With the announcement of a Hollywood adaptation of Isaac Asimov’s ‘The Caves of Steel,’ the timing is right for a fresh analysis of the book. This is the first book in Asimov’s Robot Series. It was first published as a novel in 1954 by Doubleday. It is probably the first novel to expertly combine a detective story with the science fiction genre.
The crime to be solved is a murder of a Spacer roboticist which occurs before the novel begins. Julius Enderby — New York City’s Commissioner of Police — assigns detective Elijah Baley to the case. He is paired up with R. Daneel Olivaw, an android that looks exactly like the murdered roboticist.
The setting of the story is complex and detailed, traits shared by other Asimov novels. Earth cities have separated themselves from nature and the outdoors. The population lives in hermetically sealed cities, and agoraphobia is the norm. Fear of germs is also present. Many people wear nose plugs to prevent infection even when the risk is extremely low. Typically, Spacers do not share these irrational fears. They tend to be wealthier than native Earth citizens and frequently use robot labor. Natives don’t trust robot labor, which makes Olivaw’s involvement much more dramatic.
Baley’s relationship with Olivaw is a contrasting one like in the best buddy cop films. Baley is like Mel Gibson’s character in ‘Lethal Weapon,’ but less insane, and Olivaw is similar to Danny Glover’s character: more logical and even-tempered. While Baley begins the story with a large amount of distrust for Olivaw and his robotic ways, as the novel progresses, Baley gains respect for the android and his abilities. Olivaw is not just a logical observer of human behavior. He is an advanced student of human psychology, and admits to Baley that he is fascinated by the human skill of persuasion.
The anti-robot sentiment in the novel is oppressive. Humans fear that robots will take their jobs, and at one point the anti-robot forces chase Baley and Olivaw. They are forced to use desperate measures in an attempt to escape. Extreme job anxiety was part of Asimov’s own life. He was a 9 year-old boy living in New York City when the stock market crashed in October of 1929, and since he was an extremely intelligent child, the ravages of the Great Depression must have been particularly difficult for him to endure.