If, like me, you pay attention to the world of television, you might recall a recent show called Almost Human, about a human detective reluctantly paired with a robot partner. Reviews of the show would often point out works of sci-fi that had influenced it: Blade Runner, for instance, or I, Robot. And yet the one they always seemed to miss was The Caves of Steel, Isaac Asimov’s 1954 novel about a human detective reluctantly paired with a robot partner. Almost Human‘s Dorian doesn’t seem to be Three Laws compliant, but the parallels are obvious.
I’m a fan in general of sci-fi-flavored detective stories, dating back at least as far as reading The Demolished Man in high school. Having watched Almost Human until its untimely cancellation, I thought now was as good a time as any to return to Asimov’s version. Which brings me to The Naked Sun, the sequel to The Caves of Steel.
One thing Asimov portrays very well is the culture clash between his protagonist, Elijah Baley, and the Solarians. Apart from Baley’s frustration at household robots habitually destroying evidence (because on a crime-free planet, no one understands why they shouldn’t have the crime scene cleaned immediately), there are moments where he’s interviewing a suspect and a perfectly ordinary word or turn of phrase will turn out to mean something very different in Solarian culture, or cause the suspect to become offended for no apparent reason. (Speaking of Almost Human, one area where that show fell a bit short was in worldbuilding; they sort of threw a lot of ideas at the wall without developing them further. Compared to that, it was nice to see Asimov show how it’s done.)
I was a little disappointed that R. Daneel Olivaw, the robot partner in question, didn’t have a bigger role in this book. He’s present for much of it, but Baley drives the action. It’s fascinating how Daneel is very clearly a robot in certain ways, yet also has a personality of his own, certainly more so than the Solarian robots. I think more could have been done with the plot device of Daneel pretending to be human, which didn’t really get as much attention as it deserved. (That’s something that always puzzled me about Almost Human, too. The MXs were obviously robots, but Dorian looked exactly like a human, and somehow everyone knew on sight that he was a robot. How could they tell?)
The mystery was well done. I figured out the means at about the same time Baley did, though he didn’t reveal what he knew for a few more chapters. I didn’t figure out who had done it until the culprit was revealed at the Gathering of the Suspects in the Parlor. (I did start to wonder, around the time the second corpse turned up, if Asimov had been reading a lot of Agatha Christie.)
Like Caves of Steel, this works equally well as a mystery and a sci-fi novel. I’ll definitely have to proceed to The Robots of Dawn.