens of millions each: the New York City of that era (wherein much of the story is set), encompasses present-day New York City, as well as large tracts of New Jersey.

Asimov imagines the present day's underground transit connected to malls and apartment blocks, until no one ever exits the domes, and most of the population suffer from extreme agoraphobia. Even though the Robot and Foundation series were not considered part of the same fictional universe until much later, the "caves of steel" resemble the planet Trantor.

In The Caves of Steel and its sequels (the first of which is The Naked Sun), Asimov paints a grim situation of an Earth dealing with an extremely large population, and of luxury-seeking Spacers who limit birth to permit great wealth and privacy. Asimov, who described himself as a claustrophile, mentioned that a reader asked him how he could have imagined such an existence with no sunlight, and related that it had not struck him until then that living perpetually indoors might be construed as unpleasant.

The book's central crime is a murder, which takes place before the novel opens. (This is an Asimovian trademark, which he attributed to his own squeamishness and John Campbell's advice of beginning as late in the story as possible.) The victim is Roj Nemmenuh Sarton, a Spacer Ambassador who lives in Spacetown, the Spacer outpost just outside New York City. For some time, he has tried to convince the Earth government to loosen its anti-robot restrictions. One morning, he is discovered outside his home, his chest imploded by an energy blaster. The New York police commissioner charges Elijah with finding the murderer, in cooperation with a highly advanced robot named R. Daneel Olivaw who is visually identical to a human, and is equipped with a scanner that is able to detect human emotions through their encephalographic waves.

Plot summary

A faction of Spacers have come to the realization that Spacer culture is stagnating due to population negative growth and longevity, and feels that the solution is to encourage further space exploration and colonization by Earthmen in concert with robots. However, Earthmen would first need to overcome their antagonism of robots. To this end, they have established habitations on Earth through which they hope to introduce humanoid robots to Earth.

New York City Police Commissioner Julius Enderby is secretly a member of the Medievalists, a subversive anti-robot group which pines for the 'olden days' where men did not live in the 'caves of steel'. He uses his position to engineer meetings with Spacer Dr. Sarton under the guise of further cooperation, but he actually intends to destroy R. Daneel - who lives with and resembles Dr. Sarton. Enderby orders R. Sammy to bring a blaster through the unmonitored 'open air' (something that no Earthman could countenance), but in the heat of the moment Enderby drops his glasses and fails to distinguish between the human and robot, accidentally shooting the human. Knowing that Baley's wife is also a Medievalist, he assigns Baley to the case, working with R. Daneel who represents the Spacers, and spreads a rumour about humanoid robots amongst the subversives to throw suspicion on Baley when Enderby later destroys R. Sammy with radiation. Furthermore, Daneel rules out Enderby as the murderer as his brain patterns show him incapable of deliberately killing.

The novel follows Baley and Olivaw as Baley begins to suspect Olivaw but is proved wrong twice. Olivaw gradually learns more about Earth humans and starts to display curiosity in aspects of human behaviour and Earth technology. As part of the investigation, Baley makes a visit to Spacetown where he meets with Dr. Falstofe, who injects him with a mildly suggestive drug while speaking about the relative merits and shortcomings of Earth and Spacer society. Baley is converted to the cause of spreading humanity throughout the galaxy. Although the Spacers deem Baley inadequate to convert enough Earthmen, they find their target when Baley arrests Clousarr on suspicion of inciting a riot and Olivaw provides him with suggestive statements. Their job accomplished, the Spacers make plans to leave Earth as their continued presence would be to the detriment of their cause and accept Dr. Sarton's unsolved death as a necessary sacrifice; this leaves Baley with 90 minutes to find the killer which he is convinced will also clear him of the destruction of R. Sammy.

Baley has a flash of inspiration when he connects Enderby's emotional highs and lows to how close or far away Baley was to solving the murder, and obtaining a recording of the crime scene, manages to demonstrate that fragments of Enderby's glasses remain in situ. Given that the Spacers have already accepted that Sarton's death is unsolved, they are willing to not prosecute Enderby for the accident if he agrees to work with them to promote colonization of other worlds amongst the Medievalists.

Character histories

Below is a list of all the major and minor characters in the book, in order of appearance, with plot detail.

  • Elijah "Lije" Baley A plain-clothes police officer who works on Earth. He is called to solve the murder.
  • Vince Barrett A young man whose job was taken over by R. Sammy.
  • R. Sammy A robot assigned to the Police Department
  • Julius Enderby New York City's Commissioner of Police, who assigns Baley to the murder case.
  • Jezebel "Jessie" Navodny Baley Baley's wife.
  • Roj Nemennuh Sarton A spacer roboticist murdered with a blaster. Baley is assigned to investigate his death.
  • R. Daneel Olivaw Baley's partner, a humaniform robot created in Sarton's likeness.
  • Bentley Baley Baley's son.
  • Han Fastolfe A roboticist from Aurora, a Spacer world, who believes Spacers and Earth dwellers must work together to colonize the galaxy and survive in the future.
  • Dr. Anthony Gerrigel A roboticist at Washington whom Baley called.
  • Francis Clousarr A New Yorker who was arrested for inciting a riot against robots two years ago. Daneel identifies him as present at two incidents.
  • Reception

    Reviewer Groff Conklin praised the novel for the way Asimov "combine[d] his interest in robotics with his consuming preoccupation with the sociology of a technology-mad, bureaucratically tethered world of tomorrow." Boucher and McComas praised The Caves of Steel as "Asimov's best long work to date," saying that it was "the most successful attempt yet to combine" the detective and science fiction novel. P. Schuyler Miller called it "as honest a combination of science fiction and detection as we've seen."

    In 2004 The Caves of Steel was nominated for a retroactive Hugo Award for Best Novel for 1954.

    Television adaptation

    An adaptation of The Caves of Steel was made by the BBC and broadcast on BBC2 on 5 June 1964 as part of an anthology strand called Story Parade, which specialized in adaptations of modern novels. It starred Peter Cushing as Elijah Baley and John Carson as R. Daneel Olivaw. The adaptation was the brainchild of Story Parade story editor Irene Shubik, who was an enthusiast of science fiction and a fan of Isaac Asimov in particular, once referring to him as "one of the most interesting and amusing men I have ever met". Shubik had previously devised and story edited the science fiction anthology series Out of This World, which had adapted Asimov's short story Little Lost Robot in 1962. The adaptation of the novel was handled by Terry Nation, who at this time had recently found fame and fortune as the creator of the popular Dalek monsters for the science fiction series Doctor Who.

    The screenplay was generally faithful to the plot of the novel. The only major deviation was the conclusion – in the television version the murderer commits suicide when he is unmasked, although in the novel he agrees to work to convince the Medievalists to change their ways. The other major change is that the roboticist Dr. Gerrigal is a female character in the television version.

    Director Peter Sasdy later directed a number of Hammer horror films as well as the Nigel Kneale television play The Stone Tape. The Caves of Steel garnered good reviews: The Daily Telegraph said the play "proved again that science fiction can be exciting, carry a message and be intellectually stimulating" while The Listener, citing the play as the best of the Story Parade series, described it as "a fascinating mixture of science fiction and whodunit which worked remarkably well". The play was repeated on BBC1 on 28 August 1964. As was common practice at the time, the master tapes of The Caves of Steel were wiped some time after broadcast and the play remains missing to this day. A few short extracts survive: the opening titles and the murder of Sarton; Elijah and Daneel meeting Dr. Gerrigel (Naomi Chance) and Elijah and Daneel confronting the Medievalist Clousarr (John Boyd-Brent).

    The success of The Caves of Steel led Irene Shubik to devise the science fiction anthology series Out of the Unknown, during which she oversaw the adaptation of six more Asimov stories, including The Caves of Steel’s sequel The Naked Sun.

    Cast of BBC2 Adaptation:

    Radio adaptation

    In 1989 BBC Radio 4 broadcast an adaptation by Bert Coules, directed by Matthew Walters and starring Ed Bishop as Baley with Sam Dastor as Olivaw.

    Cast of BBC Radio 4 Adaptation:

    Game adaptation

    In 1988 Kodak produced a VCR game entitled "Isaac Asimov's Robots" that contained a 45-minute film loosely based on Caves of Steel. It featured many of the characters and settings from the novel, but an altered plotline to fit the needs of a VCR game. Elements from The Robots of Dawn (including the characters Giskard Reventlov and Kelden Amadiro) have been incorporated as well. Similar to the BBC2 version, Dr Gerrigel was replaced by a woman, named Sophia Quintana (after an unrelated character from Robots and Empire)

    Cast of Isaac Asimov's Robots:


    The Caves of Steel Wikipedia