A typical detective story, among its other charms, provides a wealth of data about how people lived at the time of its writing. Its focus on the nuances of everyday life, on the latticework of customs and practices within which felons commit their felonies, yields the equivalent of an anthropologist’s field report on the folkways of a given community at a given moment. A typical science-fiction story, by contrast, tells us how people thought—and, more particularly, what they thought about—during the period of its creation. Ostensibly focused on the future, it serves as a time capsule that historians can crack open to see which ideas and issues agitated the people who wrote and initially read such tales.
In the 1950s, Americans thought a lot about the tension between “the individual and society,” about ethnic and racial segregation, about colonialism and is discontents, about the relationship between the human spirit and the advance of technology, and indeed about what it means (in an “existential” sense) to be human. Asimov evokes each of those themes here, in a police procedural that takes place many centuries hence in a New York City that looks almost nothing like mid-20th-century Gotham. The denizens of this New York live in towering “caves of steel,” they never see the sky above, and they rarely touch the earth below. They move about on what appear to be human conveyor belts, rely on the use of communal dining and bathing facilities, and in general lead highly regimented lives that seem closer to Orwell’s vision of 1984 than to the actual, unruly streets of Manhattan, circa 1954. Most important, there are robots. When people in the 1950s thought about the future, they thought about robots, and few people devoted more energy to thinking about robots than Azimov, who concocted an entire theory of how such machines in humanoid form should behave with respect to their flesh-and-blood counterparts. (According to his First Law of Robotics, for example, the programming of any robot must dictate that it cannot intentionally harm a human being.) That theory helps drive the plot of this novel, which takes the strange conventions of an alternate world and adapts them to support an old-style locked-room murder mystery.
It starts when the city’s police commissioner recruits a plainclothesman named Elijah Baley to investigate a politically sensitive homicide over in Spacetown. Located somewhere in the wilderness formerly known as New Jersey, Spacetown is the terrestrial outpost of the Spacers, a virtual race of humans whose ancestors long ago colonized the Outer Worlds and who now assume an imperial stance toward the Earthmen whose ancestors never left the crowded, benighted home planet. Early one recent morning, an assailant entered the Spacetown laboratory of Dr. Sarton, a famed robot scientist, and shot him with a “blaster.” Was the killer a disgruntled Earthman—perhaps a member of the “Medievalist” underground, which opposes the use of robots and all other aspects of Spacer-driven modernization?If so, how did he or she get a blaster through Spacetown’s tight security apparatus? The case is a tough one for Baley, and it’s made tougher by a requirement that the Spacer powers-that-be impose on him: He must work with a new partner, one R. Daneel Olivaw, a robot so well built that it (“he”?) can pass as a real, carbon-based man.
Along with the tropes of detective fiction, Azimov draws upon those of the traditional buddy tale. With his pair of mismatched sleuths, he traces the now-standard arc in which mistrust gives way to mutual understanding. Of course, it’s the human who must develop trust and who has the most to learn about his partner, and Baley ends up learning a great deal. As the novel reaches a climax, he undergoes a decisive epiphany—a stroke of insight into what it means not only to be human, but to be a detective:
It was as though Baley’s mind were circling the impregnable logic of R. Daneel’s positronic brain, searching for a loophole, a weakness.
He said, “Have you no personal curiosity, Daneel? You’ve called yourself a detective? Do you know what that implies? Do you understand that an investigation is more than a job of work? It is a challenge. Your mind is pitted against that of a criminal. It is a clash of intellect. . . .”
[Baley] had known well enough then the qualities that marked off a man from a machine. Curiosity had to be one of them. A six-week-old kitten was curious, but how could there be a curious machine, be it ever so humanoid?
Olivaw shows himself (“itself”?) to be more than a hunk of metal, but only Baley has the equipment needed to solve the puzzle of who killed Dr. Sarton. That puzzle, once Baley has laid bare its workings, proves to be as well engineered as his mechanical sidekick: Look at it closely, and one might see an exposed seam, or a patch of skin that doesn’t quite fold naturally. Otherwise, though, it does exceedingly well that which its creator designed it to do.