Isaac Asimov – The Robot Novels

We looked at the short stories Asimov wrote featuring the robots, but then he wrote a few novels featuring them as well, and they take things in a slightly different direction. The short stories were all near-future stories that never left the solar system. So the setting is quite recognizable to the contemporary reader. But then Asimov looked further into the future and speculated about a time when the human race had started to split into two factions, Earthers and Spacers. Earthers are of course the remaining inhabitants of the planet Earth, and it is an odd Earth. The first novel in the series, The Caves of Steel, is set on Earth, which now has a population of 8 billion people. For Asimov, this stupendous population implies people living underground in conditions of scarcity, hence the name Caves of Steel. They live in levels of steel streets and rooms, all below ground, and are so agoraphobic that they never go outdoors at all. And they refuse to have any robots. Interestingly, the population of the Earth as of January 2024 is estimated to be just about 8 billion, so Asimov was not right about the effect of such a population. But it may he been a kind of projection on his part, as he was very claustrophilic. His mind would wander the universe, but he himself would be very happy in a closet with a typewriter for 16 hours a day. He refused to fly on airplanes, for instance, though he seemed to be OK with trains. He mostly stayed in his home in Manhattan, and only attended Science Fiction conventions if they were convenient by ground transportation.

The Spacers were the opposite kind of society. They were happy being outdoors, traveled through space, and used robots in every aspect of their society quite happily. It is clear that Asimov was trying to make this contrast, and suggest that neither side was entirely right. And he implies that this outcome was the result of a sorting process as the more adventurous people went to space and settled other planets, while the more timid stayed on Earth. I don’t think the sociological analysis holds up on this, but I have seen similar claims made about the people who head for the frontier vs. those who stay home. On the other hand, he draws a Spacer society that is in many ways too dependent on their robot servants, in a way that suggests parallels to the situation in the United States in the 19th century between the slave-owning southern society that lacked any dynamism versus the northern society with its growing industrial base. And we know which side prevailed in that conflict. And the Spacers are so in love with their wealthy life-style that they deliberately restrict births so as to not dilute the wealth too much.

The focus of these novels, therefore, is not on the robots per se; they are taken for granted as part of the background. The real focus is on these two societies. As for the structure of the novels, they are all a combination of Science Fiction and Mystery. Each one has murder as the central plot point, and finding the murderer becomes the main action. But in doing that, each society is subjected to in-depth scrutiny, in much the same way as reading Sherlock Holmes becomes both a mystery to be solved and a close look at Victorian/Edwardian society (and more Victorian in the end).

The Caves of Steel (1953 Serial; 1954 Book)

This is the first novel in the series and introduces the main characters. One is a detective named Elijah Baley, an officer in the New York City Police Department. The other is a humanoid robot, an android, named R. Daneel Olivaw. He was built by a Spacer named Roj Nemmenuh Sarton, who is an ambassador from the Spacers to Earth, and Daneel is an exact double of Sarton. If this sounds a lot like Data from Star Trek, I would suggest the writers of Star Trek were very often well known Science Fiction authors who were very well read in the classics of the field, and would certainly have read this novel. All robots in spacer society have names that begin with the initial “R.” to denote that they are robots, and with robots like Daneel who could easily pass for human, that makes a certain sense. The Spacers have sent people like Sarton to Earth as ambassadors, but they have a goal beyond friendly relations. Some among the Spacer community have realized that their society is stagnating due to negative population growth and longevity. They need to get an infusion of vigor that the Earthmen have, and to that end they want to convince Earthmen to accept robots and leave their planet to go to the stars.

Of course, there is faction on Earth totally opposed to all this, called the Medievalists, who are vehemently anti-robot, but also opposed to living in underground steel caves. And it turns out that one of their number has committed the murder.

The essence of the book once you get over the mystery plot is that Elijah and Daneel come to know more about each other and the societies they come from. And often this means that as you explain your society to an outsider you come to question some of the things you have always taken for granted.


There was a TV adaptation by the BBC in 1964, but it has not survived. But a BBC Radio adaption by Bert Coules was done in 1989 and I once had a copy on tape. It is not bad at all, and you can get it on the Internet Archive.

The Naked Sun (1956 Serial; 1957 Book)

This novel is set in the exact opposite society to the first one. It is on the planet Solaria, which even among Spacers is extreme. The population is rigidly controlled to be no more than 20,000 humans, and all of the work is done by robots, who outnumber humans by 10,000 to 1. Solarians abhor contact with other humans, even other Solarians, and will use online “viewing” if they need to talk to someone. Not surprisingly, they are advanced in artificial manners of having children. And one of the people involved in this work, Rikaine Delmarre, is murdered. This is very unusual because robots cannot murder a person due to the First Law, and most other humans cannot stand to be in the same room with another person. But because of his success in solving the murder of Sarton on Earth, Elijah Bailey is requested by the otherwise hostile government of Solaria to come and investigate, and he is reunited with his old partner, R. Daneel Olivaw. And the government of Earth asks him to look for weaknesses in Solarian society.

Suspicion naturally falls on the wife of Rikaine, Gladia, because she was in the house when he was murdered. But she has no memory of anything related to the murder, and there is no sign of a murder weapon. Rikaine was beaten to death with some kind of blunt instrument, but there is no sign. The only other thing of note is a badly malfunctioning robot that has suffered damage to its positronic brain because it failed to prevent harm to a human, in violation of the First Law. The detective team eventually solve the mystery, and when Bailey returns to Earth he informs the government that the features of Spacer society that were seen as strengths are in fact weaknesses. The robots, the low population, and the longevity all combine to make them decadent and incapable of progressing further.


The novel was adapted as an episode of the BBC anthology series Out of the Unknown in 1969, but as we saw with the old Doctor Who stories the BBC wiped the tapes once it had been broadcast.

The Robots of Dawn (1983)

This is the third novel in the Robots trilogy, and was written some years later. As we discussed previously, Asimov stopped writing fiction for while to concentrate on educational writings following the Sputnick launch. He came back to this to look at a possible third kind of society to be found on the planet Aurora, and of course Aurora is the Latin word for Dawn. Aurora has robots, to be sure, but not as extreme as Solaria. And there is a faction there that sees the wisdom in encouraging Earth people to leave their planet and head out to the stars. Meanwhile, Elijah Bailey and his son Ben are among the Earth people who are learning to overcome their extreme agoraphobia so that they can do just that. And of course there has to be a murder mystery on Aurora that requires Elijah Bailey and R. Daneel Olivaw to team up once again. The twist, though, is the it is the murder of a robot, a humaniform robot like R. Daneel Olivaw, named R. Jander Panell. In this case, the robot has been given a mind block. The man who created R. Jander is Hans Fanstolfe, who appeared in The Caves of Steel in a minor role. He is the main suspect, and even admits that he is the only one with the skill to do it, but he denies having done it.

Fanstolfe is one of the leaders of the faction on Aurora that favors the Earth, so the authorities on Earth are very anxious that he be exonerated. Of course, there is another faction that wants Aurora alone to colonize the Galaxy, and it is headed up by Fanstolfe’s chief rival as a robotocist. Bailey’s extreme agoraphobia becomes a plot point in the mystery, but eventually the “murder” is solved.

There we no adaptations that I am aware of for this novel.


The overall theme of this trilogy is that the Spacers have ended up being soft and relatively unadventurous. It is clear that Asimov expects that the people of Earth will ultimately inherit the Galaxy. But it is also clear that they will do it without robots, because they have learned that is a trap. In this way, Asimov started out writing robot stories where the robots were not a danger, but simply useful helpers, and then in this trilogy finds a different danger to worry about. Like in the American South under slavery, they produced in the end a society that is stagnant and resistant to any change at all. That is quite different from the bloodthirsty robots ravaging buxom young ladies, but a danger nonetheless.

This trilogy was initially intended to be a stand-alone series, but then Asimov decided decided to link these novels with his Foundation novels. But before we get to that, I want to backtrack to discuss what are called the Empire novels. We’ll hit both in the next article.

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