The second SF-detective novel featuring the polite robot Daneel Olivaw and the grumpy detective Elijah Baley. Previously in The Caves of Steel (1954), Elijah Baley was forced to accept the off-world robot Olivaw as a partner in an Earth investigation. Now, Baley is forced to travel off-planet to assist Olivaw in solving a murder on the planet Solaria.
This is a story about people with phobias. Detective Baley is agoraphobic, having lived his entire life in over-populated, underground cities and terrified of even standing on the surface of a planet in the open air. The Solarians are the inverse. Living in vast open spaces, their lives are insular and their societies run by robots. They practice extreme social distancing, afraid of germs. The entirety of the human race is divided between these two unhealthy ways of living, but Baley and Daneel Olivaw are bridging the gaps.
I am again surprised by how much Asimov’s “robot” novels are about the nature of future societies and not just about robots. He was truly a civilisation-builder in his writing.
Asimov gives us another possible future of life with robots. On Solaria, people live isolated lives in futuristic luxury, surrounded by robots. Ten thousand robots per person. Elijah Baley is put away in a huge house filled with robots and it is all a bit creepy and mysterious, and no way to conduct an investigation. I liked the mystery and cinematic quality of it. It might even have been the first seed of ideas that 60 years later would lead to films like Ex Machina (2015). Asimov’s writing has notably improved since the early I, Robot (1950) stories.
It is Asimov’s most compelling robot story yet and I liked it a lot. The novel has a tighter focus than its predecessor The Caves of Steel because of this restricted alien environment. There are in fact two main puzzles in the story: that of robot behavior and that of the Solarian society. The mystery of the whodunnit is almost painfully obvious from the start, but the world-building of Solaria is completely engrossing and carries the novel. Also still interesting is how Asimov has set up rules for his robots and then comes up with real-life situations to have them fail. The whole robot series is just full of interesting thought experiments.
I’ll now move on to the final Foundation novels Asimov wrote in the 1980s. Also, I’m trying to think of thought balloons to add to the people on the cover.