Lije Baley & R.D. Olivaw

Created by Isaac Asimov

Sorry, but as several folks have pointed out, sci-fi meister Isaac Asimov’s ELIJAH “LIJE” BALEY and his robot partner R. DANEEL OLIVAW don’t really cut it as private eyes. As members of the New York city police, sometime in the future, they fail to meet even the minimum standards for private eye status. If anything, they’re really police procedurals.

But they are listed here, because of what I feel is the importance of this series, both as pure, albeit severely dated, science fiction, and more importantly, in my case, for the tremendous influence it has had on the entire sub-sub-genre of sci-fi/mystery. So shoot me.

Asimov had actually written the first novel in response to comments by John W. Campbell, one of the emminent critics/editors of science fiction, who had once pronounced that “a science fiction mystery story was a contradiction in terms; that advances in technology could be used to get detectives out of their difficulties unfairly, and that the readers would therefore be cheated.”

Asimov set out to prove Campbell wrong, and succeeded by setting up a whole world with its own rules that could not be denied, or contradicted, and sticking to them, rendering a setting every bit as grounded in its own reality as anything ever penned by Chandler or Hammett.

Lije Baley is Asimov’s version of a hard-boiled New York homicide dick when we meet him in the first book in the series, The Caves of Steel (1953), with no great love for robots in general, or for his new partner, R. Daneel Olivaw in particular. But they’re going to have to learn to get along, because they’re on the trail of a ruthless assassin who threatens the fragile truce between the humans who remain on Earth and the “Spacers” who live in the extraterrestrial colonies of the Outer Planets.

Unfortunately, having said that, Asimov’s prose style is about as arid and flat as the most contrived cozy you could imagine. Characters are disappointingly one-dimensional, and for a potentially rich setting, his vision of a future is sadly juiceless. As someone in my reading group put it, “It’s hard to tell sometimes which ones are supposed to be the robots.”

The Caves of Steel was followed by The Naked Sun (1956) and The Robots of Dawn (1984), and Daneel also appears in Robots and Empire (1985), a novel in Asimov’s Foundation series.


  • “Too often, a gee-whiz tone overtakes Asimov’s otherwise serviceable prose, and his lead character, Baley, comes across as an earnest, boringly upright fellow—less as an heir to Philip Marlowe than as a law-enforcement version of Buck Rogers.”
    Only Detec on The Naked Sun



  • “Mirror Image” (May 1972, Analog Science Fiction and Fact)


Respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith.

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