Thursday, September 1, 2016

Robots and Murder by Isaac Asimov

Today is a review on books in the Science Fiction genre.  It is only fitting we listen to Hearts of Space.  You can listen here.

Robots and Murder is a trilogy comprised of three books:  The Caves of Steel, The Naked Sun and The Robots of Dawn.  I had read these books in college back when, thanks to a geeky friend, I had a fling with Science Fiction that lasted during my twenties.

By the time I had reached thirty, however, it had become a case of been there, done that.  No new concepts were being introduced to blow my mind, as they did when I was twenty and the hard core science fiction that I loved had somehow syncretized with fantasy, a genre I dislike, so that I could not see much of a difference.

Perhaps this was an inevitable outcome because all the new ideas of time travel, space travel, alien life forms, real and artificial etc. had been thoroughly mined and the only direction to take was toward made up worlds in other times and dimensions.  

Unfortunately, bereft of inventing new concepts, the writer needed to create well-developed characters and story lines.  This is only my opinion, but most fantasy stories suffer from a lack of good quality writing.  As far as I know, there is no Jane Austin or Ernest Hemingway writing fantasy.

Because their original concepts were fresh, a number of the members of the old school got away with mediocre writing.  This includes our author du jour, Isaac Asimov.  This isn't to say he doesn't make thought-provoking sociological commentaries and futuristic worlds with sophisticated technology.  In his trilogy he seems to take Earth's presence course to its logical conclusion as our technology becomes ever more sophisticated.  I say "seems" but that's another topic.
My all time favorite illustration for Robots of Dawn by Michael Whelan

Caves of Steel takes place on Earth.  We see a world that has become so overburdened with people that at one point in time, a number of people left to explore and settle other worlds.  The rest stayed home and retreated into domes.  In order to insure maximum survival for everyone, jobs are acquired and kept or lost then "declassified" which renders one incapable of ever getting a job.  Asimov doesn't explain, but I presume these people become welfare recipients.  Why this rule was invented I don't know since it would place a heavier burden on the rest of the population.

People travel on conveyer belts all over (or under as the case may be) the domed world, to work, to home...people live in tiny apartments and eat in community kitchens and wash in community bathrooms.  Food is synthetic and food tickets are highly coveted.  

The protagonist, Elijah Bailey is a detective and his job in all three novels is to solve a murder mystery.  All three mysteries surround robots.  On Earth, people are prejudiced against robots and want them out of their lives.  This makes it difficult for Bailey who finds that he has a partner who is a humanoid robot, R. Daneel Olivaw.

The murder is merely what propels the plot forward.  Asimov's real thrust is to show a dystopian Earth and how humans and highly intelligent robots would relate to each other. The same is true for the next novel, the Naked Sun.

In this story, Bailey has been sent to solve another murder on the planet Solaris.  Here we have a sparsely populated planet with several thousand robots per person.  The people here have a unique problem.  They can't bear to be around each other. 

Oh sure, they communicate and have relationships, going for walks, having dinner with each other, all the things people on Earth do except for one detail:  it's through three dimensional viewing.  Holographic telepresence is the only way Solarians will interact with each other. 

Of course, they get married and occasionally need to, you know, make children.  But this is done only when absolutely necessary and is presumably a traumatic experience for both parties.  Children are raised on farms and nobody knows who their children or parents are.

Again, the murder is solved by Bailey with the help of Daneel.

In the final novel we see Detective Bailey on the planet Aurora and a completely different set of mores.  Aurorans treat sex recreationally and is done casually with anyone (among mutually consenting partners, of course) and means nothing.  It's a truism that if you're intimate with everyone, you are close to no one.  And here we find that the Aurorans are just as alienated from each other as the Solarians are, but for opposite reasons.

I found The Robots of Dawn to be more interesting than the others because the murder victim, if you can call it that, is a robot.  Also because Asimov is far better at making interesting robot characters than human beings and this story spent a great portion with Bailey interacting with robots rather than humans, which made for better dialogue.

If creating robot characters was Asimov's strength, creating female characters was definitely his weakness.  He had a repertoire of two on each planet:  the petulant, moody, yet sexy girl/woman and the female Nazi.   Only Caves of Steel lacks the latter, which had only Bailey's emotional, irrational and irritating wife.

On the other two planets we had the above woman in the form of Gladia.  She has a role on both planets, having traveled from her home planet to Aurora.  The murders center around her home both times.  The other woman on Solaris and Aurora mainly serve to provide another character that Bailey interviews and must go into brain to brain combat with because each woman has serious anger issues against men and must conquer, Brunhilde fashion, all who enter her domain.  Asimov was married twice, I wonder if he based these women on his wives.

Gladia is an outlier on each planet.  She is socially outcast on Solaris because she wants greater physical contact with her husband, who naturally finds this horrifying and refuses.  Her husband is the murder victim and she is the primary suspect, having a motive.

On Aurora, she wants monogamy, something the Aurorans find laughable, so once again she is alienated.  Her only solace (before Bailey arrives) is her humanoid robot, Jander Panell who she decides to make her husband (I know, I know; don't go there.)  Jander ends up dead, well, his positronic brain has been frozen which is the equivalent of dead for a robot.  

This, however, does not make Gladia the primary suspect, because only one person in existence has the ability to destroy such a highly sophisticated robot's brain.  That is the roboticist who created Jander and Daneel.  He is the first to proclaim that he is the only one who could have done it but also says that he didn't do it.

The mystery in Robots of Dawn is well-developed and believable which is more than I can say of the first two books.  The verbal sparring that takes place between Elijah and the other characters are fairly well done, although, Asimov relies too heavily on every other character fencing with Bailey, even the ones on his side which seemed to provide mostly filler than dialogue constructed to move the story.

Asimov points out something else, whether intentionally or unintentially, I don't know.  He shows how life can be hard on a planet that is so overcrowded everyone is just trying to survive.  But he also shows how empty life can be even when all one's needs are met.  In other words, environment does not necessarily determine meaning and fulfillment to our existence.

Maybe he couldn't help it, but I found all the characters on every planet Asimov created to be little more than dolls a child plays pretend with and with as much dimension.  Something was definitely lacking.  I think I prefer the characters in C.S. Lewis' Space Trilogy.  Lewis had a better understanding of human nature, I think.  But I could be biased.


  1. It has been a very long time since I read these books. I remember really liking them when I was in my teens. However, at that period of my life I would not have been bothered by the shortcomings that you mention. Those shortcomings are unfortunately very common in the science fiction genre.

    I will not give anything away, and I do not know if you read all of the Foundation Books, but at the very end of that series a major connection with this series is established.

    1. Hi Brian. I have not read the Foundation books although I have one of them. You have peaked my curiosity and I will now have to give them a try.

  2. I read Asimov in my late teens but I can't remember anything about them, except that I liked them at the time. We've used a couple of his science books - Understanding Physics was one my son liked. I liked your comment about Asimov being better at dialogue between robots than humans!

    1. Hi Carol. I think Asimov's books are great for young people because they spark the imagination. I think as we get older we start to see the wooden writing style, at least if we have read a good number of classic lit by then.

      I didn't realize he wrote non fiction. That's interesting.

  3. Confession: I've read only one thing by Asimov -- his two volume guide to Shakespeare. Perhaps I will dabble in his speculative S/F for a change of pace, so I thank you for highlighting some of the options. However, I know that his Shakespeare books will remain among my all-time favorite books.

    1. Hi R.T. I did not know that Asimov wrote anything other than S/F. I will have to investigate these books.

      Incidentally, I bought the books of poems by Louis Simpson. I'm enjoying them.


I welcome comments from anyone with a mutual interest in the subjects I written about.