The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov (1954)

From the distant past of Death Comes as the End (the first historical murder mystery set significantly before the date of publication) we are flung forward in time to a futuristic murder mystery.

Asimov had already made massive contributions to the science-fiction genre with the original “Foundation” trilogy and his robot short stories, which saw the development of the Three Laws of Robotics and as they appear in this novel, they are worth quoting in full:

First Law: A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

Second Law: A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.

Third Law: A robot must protect its existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.

Within this framework Asimov was able to explore a number of different scenarios often when robots seemed to have gone wrong with potential fatal consequences, with characters such as the engineering team of Donovan and Powell or robopsychologist Susan Calvin having to figure out what had happened and how to rectify it.

Asimov believed that science fiction need not be just a genre of its own but could be applied to other genres and this book demonstrates the legitimacy of this idea.

The Caves of Steel is set in New York, a sprawling city housing 20 million inhabitants beneath its vast metal domes. Adjoining it is Spacetown, home to a small number of Spacers, some of the descendants of the original colonists of the Outer Worlds, who have now returned to Earth.

When murder is committed in Spacetown, Lije Baley, plain-clothesman level C-5, is assigned to the case and he is partnered up with the Spacer robot Daneel Olivaw and if there is one thing Baley hates more than Spacers it is robots.

If he succeeds then promotion and its attendant privileges would be his but failure could mean declassification and a return to the Barracks of his childhood. However as the case progresses it becomes clear that it is not just his own fate that is in the balance but that of humanity as a whole.

The futuristic society envisioned by Asimov is revealed naturally through the narrative and he succeeds in creating a mystery that is fair-play within its setting and yet retains elements of the Golden Age.

I would highly recommend Asimov’s works to anybody but this is a particularly appropriate starting point for fans of the classic mystery.

Asimov wrote three more books in this series which may make an appearance on the blog in the next few months. He also wrote the fantastic collection of short sci-fi mysteries “Asimov’s Mysteries” including the wonderful story “The Billiard Ball” and five collections of Black Widowers stories in which the members of a private dining club interrogate a guest who always has a mystery that needs solving. Different possibilities are proposed before Henry, the waiter, intervenes with the correct solution.

Vintage Mystery Challenge

I think that death by blaster definitely counts as “How – Unusual murder method”.



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