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In the far distant future, Earth has become vastly overcrowded and the strain on resources has forced humanity into living cheek by jowl in massive closed in cities – the caves of steel of the title. They no longer ever venture into the outside world, having basic robots to do any outside work that’s needed. Living accommodation is small – meals are taken in huge communal kitchens and bathing and toileting facilities are all contained in the Personals, again communal and with strict social rules to preserve some semblance of privacy. The Outer Worlds are inhabited by Spacers, the descendants of people from Earth who colonised some of the planets thousands of years earlier. Spacer worlds are the opposite of Earth – underpopulated and disease free. Spacers no longer allow immigration from Earth, guarding the comparative luxury of their lives, along with their health. Naturally, they are resented by the people of Earth.
Spacers have developed much more advanced robots and, with the agreement of the government of Earth, are introducing them into Earth society. The robots are hated since people see them as a threat to their jobs, and loss of a job can mean loss of the few privileges that people can still have – their own washbasin, the right to an occasional meal in their own home. So when a Spacer robotocist is murdered, it seems obvious the culprit will be an Earth person. Elijah Bailey, C-Class Detective is called in to investigate and, to his horror, is partnered with a Spacer robot, R. Daneel Olivaw, so advanced that he can easily pass as human.
Now, for you non-sci-fi-fans out there – yes, it’s sci-fi… but it’s also a great murder mystery. Proper crime with all different kinds of motivations at work, clues, detection, departmental politics, the works! Asimov wrote it after someone challenged him by saying sci-fi and mystery were incompatible genres. Asimov’s own view was that sci-fi can incorporate any literary genre (I agree), and this is his proof. Lije Bailey and R. (for Robot) Daneel Olivaw are one of the great classic detective duos, and this is your opportunity to sample sci-fi without ever having to leave Earth!
Along with the mystery Asimov creates a fairly chilling view of a possible future if Earth’s population continues to increase. It’s fairly easy 60 years on to pick holes in some of the things he foresaw, and didn’t, and personally, doing that is one of the great pleasures for me. I love that he could create something as sophisticated as the positronic brain – still being used by sci-fi writers as the basis for robots and androids today – but didn’t think of the mobile phone, so that poor Lije has to go out to phone boxes in the middle of the night. I love that he claimed that women still stuck to traditional clasps on their purses rather than adopting new-style magnetic catches. (We finally made it, Mr Asimov! We advanced that far!) I love that he came up with a kind of method for information retrieval that sounds not unlike the old punch-card system, but couldn’t take the extra leap that would have led him to computers. I love that people happily use all kinds of nuclear devices, cheerfully spraying radiation around as they go. He almost comes up with an e-reader… but not quite…
But the basic idea of an over-populated world where every human activity is carefully regimented and controlled to make best use of dwindling resources is very well done, and the resentment of humans over machines taking over their jobs has proved to be pretty prophetic. The Medievalists who look nostalgically back to a time not unlike the 1950s have more than a little in common with our more fundamentalist back-to-the-earth green groups of today.
One of the other things I love about the Elijah Bailey books is that, although the world is thousands of years older, all the people are stuck in a ’50s time-warp. Gee, gosh, the language is simply tremendous! Lije’s favourite exclamation is “Jehoshaphat!” – I always find myself using it for weeks after I’ve read one of the books. The women stay at home, try to look pretty for their husbands, and bring up the children, which is all their limited brains and talents are really fit for, while the men go off and do manly things, like science and running about the streets with blasters and such like. So you not only get a look at how Asimov saw the possible future, but you get a real picture of ’50s American attitudes thrown in for free.
The plot is great and totally fair-play. Lije’s detection methods are a bit on the slapdash side, I admit – basically, he decides whodunit, accuses them, is proved wrong, and then decides it was actually someone else… and so on. But each accusation adds something, both to his future guesswork, and to the reader’s understanding of the society he’s operating in. And Jehoshaphat! When the solution finally comes, it’s a good one!
Golly gee, I hope you read this book. It may be a bit dated, but it’s still loads of fun and with plenty of interest to either sci-fi or mystery fans. Jeepers, you’ll be sorry if you don’t…
(Now, I know that Data was inspired by R Daneel Olivaw, but d’you think Neelix might have been inspired by Asimov’s sideburns…?)