Titles: The Caves of Steel, The Naked Sun, and Robots of Dawn
Author: Isaac Asimov
Challenges: Classics Club; 20 Books of Summer
Bear with me. I’ve been reading the Robot novels over the course of the last six months, so in some cases I’m relying on notes I made back in January. However, given the nature of the books, it seemed appropriate to review all three novels together, as they have so many themes in common that I would just be repeating myself if I were to write about them separately. I’ve not included Robots and Empire here, as I understand that is more of a bridging novel between this series and Foundations. I’ve tried to steer clear of spoilers; there is discussion of some of the subplots, but honestly I don’t think the mystery plots are nearly as interesting as everything underpinning them.
First things first, this bears no resemblance to the film I, Robot. As far as I can tell, nothing Asimov wrote bore had anything in common with the film other than some similar names and the idea of the Three Laws of Robotics. In fact, my favourite Goodreads review for the I, Robot short story gave it one star because “it did not conform to the plot of the movie and there was no mention of Will Smith’s character at all”.
Having got that out of the way, I am happy to announce that the books were, as is often the case, far superior. In particular, the worldbuilding is incredible. The three novels are set about a thousand years into the future, following the colonisation of other planets by humans. There is a good deal of resentment and prejudice between humans on earth, who refer to themselves as “Earthmen”, and those on other planets, who refer to themselves as “Spacers”. Plot-wise, the novels are all fairly simple murder mysteries, and it’s the worldbuilding and exposition that makes them so enjoyable. The first is set primarily on Earth, the second on Solaria, and the third on Aurora—three very different environments. Both Caves of Steel and The Naked Sun explore the effect of environment on psychology and social behaviour, and vice versa; in Naked Sun, this is particularly interesting, as the main character, Baley, transitions from a crowded Earth city struggling with resource scarcity to a planet overwhelmed with resources but experiencing population decline—or at least fighting hard against it. His agoraphobia is contrasted with the claustrophobia and fear of strangers that Spacers experience. This is a running theme throughout all three novels to varying degrees. It is worth reading them just to see how Asimov explores the effects of scarcity and environmental catastrophe on a culture.
Another high point is that of the gradual development of friendship between Baley and his partner Robot Daneel over the course of the three novels. Initially, Baley has such prejudice against robots that he doesn’t even want to tolerate Daneel in his home. By the third novel, Baley refers to their partnership as “love”, and the friendship has been so gently and subtly developed that it feels completely natural. I feel like I talk a lot about platonic friendships not being given enough page-space in novels, and this was a great answer to those issues. It also demonstrates something about prejudice that is not often communicated: the tendency we all have as humans to make exceptions rather than address the root of our prejudices. So, by the third book, Baley is so invested in his friendship with Daneel that he is able to call it “love”—and he clearly highly values and respects him. That doesn’t translate to his general treatment of robots. He persists in adding the initial “R” to other robots’ names, highlighting their otherness. He’s aggravated when Daneel advises him not to use the pre-emptory “boy” if addressing Auroran robots. It speaks so clearly to the “some of my best friends are x” mindset that can blind us to our own prejudices.
This stuck out to me particularly starkly when reading Robots of Dawn, probably because I was reading it in the aftermath of the UK referendum vote. In the light of that vote, there was a lot of political tension in my own office. As is the case in most research environments, my colleagues are a diverse mixture of people from many backgrounds, including a number of EU migrants. I was staggered to hear one of my colleagues say that she was voting out during the referendum because she “hated Europeans”, seemingly unaware of the fact that many of the colleagues she would call friends are, in fact, EU migrants. When we tried to point this out to her, her response was “well, of course I don’t mean them”. I imagine this is something that is common to many people who voted out*: they are willing to acknowledge the value of individual immigrants in their lives, but not the overall contributions of EU migrants to our society. It’s the exactly the same kind of narrow-mindedness Baley demonstrates in the novels, and I was particularly aware of this aspect because of the context in which I was reading it.
With regard to Caves of Steel especially, it seemed that the language of racial prejudice was used frequently with regard to the robot population. That’s not surprising in light of the fact that it was written in 1950s America. I don’t know whether Asimov was intentionally criticising segregation and racism in that environment, but regardless his work effectively highlights many aspects of that environment. In particular, the fairly transparent smokescreen of using economic concerns to express views that actually have nothing to do with economics is all over the place in Caves of Steel. It’s disheartening in the extreme that so much of that translates so well to the environment we find ourselves in now. Perhaps this is one of the reasons that I found the Robot novels, especially the first two, to be so timeless. It’s easy for science fiction to seem dated very quickly, and it’s true that some of Asimov’s imagined technology seems curiously out-of-date (for example, the robots do not seem to communicate with one another, wirelessly, over great distances), but the issues he is addressing seem entirely fresh.
In terms of the third novel, Robots of Dawn, I have to confess I didn’t like it nearly as much as the others. The environmental and cultural aspects that I found so fascinating in the first two are hardly present here. On top of that, some of the gender politics really haven’t aged well. For example, the leading female character Gladia repeatedly turns down offers of sexual or romantic relations with one of the side characters, Glemonis. In response, Baley advises Glemonis to ignore her refusals and “just put your arms around her and kiss her”, with the expectation that she’ll warm up to the idea in time. Of course, having a character say that doesn’t prevent it from being a good novel—but it seems that the narrative wants the reader to admire Baley for saying this: he too wants to sleep with Gladia, so it’s noble self-sacrificing behaviour to encourage someone else to totally ignore the issue of consent**. A bit icky to read, really. Similarly, this book went whole hog on totally irrelevant references to female characters’ breasts. The only women who are part of the story—Gladia and Vasilla—are aesthetically similar in every way except that one has larger breasts than the other. The narrator constantly refers to this. Presumably, this issue is thrown into focus because this novel is concerned with the different ways romance can be constructed in various societies. However, there’s no denying that Gladia’s free choice to reject various suitors is ignored by Baley. The novel felt icky to me in a way that the previous two did not.
However, back on the subject of Asimov’s timelessness, I will end with a quote from Robots of Dawn that makes me wish our political representatives had read this series of novels. Emphasis mine.
“The Chairman looked displeased. ‘I’m afraid that one of you two must give in. I do not intend Aurora to be torn apart in an emotional orgy on a question this important.’”
*Note: I know two people who voted out for considered, thoughtful reasons that had nothing or little to do with immigration. Everyone else I’ve tried to discuss this with who voted out was either too lazy to do any research, or racist almost to the point of incoherence. However, that is not the case for every Leave voter and I am aware of this.
**Spoiler-heavy final note on this: when he leaves Aurora, Baley leaves Gladia in the company of Giskard, with the express orders to the latter that Gladia is induced to accept Glemonis’ advances. It’s just been revealed that Giskard has the ability to read and manipulate human minds, so essentially he will be removing Gladia’s free will about who to sleep with. Again, this is presented as quite a heroic choice for Baley. It’s all very gross.