The Robot series by Isaac Asimov (The Caves of Steel, The Naked Sun, and The Robots of Dawn)

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For such an old series, I was surprised that these books are the most enjoyable reads I had all summer. All three novels are sci-fi mysteries, based on a detective named Elijah Baley and his robot partner Daneel Olivaw (tell me that’s not an anagram), and are set a millenium into the future, when Earth’s population is bursting at the seams, and a minority of snooty “Spacers” have colonized the galaxy.

As an adult, I don’t consider myself a fan of mystery stories, but I have noticed that a great deal of science fiction stories revolve primarily around a mystery plot. In fact, of the five current Hugo nominees for best novel, three are mysteries (2013, Redshirts, and Blackout). To me, mystery plots seem like an unfair plot device that is designed to withhold and deliver whatever the author chooses, while endowing the protogonist with extraordinary analytical capabilities, even if the protagonist is portrayed as a “regular Joe”. It’s a rather loaded technique.

But back to the Robot series…

Synopsis
Elijah Bailey is a no-nonsense detective who lives on Earth, approximately three millennia into the future, where the city sprawl populates all of the eastern seaboard of the United States, and is primarily hidden from the sky by over-hangings of steel. A murder of a Spacer has occurred, but Baley must overcome his bias against robots in order to solve the crime with his new robot partner Daneel. In later novels, the two partners work together on other planets where Baley’s tension with robots is constantly tested and adjusted.

What I liked:
1. Laid-back sci fi. While I love a good, deep science fiction novel that challenges my mind, it’s nice to take a break and just enjoy the creative edge of the genre. Reading these novels brought me back to my childhood Nancy Drew phase, when I would zip through those stories so fast, and not mind devoting an entire weekend to reading on the couch. Asimov’s novels are quick, easy reads. I wouldn’t describe them as hard sci-fi, even though they contain elements of robotics and galactic travel. Asimov was a bio-chemist, but even so, he allows his “regular Joe” character to ignore the scientific how-to’s of his technology. You won’t be getting theory or mathematics out of these books. They are more about sociology than they are about rocket science and bioengineering.

2. Robot Daneel Olivaw is the character base for Star Trek Next Generation‘s android Data. I love Data. I want a Data of my own. He’s so logical and calm and candid. It’s no secret that Gene Roddenberry consulted with Asimov for his shows, and that Data was born out of Roddenberry’s enjoyment of the Robot series. Frankly, I never really warmed up to Detective Elijah Baley (he’s a bit too 1950’s asshole for me), but I’ll follow Daneel anywhere.

3. The characters grow with the series. The main character starts out rough, as he expresses anti-robot, anti-Spacer, and anti-progress sentiments. For the first two novels, he is unabashedly rude to Daneel and other robots. (Why would you be rude to a robot? The robot doesn’t care. It just highlights your own insecurity.) The roughness and the rudeness make Baley an unlikeable main character, but stick with it! By the third novel, Elijah warms to Daneel, and experiences a lot of self-growth.

4. Even earth is a different world. Asimov’s vision of our future Earth is pretty scary, and his characters’ comfort on that Earth is a testament to his belief in the adaptability of human beings. The Earth he describes is just as foreign to the reader as the planets Baley visits in the second and third novels of the series.

What I didn’t like:
1. It’s a little bit old-fashionedSpeaking of asshole characters from the 1950’s, there is a dated perspective in these books that is hard to ignore. Even for an open-minded, humanist like Isaac Asimov, his first two novels in the series contain elements of 1950’s culture that are not acceptable today. The women are dimwits (omg, Baley’s wife, ugh), the male view of women is limited and sexist, and, as I mentioned, the men are pretty insecure about their status in the world (and galaxy), hence their hatred toward robots. (The friction between man and robot reminds me of today’s friction between the white working class and immigrants, so maybe it’s not that dated.) Still, Asimov’s novels aren’t nearly as intolerant as some other vintage sci-fi novels, and by the third novel, which was written in the more modern ’80s, he addresses (and rectifies) some of the non-PC slip-ups he made in the first two novels. This all ties into Detective Baley’s personal growth and fits appropriately into the story.

2. The galaxy is completely uninhabited! Really? So future Earth colonizes 50 planets within the Milky Way and there is no threat from outsiders of any kind? All these idyllic planets are just waiting for us, the blessed humans, to settle them? This provides an unusually human-centered view of outer-space, which also seems a little old-fashioned. Like Middle Ages old-fashioned.

My final word. This is a great little series to enjoy if you are looking for some real sci-fi to cut your teeth on, but are not ready to dive into the heavier Kim Stanley Robinsons or Neal Stephensons of the genre. Plus, you’ll get to experience the very first-time the word “robotics” was ever put into print.

I hope you enjoy it like I did.

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13 thoughts on “The Robot series by Isaac Asimov (The Caves of Steel, The Naked Sun, and The Robots of Dawn)

  1. JF Owen says:

    I first read the robot novels when they were much less dated so I have a slightly different view about them being old fashioned. Having said that, I always thought Asimov’s “Foundation” books were his best efforts.

    Of the three grandmasters (Asimov, Heinlein and Clarke) my favorite was and is Heinlein. He always kept me guessing. I was never quite sure whether he was a right wing hawk, a closet liberal or a die-hard libertarian. Maybe he was all three.

    Nice Post!

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    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      My plan is to add some of the grandmasters to my reading list, and with your advice, I’ll go with Heinlein for my next vintage read (probably in the next 2 or 3 books). I also want to read the Foundation series, since I’ve heard such good things. I’m actually surprised at how well Asimov’s writing holds up to modern times, and the “old-fashionedness” was far less than I expected. Thanks for your comment!

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      • JF Owen says:

        Try “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress”, “Glory Road” and “Friday”. You’ll experience three different sides of Heinlein. Arguably his most noted work was “Stranger in a Strange Land” which was a counter-culture favorite of the ’60s. Enjoy!

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