Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 739
Although Asimov’s name is strongly connected to science fiction concerning robots, he did not invent the word “robot”; the haunting title of his first story collection, I, Robot (1950), was taken from another writer; and the idea of writing a robot detective novel set on an overpopulated Earth came from Horace Gold of Galaxy. Asimov did coin the word “robotics,” as he often noted with pride, and much more important, he created a body of work that has deeply influenced almost all science fiction involving robots that goes beyond simple views of robots as killing machines.
Asimov’s influence extended beyond literature to vi-sual media. Famous examples include the amusing Robbie of the film Forbidden Planet (1956); the Vulcan Spock of the Star Trek (1966-1969) television series and later films, who although flesh and blood is a close cousin to Daneel in his devotion to logic and his utterly impassive tone; the android Data of Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1993), whose “positronic brain” is the writers’ direct homage to Asimov; and the Replicants of the film Blade Runner (1982). The Replicants, unlike Asimov’s robots, had no qualms about harming the humans they perfectly resembled. Like Asimov’s robots, however, they could be detected as nonhuman via a questionnaire, much like the one administered to Daneel in The Caves of Steel.
Asimov saw fit to describe the two novels as “a perfect fusion of the murder mystery and the science-fiction novel.” Even if critics have found flaws in both the mystery writing and the science fiction, one could hardly disagree about the fusion. In each novel, the solution depends on a human psychology determined by the technological environment of Earth or Solaria. Moreover, the robot detective is the ultimate embodiment of the mythic sleuth of the Sherlock Holmes variety: a creature of pure logic. Daneel is such a vivid creation that readers often forget that in both novels he is really only a sidekick to Lije Baley, who brilliantly solves both murders. In The Naked Sun, Lije frequently reminds himself that robots are “logical but not reasonable,” though this distinction is never made clear.
Of the two novels, The Naked Sun is much more in the classic mystery tradition, with practically a “locked room” murder and all the suspects brought together for the denouement. It seamlessly weaves social concerns of Asimov’s own era into the plot, such as worries about technological advances that may lead to extreme social isolation. The Caves of Steel is much less concerned with crime solving in some of its chapters. Its goal is to provide an in-depth study of a future City, its spectacle and its social problems. Written at a time when the United States reveled in its postwar prosperity and international power, The Caves of Steel is about the dangers of the coming megalopolis, including overcrowding and overreliance on a technological infrastructure. It also seems to foreshadow U.S. fears of losing status as an economic and technological superpower; perhaps Asimov was thinking more of the losses of the British Empire or the shift in local power from inner cities to the “outer worlds” of the suburbs.
Readers of the late twentieth century and beyond may smile at a few of the novels’ lapses in predicting the future. For example, no one seems to have thought of shatterproof lenses for eyeglasses. The same reader may feel some dismay at the author’s indulgence in certain social stereotypes of his era. For example, Lije’s wife, Jessie, the only female character in The Caves of Steel, is constantly underlined as a “typical woman,” which is to say that she is pathetically hysterical and dependent, whether in her role as a housewife or indulging in secret meetings. Gladia, in the second novel, falls into the category of the femme fatale, but she literally knows not what she does. She is, at least, conceived as a more complex character. Future critics will doubtless explore Asimov’s views of imperial expansion and his analogies of robots to human slaves.
Asimov began another novel soon after the success of The Naked Sun, aiming for a trilogy, but he abandoned it. Only after the popularity of a sequel to his Foundation series, years later, did he decide to write The Robots of Dawn (1983), set on Aurora and featuring Gladia as well as the detectives, followed by Robots and Empire (1985), which linked the Robot series to the Foundation series.
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