The Robot Novels: The Caves of Steel, The Naked Sun, The Robots of Dawn

Rating: +

Isaac Asimov

I only just got around to reading the Robot novels because I was waiting until I owned all three of them. They were a fun blend of mystery novel and science fiction, with even a little bit of interesting philosophy sprinkled through them (though, admittedly, nothing too deep). I give all three novels a '+', though I liked the first one best and the last one slid to being almost a '0'.

The first book in the series, The Caves of Steel, introduces our main characters: a human policeman on Earth named Lije and a robot who looks like and can pass as a human named Daneel. In the time of the book, Earth's future, humans have settled on other worlds, and these settlers have broken ties with earth, which has in the meantime become so crowded that people live in mega-city sized habitat domes. There is a great deal of animosity between earth dwellers and people from other planets, "spacers". The basis for this is that spacers have evolved to have prolonged lifespans, mostly because when humans traveled into space they didn't take their diseases along with them. However, when spacers come back to earth, they have no immune systems and have to stay aloof from earth humans. Additionally, spacers use robots to do much of their work (since their planets have remained sparsely populated due to rigid population control measures) and earthlings are decidedly anti-robot since they take valuable jobs away from people.

The basis of robot-human interaction is Asimov's "Robot Laws", that are central to all three books. They are that robots can't harm people, they have to do what people say, and they should protect themselves, in that order of priority. These laws are prominent in all of the books, particularly the later ones.

Each of the books in centered around a mystery of some type. In the first book, a spacer, living in a special spacer area of Earth that is closed to earthlings, is murdered. The spacers declare that one of their own couldn't have done it and that it must have been an earthling - probably one participating in the anti-spacer movement that is trying to get them forced off of Earth. Lije, as a human detective, is brought in to investigate. He is forced, much to his dismay, to work with the spacer's robot Daneel since the spacers want to keep an eye on Lije but aren't willing to get close to him or go into earthling spaces.

In the second book, there is a murder on one of the spacer planets that is declared to have been impossible for anyone to have committed, because people have taken their isolation and fear of disease to such a high degree that people do not see each other in person any more but only view each other on videophone type devices. Lije is called in to help with this murder as violent crime is unknown on their planet and they have no expertise in detective work of that type. Daneel is also there, sent to be Lije's partner by another spacer world that wants to keep an eye on things.

In the third book, Lije is called to another spacer planet, Daneel's home, to investigate the "murder" of the only other human-like robot in existence besides Daneel, built by the same person. Earth's own security is tied up in the outcome because of the people involved, and this mystery has the most political intrigue of the three books.

Ostensibly, then, the books are about Lije and Daneel trying to solve these mystery. And that plot alone is consistently interesting. These are fun mystery novels where most of the information is there is front of you all along, but you have to put it together in the right away. The solution to the mysteries weren't entirely obvious. I thought that this was particularly true in the last novel, Robots of Dawn. At the end, everything that Lije uses to pull the situation together was stated explicitly during the course of the book. Reading the conclusion was like having a really big "duh" moment, but I hadn't seen it coming.

But the mysteries mostly give Asimov a way to explore how humans and robots might work together, particularly on a task that takes human skills of intuition, deduction, conversation, and creativity. In the first book, Asimov mostly explores how people might come to accept a robot that can pass as human and use them rather than feeling threatened by them. The robot laws are a big part of this, keeping people physically safe from robots. But people also have to overcome their prejudice that they are the only beings who are capable of thought and creativity. Since I would at least agree that I don't think a machine could truly have these properties, it was intriguing to see that type of attitude treated as a prejudice and how that might be overcome. Mostly, it seems to be overcome by the fact that once such a robot existed (and looking human as well as acting human was key to the process), people will inevitably anthropomorphize the robot into being a human, and the robot will act consistently with that, so it will in the end be easiest psychologically for people to accept robots in the same way they do people.

Once this has been established in the first novel on earth, where robots are hated, we spend the second and third novels on worlds where robots are a part of everyday life - on the second people only interact one-on-one with robots and never with people, on the third there is a more even balance. And through these worlds we see the risks of not just accepting robots but using them to meet all of humanity's responsibilities. When this happens, the claim is, people stop being human and stagnate, and it is robots that will evolve and become the new humanity. To keep this from happening, humanity cannot allow itself to make its life too comfortable. There need to always be explorers and innovators who don't accept things as they are but reject the current comforts and way of life to make something new. Those people will be the ones who keep humanity fresh and growing.

That, I think, is ultimately the main point of Asimov's robot books. He is excited by the idea of creating robots that can become almost human. He also plays around a lot with the implications of the robot laws and whether they are sufficient to protect humans from robots. There is also an allusion to whether similar laws of behavior can be created for people to follow as a moral code, but nothing concrete is said about that. While those are somewhat fun puzzles to work out, what it often came down to was the problem of not knowing how these robots would actually understand the notions of harm and relative good, and what type of reasoning they were capable of. They didn't really connect with anything in the real world, in my mind, but were an intellectual puzzle.

The third book was a bit of a departure from the first two, with much less plot advancement and much more philosophizing in it. A lot of Asimov's ideas about what is needed to keep humanity fresh, while led up to in the preceding books, was finally flushed out in his final book. There was also a lot of side issues which were brought up. For instance, for those who have read the Foundation novels (which I also read and liked a lot) the basis for psychohistory is set up in Robots of Dawn. I didn't actually find the setup satisfying, but it is fortunately entirely irrelevant to the actual content of the Foundation series. This made this final book move more slowly, and I liked the start of the book less for this reason, but ultimately I was interested in where it ended up going.


Review written September 1999.


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